The royal armour workshops at Greenwich

The royal armour workshops at Greenwich

By Thom Richardson

Henry VIII: Arms and the Man, edited by Graeme Rimer, Thom Richardson and J D P Cooper (Royal Armouries, 2009)

Abstract: Soon after he came to the throne in 1509 Henry VIII established a royal armour workshop that was to survive him by about 100 years. Thom Richardson examines the records that show armourers from Italy and Flanders were at work at Greenwich by 1511 and that by 1515 ‘Almain’ (German) armourers had also been recruited. He reviews the evidence regarding the making of some of Henry’s armours that survive in the Royal Armouries collection, including the ‘silvered and engraved’, foot combat and tonlet armours and the 1540 garniture. His survey concludes by showing the important contribution of the Greenwich workshop during the Elizabethan era and well into the Stuart period. The impact of Henry’s Greenwich initiative on the development of armour in England was clearly immense.

Introduction: The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, established a royal armour workshop at Innsbruck, and in general the royal, ducal and electoral courts of Europe had attracted the makers of the finest armour. It therefore comes as no surprise to find Henry VIII establishing an armour workshop of his own, based for most of its life in the palace at Greenwich, a workshop which would survive the King for nearly a century.

Armourers worked in England throughout the Middle Ages; a Company of Helmers was formed in London by 1347, and this was transformed by 1453 into the Armourers’ Company, which survives to the present day as The Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers. Although there are numerous pieces of armour, especially the great helms such as that of Edward the Black Prince at Canterbury and of Henry V at Westminster Abbey, that were probably made in England, not a single piece of English-made armour can be positively identified before the early 16th century. By the time Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 it is clear that most of the munition armour needed for the English army, and any fine armour for the nobility, had to be imported from Italy, Flanders or Germany. Evidence of imports of armour early in Henry VIII’s reign can be seen in receipts to Guido Portenary, merchant of Florence, for £1,600 paid for 2,000 harnesses for footmen, dated 28 May 1513, and another to the same merchant for £80 for 100 Milan harnesses for footmen.

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