The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
A royal shield (A325)
Henri II, bronze, c.1560-1570
Henri II, bronze, c.1560-1570
Henri II, bronze, c.1560-1570
Henri II, bronze, c.1560-1570
Treasure of the Month - May 2004

A royal shield (A325)

Some of the most splendid armour in the European Armoury of the Wallace Collection was never made for use in war, but was commissioned by wealthy individuals and worn to emphasise their nobility and wealth.

One of the most spectacular examples anywhere of so-called 'parade armour' is this large oval shield of convex form, the central field of which is filled with a magnificent and richly-detailed narrative scene. Its subject is probably a specific historical scene from ancient history, the surrender of the city of Carthage after the battle of Zama in 202 BC. In this, the decisive battle of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the Roman forces under Scipio Africanus crushed Hannibal's Carthaginian army. Although a cavalry skirmish can be seen in the distance, the shield essentially shows the aftermath of battle, with Scipio Africanus, seated on a campaign stool, receiving the keys of the city of Carthage, seen at top left. Next to Scipio are the winged figure of Fame and a putto holding the palm of Victory, whilst behind him press his victorious soldiers. Another putto bearing the crown of Victory flies down through the sky and an elaborate floral wreath, alluding to the laurel wreath of victory, runs round the border.

Victory and Submission are thus emphatically the themes of this shield, a clue to the contemporary historical event which it may well celebrate. In 1558 the French took the port of Calais, finally ejecting the English from mainland France after a centuries-long struggle. The capture of Calais was one of the proudest achievements of the reign of the French king Henri II (1510-1559), by whom the shield was almost certainly commissioned. In a small cartouche at the top of the shield may be seen Henri's double H cipher, also readable as barred D's, the cipher of Henri's mistress Diane de Poitiers. Her other emblem of interlaced crescents, although now damaged, once filled the matching small cartouche. The same royal symbols are on a superb burgonet helmet in the Musée de l'Armée in Paris, which originally belonged with the shield.

If the shield does commemorate the capture of Calais, it must have been commissioned in 1558 or in 1559, the year in which Henri died in a jousting accident. Made in a Milanese workshop, the shield was formed from a sheet of steel, hot-worked into shape, the design then being enlivened with hammering and punching of the highest quality. The surface was then elaborately decorated with silver and gold using a technique known as counterfeit-damascening. It is not known when the shield left the French royal collections, but in 1755 it appeared in the sale of the celebrated 18th-century collector Dr Richard Mead. It was acquired in 1871 by Sir Richard Wallace as part of the collection of the comte de Nieuwerkerke.