June Treasure of the Month
Composite Heavy Cavalry Armour, France, c. 1640
Far from being rendered immediately obsolete by the advent of firearms in the late fourteenth century, full plate armour and gunpowder weapons coexisted on the battlefields of Europe for well over two hundred years. By the 17th century, the mounted knight had been transformed into the cuirassier, a heavily armoured horseman who was equipped primarily with firearms (pistols and a carbine); he also continued to carry a sword.
This composite was made up, probably in the early nineteenth century, using parts from several different cuirassier armours dating from the mid-17th century. Originally the armour would also have had long, multi-plate leg guards, or tassets, extending to just below the knees. The close-helmet is of the typical French form, with wide sights and a fluted skull made in two pieces.
The body armour or cuirass of the armour shows significant traces of fire-gilding on its hinges and clasps. The breastplate also retains original painted decoration, in the form of heraldic lilies and letter 'r's in miniscule picked out in red and white. The left breast also carries two symbols, a star and what appears to be a harp.
By the seventeenth century it was quite common for armours to be left ‘black from the hammer’, that is, unpolished. The blackened finish could be enhanced by burning oil into the surface of the plates, or with paint. Another defining aspect of armour decoration in this period is the decorative (rather than purely functional) use of rivets. Here the numerous ornamental rivets have been capped with copper alloy to stand out in contrast with the blackened steel.