Skip to main content

Henry VIII’s foot combat armour

In this monthly blog series, our collections team will write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. Karen Watts, our Senior Curator for Armour and Art looks at a magnificent armour made for Henry VIII to wear at the greatest and most romantic tournament that ever took place, the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Henry VIII’s foot combat armour

Steel armour covering entire body holding a pollaxe

Foot combat armour of Henry VIII

Consider Henry VIII as a chivalrous hero. Banish all images of him as a fat, bloated, lumbering, bad-tempered, crude king hurling meaty bones at his dogs. Imagine instead a tall, muscular, fit king who took part in tournaments and was particularly good. He complained when he did not have good enough opponents and score-sheets survive that show he was a very good jouster.

We know exactly what Henry’s physique was in 1520. He was 29 years old, 188 cms (6ft 2ins) and very athletic. Amazingly, a suit of armour has survived (II.6) that fitted the King as a close as a second skin. It is on display in the Tournament Gallery at the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds. It brings Henry VIII back to life better than any portrait. This suit of armour was made for Henry VIII to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

An amazing feat of engineering

buttock area of the armour

There are no gaps in the armour

There is no chink in this armour. It completely encloses his body front and rear. It was made for fighting on foot in a tournament. The armour is also ‘tailored’ in the latest fashion of the period. This can be seen in the steel foot-defences called sabatons. Their broad shape around the toes follows the ‘bear-paw’ shoe that we can see in contemporary portraits. The large cod-piece is also a fashion statement not a boast.

This armour is an amazing feat of engineering. All the parts lock together with internal turning joints. The helmet rotates on the collar which is bolted to the back and front of the cuirass (chest defence). The gauntlets and sabatons fit under and over the cuff and ankle-defences respectively. A fully articulated breech-piece encloses the rump. The armpits, the inner elbows and the rear of the knees have narrow lames each linked to the next without a gap.

It is very rare for an armour to completely enclose the body. There is no other armour in the Royal Armouries collection like it. This is because of the consequent additional weight of all those extra plates. The armour weights 42.6kg (approximately 94lbs) which is twice the weight of a normal battle armour. Only a fit and strong man such as the young Henry VIII could have worn such an armour.

One small, last detail to note: the armour was not quite finished. The right neckguard has not been fitted and the armour was described as still being ‘black from the hammer’ a century later. Why? Read on.

The Field of Cloth of Gold

The Field of Cloth of Gold was a tournament at which more that 150 French and English courtiers including Henry VIII, King of England and Francis I, King of France, jousted, tourneyed and fought on foot. The Field of Cloth of Gold was named after the magnificent (and very costly) cloth of gold pavilions that embellished an otherwise drab setting in the Pale of Calais. Cloth of gold is a textile woven with a weft of gold and a warp of silk. The ‘Field’ was one of the most extraordinary tournaments of the period.

Turrets and procession of kings and knights on horse back

‘Le Champ de Drap d’Or’ [The Field of Cloth of Gold] 18th century print. I.224.

The tournament proper began on Monday 11th June and lasted for eleven days. The three main forms of combat were the tilt (jousting over a barrrier), the tourney (mounted team event) and the foot combat. Tilting was the predominant form of combat, lasting over a week. The object of the course was to break a lance on an opponent, and for this purpose rebated (blunted) lances were used. This did not, however, prevent injury: one French knight died tilting against his brother.

The last day of the tournament was given over to the foot combat at the barrier. In this contest the combatants were separated by a long bar erected the length of the field. They fought first with spears and then with large swords. The swords were rebated (blunted). Some fought with the two-handed sword which was optional as it was deemed dangerous.

The two armours

In the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds are, strangely, two armours made for King Henry VIII that were both made for the King to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Both armours were made in the Royal Workshops at Greenwich. Both are for foot combat, yet are different from each other. One armour, seen above, completely encloses the body, front and rear.

The second armour (II.7) made for Henry VIII to fight in at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament is very different. It is distinguished by a tonlet (deep skirt) and a great basinet (helmet). The armour shows signs of being hastily assembled using elements from several earlier armours drawn from store. Why?

Armour with a skirt

Tonlet Armour, II.7. This armour was used instead of the Foot Combat armour after Francis I changed the rules.

Both were made in 1520 for Henry VIII to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament. The first, fully enclosing armour is for fighting within an enclosure (like a boxing ring) with a pollaxe (staff-weapon). The other was for fighting on foot over a barrier with a big sword.

Why did Henry VIII have two different armours for foot combat?

The answer is that the French king, Francis I, changed the rules. It had been agreed that the foot combats would be fought within the enclosure and Henry had his wonderful articulating armour made. Only three months before the tournament the French king changed the rules. The foot combats were now to be fought over the barrier wearing armour and weapons that kept the combatants further apart, which required a new style of armour.

The Field of Cloth of Gold became a byword for chivalry and extravagance. All those who were lucky enough to be there were amazed and astounded by what they saw. They described it with enthusiasm and passed the story through generations down to today.

Visit our Collections Online to discover more about Henry VIII’s foot combat armour.

Related stories

Load more