Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Other Civil War: 17th Century Armor at the Higgins Armory Museum

Cuirassier, Netherlands or Savoy 1620-45 (author’s photo)
This past weekend, after many years of talking about it, we went with friends to the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts.  It has been open for 83 years in a building designed to house the collection, but financial demands have forced the board to close the museum at the end of 2013.  However, the collection will be transferred to the Worcester Art Museum where a library will be converted into new gallery space to house the collection and the library will move to new quarters.  So at least the collection will remain in the New England. As a child I had knights and a castle, so this was a delightful afternoon. I knew that armor was used for centuries, but it was the section of mid-sixteenth century armor the struck a cord.

Pikeman circa 1630 (author’s photo)

The distance between the 1640s and the 1740s is in certain ways immeasurable (the divine right of kings and the modern political era is one example), but thinking specifically about the years 1646 and 1746 took me aback for a moment.  As fate would have it, in 1646 Charles I was still trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to contain the revolutionary forces that would eventually unseat and behead him and in 1746 George II was in pursuit of Charles Stuart better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, the great grandson of Charles I, in order to maintain his crown and the Hanoverian line.  In those one hundred years troops in woolen redcoats replaced regiments in armor, and the battles that consumed nations now consumed fields. I find it somewhat ironic that the redcoat that began with the Parliamentarian forces of the Civil War (1640s) would in time signify the King’s own troops (1740s), but history is full of such details.

As I looked at the armor and the martial paintings that accompanied it, I wondered, in addition to all the other factors that influence how we perceive and dress ourselves, if the defeat of the Stuarts was one of those watershed moments that go unnoticed.  Was this the end of the fantasy of the feudal order and all of its accoutrements?  The sword, a significant and evolved feudal emblem as any, was still used by some, but not required outside of the Court, a sure measure of its decline.  Certainly by the 1750 the attitude in men’s clothing began the slide toward dominant and increasingly conservative uniform--the suit.  While the fabric of men’s clothing during the second half of the long eighteenth century might still be more decorative than any modern concoction, the flair began to subside particularly with the growth of the middle-class.  Was the defeat of the Stuart pretensions the last nail in the coffin of the medieval and renaissance ostentatious male display? It is hard to say, but the distance between 1646 and 1746 was never so apparent to me as it was on that Saturday afternoon.

From the Museum of London’s Collecton file:
This uniform was worn by the British Army officer, Richard St George. He was a Colonel in the 20th Regiment of Foot between 1737 and 1740 and later commanded the 8th Dragoons until 1755. Dragoons were trained to ride on horseback but to fight on foot as infantrymen. St George may have served at the Battle of Dettingen during the War of the Austrian Succession.

This all leads to the last thought of this exercise and that is, a question that often is asked of museums, or rather the employees of museums...“What was the point of the exhibit and did it reach its intended audience?”  I can’t think that anyone really sat down and created an exhibit to trigger my experience with 17th century armor.  That to me is the telling bit; education or the sharing of information is informed as much by the knowledge of the audience as it is by the knowledge of the institution and that the unintended outcome, although seemingly valueless to the perceived outcome, is of importance, at least the mind engaged with it.  Would I have made the connection without the exhibit, perhaps, but as I am not surrounded by either the 17th or 18th centuries, I think it would have taken longer, if at all.  After all, information without connection is simply a list of facts.

Now a simple repast,

Helmutt the dog in modern armor created at the Met in 1942 and based on a 16th century example at the Higgins Armory Museum.  Even your best friend could go out in style. (Author’s photo)

Jeffrey Hopper is an editor, author and museum professional who blogs about men's wear and related topics. You can reach him at this site.

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