Inside Armourers’ Hall

Along Coleman Street by Moorgate Station you can find Armourers Hall, the headquarters of the Armourers & Brasiers’ Company with a history going back to 1322.

Armourers' Hall, Coleman Street | Look Up London

History of the Armourers and Brasiers Company

It’s one of the City’s 111 Worshipful Livery Companies, trade guilds which mostly started in the Medieval period to regulate different trades. 

Although they no longer oversee the making of armour or brass objects, they are still closely associated with engineering and industrial manufacturing.

As an institution the Armourers have had remarkable good luck with their halls, the Medieval one surviving the Great Fire and the current one surviving the Blitz, so the whole building is steeped in history.

Inside Armourers' Hall | Look Up London

The armourers were first recorded in 1322, when 26 people were granted the right to oversee standards of making armour in the City. The first Royal charter came under King Henry VI in 1453 and during the Tudor and Elizabethan period they grew in status, size and wealth.

With the introduction of efficient guns, plate armourer was no longer needed and so the company members expanded into the manufacturing of brass, hence now being called the Armourers and Brasiers’ Company.

In the late 19th century, facing criticism of cronyism, the antiquated City’s Livery Companies made an extraordinary pivot to ensure their survival. They moved into philanthropy and education.

With the Armourers and Brasiers, this takes the form of the Gauntlet Trust whose main aim is to fund the study of Materials Science at the highest academic level.

Inside Armourers’ Hall

The Armourers have been based on Colman Street since 1346. At first they renting some buildings but in 1428 they bought the properties, referred to in the deed as ‘the dragon and five shops’.

Coleman Street was a wide thoroughfare in the Medieval period, as see on the 16th century ‘Agas’ map below. The Armourers’ Hall was towards the top of Colemant Street by Moorgate (“More Gate”).

(www.layersoflondon.org)

Incredibly, the Medieval properties survived the Great Fire of London, you can see on the map below that the white space (indicating buildings destroyed) goes right up to the hall and seems to stop there.

No. 129 indicates the Armourers’ Hall, right on the edge of destruction.

We started our tour in the Gold Drawing Room. 

Gold Drawing Room, Armourers' Hall | Look Up London

Naturally, on display is a particularly fine example of field armour made for Sir Henry Lee.

The idea that plate armourer would be heavy and cumbersome is somewhat misguided, of course if you’re planning to fight you need to be able to move freely.

Field Armour of Sir Henry Lee, Armourers' Hall | Look Up London

It’s made from steel, an alloy made by heating and hammering iron until its light and flexible whilst retaining its strength. This bespoke suit would cost the equivalent of a few million pounds today!

Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611) was the Queen’s Champion and Master of the Armouries for Queen Elizabeth I. The role of the champion was mainly a ceremonial one, where at the monarch’s coronation they would challenge any would-be usurper to a fight.

Day-to-day Lee would organise tilts (jousting tournaments) and huge festivities for the Queen. In 1583 he bought the Ditchley Estate and when Queen Elizabeth visited in 1592 he commemorated the event by commissioning the Ditchley portrait which now hangs in the National portrait Gallery.

The Ditchley portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Youngerc.1592 NPG2561 © National Portrait Gallery London

Back to the Gold Drawing room, two huge portraits dominate the room. They are Sir Henry Lee and a woman, Anne Vavasour.

You might assume that Anne was Henry’s wife. You’d be wrong.

Anne was born around 1560 into a wealthy Yorkshire family. She was bright, charismatic and her upwardly-mobile family cultivated her for a place in the royal court. She duly became a lady-in-waiting for Queen Elizabeth I when she was in her late teens, it appeared that her future was secure.

Unfortunately she ran in with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) who was a favourite of Elizabeth I and who had a bad reputation for womanising at court. 

Edward de Vere was married to Anne Cecil, daughter of William Cecil but despite this Anne Vavasour fell pregnant. Both were thrown in the Tower of London (though Edward tried to slip out of the country and avoid punishment).

Anne was married to a sea captain but also became the mistress of Sir Henry Lee. When his wife died Anne moved into Ditchley with their two sons and outlived Henry. She then (despite being already legally married to the sea caption) tried to marry again and in 1622 was ordered to pay a fine and serve public penance for bigamy. In the end Queen Anne of Denmark, a close friend, intervened to save her the worst of the embarrassment. 

She lived into her 90s and Sir Henry Lee had even planned for her  to be buried alongside him (beneath the family tomb with sculptures of his wife and their children!) under the epitaph: 

“Under this stone entombed lies a fair & worthy Dame
Daughter to Henry Vavasour, Anne Vavasour her name.
She living with Sir Henry Lee, for love long time did dwell
Death could not part them but here they rest within one cell”

Gold Drawing Room, Armourers' Hall | Look Up London

This last request was not accepted by the church so Anne was buried in St Peter’s churchyard in Buckinghamshire but in Armourer’s Hall they stand side by side.

The Livery Hall

Livery Hall, Armourers' Hall | Look Up London

The other room we explored was the Livery Hall, with an epic barrel vaulted ceiling added in the 1870s.

Livery Hall Ceiling, Armourers' Hall | Look Up London

The walls are adorned with various instruments of death but nicer ornaments include the candelabras which are over 300 years old and survived form the earlier hall. 

In fact, we were told the dinners in this room are still lit by candlelight which must be quite the experience.

At one end of the hall is a royal coat of arms, but look closer and something’s unusual. Instead of the unicorn holder on the right we have a dragon, a nod to the Welsh ancestry of Queen Elizabeth I.

Looking up at the walls, there are shield emblazoned with great patrons of the company through the centuries.

One seems more unusual and out of place compared to the other historic figures:

On 29 December 1940 the Blitz was raging through the City of London. That particular night is often called the second Great Fire of London because of the levels of destruction.

As incendiary bombs caused fires to rage along Coleman Street, the curtains of Armourers Hall were alight after the windows were blown out by high explosives.

It’s within this chaos that an unknown figure, most likely a fireman patrolling this area, put out the flames in Armourers Hall and in doing so saved the building.

Despite attempts to trace the man no one has ever found out what happened to him but this anonymous figure gets pride of place on the wall of their Livery Hall.

To give a sense of the survival, this photograph captures the devastating scene of London Wall after the Blitz, the lone church in the distance the tower of St Gile Cripplegate. 

Visit the Armourers Hall

The Armourers Hall do not organise regular public tours, however they do organise tours for groups and you can get in touch to arrange one here. I visited on a tour organised with the Wimbledon Society.


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1 Comment

  • Nicole Godwin

    Reply

    Lovely post! I’m currently on the Knight in Art course with V&A so what a timely post ! Also Sir Henry Lee has always been one of my absolute favourite portraits at NPG so it’s great to learn so much more about him ( and the lovely Anne Vavasour!)

    January 24, 2024 at 10:24 am

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