Curator's Corner: Alchemist 111

Stewart Murray

By Stewart Murray
LBMA CEO (September 1999 - December 2013)

Gold in Armaments

When LBMA decided in 2005 to hold its first Assaying and Refining Conference at the Armourers Hall in the City of London, we did not realise that one of the objects in the Hall’s collection of arms was a splendid example of a Mughal-era talwar – a slashing weapon with a curved, single edged blade similar to a European Sabre – with a beautiful, gilded hilt.

The latter was produced using the technique known as koftgari which was brought to north-west India in the 16th century from Persia. It involves heating and then engraving the steel substrate before pressing fine gold wire into it to form a pattern such as that shown here (right).

When one thinks of armour and the weapons designed to penetrate it, gold is certainly not the metal that immediately comes to mind. The first metal to find a useful role in war was bronze, which began to be used for the manufacture of spearpoints at the beginning of the second Millennium BCE in the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East. Later on, swords, shields and helmets in bronze began to appear but the bronze-tipped spear remained the main weapon of war.

The use of bronze began to decline after the Hittites of Anatolia discovered how to smelt iron and produce steel (an alloy of iron and carbon) around 1,300 BCE. But bronze weapons continued to be used for many centuries. The end of the Bronze Age is often equated with the rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under Cyrus II who came to the throne in 559 BCE. However, the bronze shields and spears of the Greek soldiers in the later wars against Persia were an important factor in their eventual victory.

Gilded Armour of Henry VIII. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gold Decoration to Project Power and Wealth

So where and how does gold come into the story of armaments? The answer is almost entirely for decorative purposes. Gold is far too soft, even when alloyed, and too rare, to play any physical role in weaponry. Instead, it was its ability to embellish swords, shields and armour used by the leaders of armies that led to ancient craftsmen learning the techniques of gilding, either on steel or bronze. The resulting beautification of such weapons not only satisfied the vanity of the possessors but also helped them to project an image of power and wealth.

Various techniques could be used for applying gold to metal surfaces, including damascening (the use of inlaid gold wire), the application of gold leaf and fire-gilding. The last of these techniques produced the most robust and durable surface and was especially suited to steel and bronze.

Fire Gilding

Compared to the mechanical application of gold leaf, fire gilding was a much more challenging process, especially because of the use of mercury which has to be volatilised by heat, with probable disastrous consequences for the health of many of the workers involved. It required firstly the preparation of a goldmercury amalgam by adding finely ground gold to hot mercury, eventually producing a buttery paste which could be spread on the carefully prepared steel surface, followed by heating in a furnace to drive off the mercury and leave the gold metallurgically bonded to the substrate. A substantial amount of further work on the surface was needed before the finished object was ready for delivery. Although this type of gilding on steel was mostly for decorative purposes, it also served to minimise rusting of the underlying metal.

The Gilded Hilt of a 17th Century Mughal Talwar. Image: © Guy M Wilson. Courtesy of the Armourers and Brasiers’ Company of London.

Armour: Dress to Impress

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an extensive collection of armour and armaments, in some cases displaying full or partial gilding. One of the most impressive items is the suit of armour believed to have been produced in 1527 for Henry VIII of England at the Royal Armoury in Greenwich, which Henry established in 1515, just six years after coming to the throne, to produce armours for himself and his court.

In his early years, Henry was known for his love of jousting where this kind of armour would be worn. At the age of 26, he organised a tournament at Greenwich, where he wore gilded armour and gilded horse trappings which impressed the foreign ambassadors who attended. He impressed them so much that one of them wrote home that “the wealth and civilisation of the world are here”. The suit shown on page 32 is the earliest dated armour from the Greenwich Armoury. It is also the earliest surviving Greenwich “garniture”, a design which included exchangeable parts that allowed the armour to be adapted for use in battle or in different types of tournament combat. Henry continued to participate in jousting for the next 20 years until, at the age of 45, he suffered a heavy fall from his horse that rendered him unconscious for two hours.

A somewhat later and even more impressive suit of armour, albeit one owned by a less famous Englishman, is also included in The Met’s collection. This was made in 1586 for George Clifford, the third Earl of Cumberland, who was appointed as the Queen’s Champion by Elizabeth I in 1590. The elaborately decorated armour shows a mixture of gilding and blueing, the latter being a method of protecting the steel surface by forming an adherent microscopically thin oxide layer using heat. Clifford’s armour (shown right) is the best preserved example of the Greenwich workshop’s designand manufacturing skills.

The immaculately preserved Armour of George Clifford.

Personal Weaponry

One of Henry VIII’s most powerful contemporaries was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled over a huge domain including much of central Europe, northern Italy and Spain, as well as the new territories of South America overrun on behalf of the Spanish crown by the conquistadores. Unlike Henry, Charles V was not an active jouster in his youth, but he was an enthusiastic collector of arms and armour. The gilded double-barrelled wheel-lock pistol shown below (Picture 1) is a very early example, from around 1545, of a personal firearm.

Although artillery had been used on the battlefield for well over a century when Charles came to power, it was only when clockmakers such as Peter Peck began to apply their skills to weapons that this kind of pistol could be developed.

The use of gilding in 16th and 17th Century England became so popular that James I became concerned about the impact of this business on the national treasury and issued a proclamation in 1618 banning the use of gold in architecture, furniture and carriages. The only exception was for “Armour or Weapons or in Armes and Ensignes of Honour”.

Wheel-lock Pistol of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The final example of the use of gilding in The Met’s armaments collection is the sword commissioned by Gaston, Prince of Béarn and Chalais, in 1881. Gaston was obviously a very religious person and had a particular veneration for the Virgin Mary and he asked two Parisian craftsmen to create a sword hilt in gilt bronze in her honour (Picture 3). The grip they produced is a miniature sculpture in the round of the Virgin.

The basket guard surrounding the grip is a splendidly executed low-relief sculpture that depicts the archangel Michael vanquishing Satan. According to Béarn family tradition, the hilt represents Mary as Our Lady of Victory - the divine protector of soldiers entering battle. The image of victory is vividly expressed by the presence of Saint Michael, the leader of the heavenly armies in the fight against the forces of evil. He is often depicted, as he is here, above a plummeting figure of Satan.

The image is based on a passage in the Revelation of Saint John, the last book of the New Testament: “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought
back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down––that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to earth and his
angels with him”.

Details of all the objects described here can be found by searching the Wonders of Gold website.

Stewart Murray

By Stewart Murray
LBMA CEO (September 1999 - December 2013)