Skip to main content

Breastplate (body armour): M.1.2A-1936

Object information

Current Location: Gallery 31 (Armoury)






A breastplate, decorated ensuite with one another, probably for use by a member of the Papal bodyguard. The breastplate is formed of a main plate of 'peascod' fashion, with moveable gussets at the arm-opening and a skirt of one lame. The broad, concave neck-opening and the gussets have bold, file-roped inward turns bordered by single incised lines. That at the neck is bordered by a file-roped rib. The arm-openings of the main plate are bordered by a pair of incised lines. The gussets at the arm-openings are secured to the main plate by later round-headed rivets with square internal washers at their upper and lower ends. Those at the upper end move within horizontal slots. Each of them, together with a similar rivet occupying a hole pierced in the main plate just above it, retains a later leather shoulder-strap. The greater part of the right strap is missing. A later hole pierced in the right gusset, at the same height as the upper of the pair of rivets that now secures the remains of the right shoulder-strap, may at one time have served to rigidly rivet the gusset to the main plate. Vacant rivet-holes located at the upper end of each gusset represent the attachment points of the original shoulder-straps or their buckles. Later wiring-holes are pierced at the lower end of each gusset. The right gusset shows two small rust-perforations midway along the inner angle of its turn. The lower edge of the main plate is flanged outwards to receive the skirt of one lame which is attached at each side by a round-headed rivet with a square internal washer. The skirt would originally have consisted of at least one further lame. The surviving skirt-lame is decorated at its upper edge with a pair of incised lines, and at its lateral edges with partial inward turns. Attached within its lower edge by thirteen round-headed rivets with square internal washers is a later fringe of leather faced with dark brown velvet that is joined to at its scalloped lower edge within black silk piping. The greater part of the leather is now missing, and the velvet covering much decayed, worn and discoloured. Of the rivets that now secure the fringe, the second in from each side occupy the holes that would originally have served to attach the missing second lame of the skirt. The lower edge of the skirt-lame shows several cracks.
The armour is decorated on the breastplate, with an etched linear design of curved rays that diverge downwards and outwards and are separated by circular or oval pellets. On the breastplate the rays issue between a pair of adorsed, scrolling acanthus leaves, from the mouth of a grotesque mask, and are surmounted at their centre by a crowned eagle in display. Stylised acanthus foliage also decorates the centre of the border of the neck. The decoration is gilt throughout against a blued ground. The main and subsidiary edges of all preserved parts of the armour are also gilt, as are their decorative raised ribs. Part of the composite half armour M.1.2A-C-1936


History note: Mrs E.W. Stead and Mr Gilbert Stead of Dalston Hall, Cumberland.

Legal notes

Given by Mrs E.W. Stead and Mr Gilbert Stead

Measurements and weight

Depth: 21.5 cm
Height: 47.8 cm
Weight: 2.68 kg
Width: 40 cm

Acquisition and important dates

Method of acquisition: Given (1936-01-15) by Stead, E. W. and Gilbert


16th Century, Late
Circa 1570 - 1590


Although all elements of the armour are similarly decorated, they appear not to have originally been made for one another. The breastplate is taller at the sides than the backplate (M.1.2B-1936), and decorated at its subsidiary edges with pairs of incised lines rather than the single incised lines found on the other elements. The character of the roping of the pauldrons and the turners (M.1.2C-1936) suggests that these pieces were made about fifteen to twenty years after the breastplate and backplate. It must therefore be concluded either that the armour is composed of elements of a series of similarly decorated armour, or that it is composed of unrelated elements that were originally plain and only subsequently decorated to match one another. The character of the decoration favours the latter interpretation.

North Italian

The armour has a blued and gilt finish. The bluing shows extensive patches of light pitting. The gilding shows slight pitting and some wear, especially at the roped edges.

This breastplate was made for a member of the Papal bodyguard and has what is known as ‘blued and gilt’ decoration. Gold was absorbed by mercury and then painted onto the surface of the steel armour. The steel was heated and the surface changes colour from a pale straw yellow to dark blue. The heating process drove off the mercury which has a low boiling point, leaving the gold on the surface. By carefully control of the heating and temperature the armourer was able to achieve this very characteristic ‘blued and gilt’ finish. The gilding process is extremely dangerous as mercury is very poisonous and can affect the brain, causing dementia and death. Mercury was also used in making felt for hats in the 18th and 19th centuries where its affects on the workers gave rise to the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’.

Components of the work

Skirt composed of velvet ( decayed, worn and discoloured) silk (textile) leather
Decoration composed of gilt ( on a blued ground)
Shoulder-strap composed of leather

Materials used in production


Techniques used in production

Hammering : The breastplate is formed of a main plate of 'peascod' fashion, with moveable gussets at the arm-opening and a skirt of one lame; hammered, shaped, riveted, decorated with file-roping, ribs, incised lines, an etched linear design of curved rays

Identification numbers

Accession number: M.1.2A-1936
Primary reference Number: 18125
Stable URI

Audit data

Created: Saturday 6 August 2011 Updated: Tuesday 13 April 2021 Last processed: Friday 8 December 2023

Associated departments & institutions

Owner or interested party: The Fitzwilliam Museum
Associated department: Applied Arts

Citation for print

This record can be cited in the Harvard Bibliographic style using the text below:

The Fitzwilliam Museum (2024) "Breastplate (body armour)" Web page available at: Accessed: 2024-06-15 18:26:54

Citation for Wikipedia

To cite this record on Wikipedia you can use this code snippet:

{{cite web|url= |title=Breastplate (body armour) |author=The Fitzwilliam Museum|accessdate=2024-06-15 18:26:54|publisher=The University of Cambridge}}

API call for this record

To call these data via our API (remember this needs to be authenticated) you can use this code snippet:

Sign up for updates

Updates about future exhibitions and displays, family activities, virtual events & news. You'll be the first to know...