Sir Richard Lee’s funerary armour, St Albans Museums
This project involved the conservation of 16th century funerary armour for permanent display in the newly-created St Albans Museum + Art Gallery. The armour consisted of an iron hauberk (mail shirt) and elaborate helmet. The main focus of the conservation treatment was to halt the severe, and ongoing, loss of weakened, corroded rings of the hauberk, and to remove a disfiguring waxy surface-coating (non-original) from the helmet.
Richard Lee (1513-1575) was a soldier, engineer and adviser to King Henry VIII, with strong links to St Albans. His funerary armour is now part of the permanent collection of St Albans Museums. The helmet was a well-known, and much-loved, item, in relatively good-condition, but the mail was in too poor a condition to display, and relegated to permanent storage.
Treatment of the helmet
The helmet is made of iron and stylistically appears to date to the mid-late 16th century. Initial investigation included X-radiography, to assist in determining manufacturing techniques and condition, and to detect any patterning or decoration. Some beautifully clear images were produced, clearly indicating the hinged layers making up the visor, ventail and bever plate. It also revealed areas of thinner metal, possibly a direct result of hammering and polishing during manufacture, or subsequent weakening due to corrosion. Sadly, no evidence of further decoration came to light.
Assessment also identified an uneven, slightly glossy coating over the helmet, which had resulted in unsightly, whiteish ‘dribbles’ in multiple locations. This coating was overlying areas of loss and corrosion, and was clearly not original. It had most likely been applied in the more recent past to protect the metal from further corrosion. Cleaning trials identified it could be carefully and effectively removed using an acetone poultice. This work had to be done with the aid of UV light, enabling the coating and the surface beneath to be differentiated.
Removal of the coating evened the appearance of the surface and revealed the metal surface and texture of the helmet. X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF) was then undertaken to investigate if remains of any other materials (e.g. gold leaf) were present. Unfortunately the analysis did not reveal any elements beyond iron. A deliberate decision was made to not apply another coating, or undertake any further treatment. The helmet was stable and being displayed in optimum, stable environmental conditions, and a surface treatment could hinder any future analysis.
Treatment of the Hauberk
The hauberk was also coated in a non-original waxy substance, which was sticky and attracted dust and dirt. However, the main concern was the thinning and weakening of the metal due to previous corrosion, causing extensive, and ongoing, loss of the rings.
Following soaking of the hauberk in several baths of solvent to remove the sticky coating, each ring was carefully cleaned of voluminous iron corrosion products using a glass bristle brush under a microscope. The next step was to repair and, in many areas, add rings, to sufficiently improve its structure and stability for long-term display. This involved understanding the original techniques of mail armour construction to accurately integrate new rings into the structure, whilst adapting the process to ensure reversibility. It also required the sourcing and patination of suitable rings (phosphor bronze, patinated using nitric acid) to appear similar to the original ferrous rings but able to be identified as modern replacements. Damaged rings were adhered with 30% Paraloid B-72 in acetone. Loose rings of unknown location were recorded and reinserted into the structure alongside the new phosphor bronze rings, to more fully complete the shirt and strengthen the structure, enabling it to support its own weight.
Evidence of the use of mail shirts can be found from Celtic Europe up until the late 14th century, with very few stylistic changes over the years. Dating of the hauberk is therefore difficult, as is the estimation of its exact appearance before the loss of rings, including its length, and that of the sleeves. For this reason, the conservation stopped short of ‘completing’ the structure, leaving losses where they did not impact on stability, and leaving the length and sleeves slighly jagged to indicate that additional rings may have been present.