The man who would conquer England
Research at Chevening reveals that a set of armour, there for 300 years, belonged to the commander of the Spanish Armada, as Julius Bryant discovered
A suit of armour that belonged to the commander of the Spanish Armada has been discovered at Chevening, reports Julius Bryant
Chevening, the country home near Sevenoaks in Kent of the Foreign Secretary, made the headlines last year, even in the tabloid press, when ‘the Battle of Brexit Towers’ seemed to rage over who would get to live there next. it all proved a press misunderstanding and Boris Johnson moved in, just in time for Christmas.
Today, high above the Foreign Secretary’s pink running trainers in the hall, as part of the arrangement of weapons behind the spectacular main stairs, is a fine armour. Long admired by visitors, but overlooked by scholars, it turns out to have been made for a Spanish nobleman who has a particular claim on British interest.
half a century has passed since the death in 1967 of James, 7th earl Stanhope, which brought into effect the Chevening estate Act 1959. This enacted his wish that the family’s home and estate be managed by independent trustees for the benefit of the nation.
Another anniversary falls in 2017, for it is 300 years since Chevening was purchased by James, 1st earl Stanhope, chief minister to george i. To help mark the occasion, the trustees commissioned the present writer to produce an illustrated monograph on the house, Chevening: a Seat of Diplomacy (Paul holberton Publications, 2017).
Readers of Country Life may feel they know Chevening already from articles published between 1920 and 2012, yet, although the attribution of the building to inigo Jones has been the subject of much research and debate, the fine collections of the house remain relatively unknown.
The founder of the national Portrait gallery (npg), the 5th earl Stanhope, collected and rearranged family portraits by Closterman, Lely, Kneller, Ramsay, hudson, Batoni, gainsborough, Romney, Lawrence and others, many in their historic carved frames. george Scharf, the first director of the npg, appointed in 1857, was a regular house guest and left several vivid sketches of family gatherings there. Right: The 1720s staircase hall. Its display of weapons was purchased in 1731, but the armour in the centre may have been an earlier diplomatic gift. It’s first mentioned in an inventory of 1753, when it was arranged ‘with a long sword in one hand and Mr Stanhope's Spontoon in the other’
It’s not impossible that the armour was taken on this expedition’
Chevening also preserves an outstanding library, the core of which was formed by the 1st Earl and his father, the Hon Alexander Stanhope, Britain’s Ambassador to Spain. More familiar is the set of tapestries presented to the 1st Earl Stanhope as a diplomatic gift from Friedrich Wilhelm, father of Frederick the Great of Prussia, in 1720 (COUNTRY LIFE,
February 29, 2012). However, another treasure of international significance, presumably also a diplomatic gift, has just been rediscovered.
James, 1st Earl Stanhope, had served as Commander in Chief of the allied armies in Spain before returning to pursue his political career. In 1708, the mayor of Tarragona presented him with 13 ancient tombstones from the Roman city of Tarraco, which still stand, clustered as a garden feature by the lake at Chevening. Could it have been during his time in Spain that he was given or acquired the armour that now forms the centrepiece of the hall? The hall was dressed as an armoury, probably by the 2nd Earl Stanhope, in tribute to his father. All that is securely known about the display is that the muskets and pistols that form part of the surrounding display were purchased in 1731. The entire piece was certainly in place by 1753, when the armour is first described in an inventory. This contains the handwritten note by the Earl’s wife, Grizel: ‘A Suit of Armour, with a long sword in one hand and Mr Stanhope's Spontoon in the other.’ It’s not quite clear who Mr Stanhope was, but he was evidently a member of the family. Anyway, there the armour stood, admired but anonymous, for the next five generations and beyond. Covered with fine etched decoration, the armour was clearly of exceptional quality so a colleague at the V&A, Angus Patterson, came to inspect it. Thrilled, he identified it as largely from about
1590 and probably by Pompeo della Cesa, armourer to the Spanish Court in Milan. At his workshop in the Castello Sforzesco, his clients included Philip II of Spain, Francis I de Medici, Grand-duke of Tuscany, and Emanuel-philibert, Duke of Savoy. Originally, the armour would have been burnished, the bright steel set off with blackened and gilded details. Some of the gilding survives and would have heightened the etched decoration to resemble embroidery on fashionable clothing.
The armour is assembled from a larger original outfit, known as a garniture. This was an assemblage of armour with interchangeable elements that made it suitable for different uses, so although the shoulder guards or ‘pauldrons’ are for military use, the helmet was designed for jousting. Confusingly, the breastplate is from another armour and some other elements are later replacements. Nevertheless, in 10 places, the original patron’s etched monogram could be found.
Deciphering the letters proved impossible in Britain, but a colleague at the Prado showed them to Álvaro Soler del Campo, chief curator at the Royal Armory in Madrid, whose collection includes armour marked with the identical monogram. It identifies the owner as Alonso Pérez de Guzmán (1550–1615), 7th Duke of MedinaSidonia, 10th Count of Niebla. The Captain-general of the Ocean Sea is best known today as the commander of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Given its approximate dating, it’s not impossible that the armour was taken on this unfortunate expedition.
When and why the armour came to the home of the Stanhope family is a matter of ongoing research, but it seems only fitting that, in Chevening’s tercentenary year, as the estate looks forward to playing its part in the new chapter of Britain’s relations with Europe, the armour of the commander of the Spanish Armada looks down on the entrance hall. It’s a reminder from the previous Elizabethan era to every one of the Foreign Secretary’s guests of the costs of war and the benefits of European goodwill.
‘Covered with fine etched decoration, the armour was clearly of quality’ exceptional
Right: The Duke was a figure of sufficient notoriety in Britain to figure in this 17thcentury pack of cards
The combined letters of the crowned monogram, visible on the side of the helment and the shoulder, can be unpacked to read CO [NDE] NIEBLA, a reference to the Duke’s title as Count of Niebla (‘the count of fog’)
A view of the armour. Its surface was originally burnished, the etched decoration picked out in black and gold