Spotlight On … Tudor jerkins.

Written by Victoria Green.

Out of all the television I am guilty of watching, period drama has got to be my favourite. For me, there’s nothing better than those wonderful costumes. From the sumptuous examples in The Tudors, to that settler-chic in Jamestown and the downright historically accurate in Wolf Hall, critiquing the historical dress is the best part of the series. (I think we all remember Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn and all that glorious headwear?) Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when the final part of our collection was installed in our new home and, with it, a Tudor jerkin.

The jerkin is described in our acquisitions ledger as being made of ‘buff’ leather. For the uninitiated, John Waterer’s description is best:

‘Buff’ leather: “Named after the European buffalo from which it was first made, ‘buff’ leather has long been made from cattle, horse and deer hides (‘doe skin’) and used for men’s gloves, long boots and saddles. Its colour comes from the oxidised fish oil that impregnates it, and the soda solution used for washing it. Although difficult to distinguish flesh from grain side since both have been scraped to allow oil to enter, the former is usually coarser and has flay or vein marks.”

[John Waterer’s Guide to Leather Conservation and Restoration, John W. Waterer, 1986.]

The jerkin is thought to date to the 16th Century, has a lace-up front – the lace is believed to be a modern addition – with shoulders featuring ‘pickadils’ or folded tabs, and a skirt of short tassets. It features silk points about the waist, finished with brass aglets. Jerkins were intended to accentuate the fashionable male silhouette of the time; small-waisted with a large chest.

This piece was one of the first acquisitions made by John Waterer on behalf of the museum. Back then, the Museum of Leathercraft’s trustees were permitted to make independent acquisitions of up to £5 – a significant amount of money in 1946. With the volume and quality of acquisitions in those early days, I imagine that board meetings were akin to a show and tell, with trustees boasting of the treasures they had found, and attempting to outdo each other. Such was the importance placed on acquisitions, that at one stage, the Museum of Leathercraft trustees were in a position to outbid the Victoria & Albert Museum for a Charles V casket.

So, as the story goes, with the customary £5 weighing heavy in his pocket, John Waterer attended an auction at Sotheby’s in 1947. The jerkin had previously been on loan at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, along with some metal armour. As Waterer’s daughter recounts it, the jerkin was the last lot of the day with a guide price of £5. John had spotted it early on, and waited until the end of the day to bid on it. As it happened, his was the only bid and the museum gained another unique piece.

Fast forward to the modern day, and there is some debate as to whether the jerkin really is as old as it claims.

The Museum of London has the only other example of an extant jerkin of this style from the same time period. It is near enough a carbon copy of the National Leather Collection’s piece, save for the decorative points and lacing. This raises two interesting possibilities; legitimisation that our jerkin is from the 16th Century, or proof that both jerkins are, in fact, later reproductions.

Why was no one else bidding on the lot at auction? Did they know that it was a fake? On a superficial level, the leather shows little signs of wear and tear and is very clean. It is around 100 years older than the museum’s 17th Century buff leather coat, but does not show any signs of age in comparison. This could be due to the methods used when processing the leather but, as I am not a tanner, I am unable to comment further on this.

If I have learned one thing from my time at the National Leather Collection, it is that leather is a remarkable material. It endures like nothing else, and often pieces that are a thousand years old remain in better condition than the shoes I bought last year from a certain high street store. It isn’t entirely inconceivable, at least to me, that the jerkin could be as old as Waterer claims.

17th Century ‘Buff’ leather coat.

It is certainly made in the 16th Century style; In the late 16th Century, jerkins had a high neck, and were often laced up at the top and left open at the bottom as seen in the image of Martin Frobisher. In the early 17th Century this trend reversed, with the garment slashed to the waist to reveal the doublet beneath.

© National Leather Collection 2018

L: Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Steven van der Meulen, c.1560.
R: Martin Frobisher; Cornelis Ketel, c.1577.

Unlike other jerkins seen in contemporaneous portraits which are elaborate, with decorative slashing and punching, this example is very plain and utilitarian. Simple, oiled oxhide jerkins were typically worn by soldiers and for hunting in both the 16th and 17th Centuries. The thick buff leather would have been worn beneath armour to prevent chafing, and even on its own could provide a protection from knife-slashing attacks during hand-to-hand combat. Let us remember that the Fitzwilliam Museum originally displayed this jerkin alongside period armour, clearly having reached the same conclusion of a military purpose. Nonetheless, the silk points and design cause somewhat of a conundrum. The bows and aglets look almost ‘theatrical’, not unlike period costumes at the Royal Shakespeare Company – but were these a later addition? And surely long sleeves would have been the design of choice for a garment worn on the battlefield, rather than pickadils and short tassets?

Having recently unearthed a fairly modern doublet in our collection (keep your eyes peeled for this blog next week!) that we have provisionally dated as Edwardian (early 1900s), the sheer difference in craftsmanship and materials leads me away from the argument that our jerkin is a Victorian theatrical reproduction. The Edwardian doublet is quite clearly made for theatre; it is leather lined with a silk outer, and has ripped at the armholes from excessive wear. Large tacking stitches have been used on the tassets, and the finishing on the inside of the jacket is rough – presumably as this is the part that no-one sees when you’re on stage. Aside from the flourish of bows at the waist, our Tudor jerkin is nothing alike this later piece.

Without employing radiocarbon dating, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to reach a satisfying conclusion as to whether this jerkin really is as old as Waterer believed it to be. Either way, it makes for an interesting story, and telling stories is exactly what museums should do. We don’t pretend to know all of the answers all of the time, and welcome those with specific knowledge or expertise to help us continue to learn about our incredible collection. For now, however, the National Leather Collection’s jerkin is Tudor until proven guilty.

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