Heavy metal Henry

Sandra Lawrence watches a modern-day Henry Vlll helped into his jousting armour

You've caught me in my underwear," admits Chris Gidlow, education manager for Historic Royal Palaces, as he makes his way to Hampton Court's Great Hall.

He is about to demonstrate how to don a replica of Henry VIII's armour to a group of schoolchildren, teenage visitors and some rather bemused Japanese tourists. A vision in red silk satin doublet and hose, complete with leather patches and numerous laces hanging from just about everywhere, Gidlow is clearly enjoying the experience almost as much as the schoolchildren nigh-on bursting to be chosen as "squires".

Henry himself would have had at least two servants to squeeze him into his "garniture of arms" and even at best it would have taken a good half-hour to completely kit-up. Despite his athletic build, Henry himself was far too important to lose in battle so he proved himself at tournaments instead.

The original armour, which has been faithfully copied by brothers David and Andrew Brown with the mysterious "Master M", is in the Tower, and would have been used for tilting. It is a masterpiece of military engineering. As Lt Col Harry Scott, senior staff officer and director of communications for the Army, points out, warfare is largely "a technological battle - armour has to be built to resist the weapons of its day."

The weapons of Henry's day consisted of pikes, broadswords, longbows and crossbows, as well as rudimentary muskets. "You can't defeat everything," admits Harry Scott. "It's a trade-off between being safe and being effective."

Henry's armour, made from imported German steel (it was believed that the properties of specific water made the steel stronger) is certainly solid. A lance or pike would glance off a breast-plate and a steel greave (shin plate) would resist a sword-blow.

Chris Gidlow hands Abraham, one of today's "squires", a single greave. "About the weight of your schoolbag?" he suggests.

"We worked out that you have to arm from the feet upwards from the only surviving manual," he says. How a Man schall be Armyed at his ese when he schall fighte on foote is the armourer's bible and it not only provides information on design, but also an insight into how the equipment was actually used. This makes studying the suit of armour an ideal project for the design and technology curriculum.

"Children could learn about the armour and how it has evolved, for key stage 2," suggests Chris Gidlow. "By KS3 they could be trying to reproduce some of the moving parts and KS4 students could even make armour from tin or aluminium."

As the armour works its way up his body, the first problem with solid materials presents itself: articulation. The very next joint, which goes over the knees, has been layered like an armadillo's shell to allow the knee to bend. "The Tudors would have been familiar with crustaceans such as lobsters and crayfish," he explains. "And they would have learned from experience too." The laces, or points, which hang from his underwear finally come into their own to help spread the weight - about 28 kilos (62lbs) - evenly.

There is a ripple of giggles as the gigantic codpiece, which itself weighs half a kilo, is hoisted into position. Gidlow explains that it was not just to protect the Crown Jewels, but an important artery that flows close to the groin.

By the time the "squires" reach the breastplate, the weight is beginning to tell. The breastplate is, however, one of the few pieces of traditional armour which have survived until today.

"In a regulation flak jacket, there are pockets in the front and back to hold ceramic plates just bigger than an A5 notebook to cover the essential organs," says Lt Col Scott. "The arms are relatively unprotected but this leaves them free to wield a weapon."

Much as with Henry's armour there are optional extras. Whereas Henry might have added another plate to resist a lance, modern riot gear, for example, has flaps at the neck to withstand blows from behind, and visors to protect the eyes. As the 4 kilo helmet is lowered over Chris Gidlow's eyes it is clear that he can see virtually nothing and if he were to fall over, he'd be less able to right himself than a flipped beetle. As weapons evolved, protection methods inevitably changed, and the development of the gun made it clear no armour could withstand bullet fire.

Of course some armour is more visible that others. Respirators may be obvious additions, though vaccination against biological threat proves that armour doesn't always necessarily mean clothing. Some things never change, however. The average soldier still carries about the same weight as Henry VIII would have done. But whereas Henry's would have been just heavy metal garments, today's squaddie would be carrying his entire life on his back.

Bookings for schoolsTel: 020 8781 9675

Adults pound;9.90, concessions pound;7.45, pound;6.50 children

Hampton Court Palace is open daily, except December 24-26 Mid-March to Mid-October: 9.30 to 18.00 (10.15 on Mondays). Mid-October to Mid-March: 9.30 to 16.30 (10.15 on Mondays) Further information from historic royal palaces: www.hrp.org.uk

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