Armourers’ Hall and Anne Vavasour

armourerIn 1322, in the reign of King Edward II, the Guild of St George of the Armourers was instituted, by ordinance of the City of London, which laid down regulations for the control of the trade. King Henry VI presented the Armourers with their first Royal Charter in May 1453.
The Company’s present Charter was granted in 1708 by Queen Anne, giving the Brasiers (workers in brass and copper), who had become involved with the Company as early as the 16th century, equal status with the Armourers.
As the Armourers to the Services, the Company played a special role in the defence of the City. Its connections with the Armed Forces persist to this day, particularly through the award of prizes for excellence to young service personnel. It also has long traditions of charity and hospitality. Through The Armourers @ Brasiers Gauntlet Trust the Company supports general good causes and education and research in Materials Science and Metallurgy.

Armourers’ Hall, is on the original site of the ‘Dragon and five Shoppes’. The Company has occupied this same site since 1346, taking a lease on the property in 1428 and acquiring the freehold in the 16th century. The Hall was one of the very few to escape destruction in the Great Fire of 1666, which was checked a few yards short of it. Members of the Company who had their workshops in the surrounding districts were rendered homeless, but permitted to carry on their trade in the Hall for three months provided that no hammer or forge was used. In 1795, the Hall was enlarged, but the Court decided in 1839 to rebuild it completely which, together with its furnishings, cost £10,533. The lantern or dome of the Livery Hall was added in 1872.

On the 29th December 1940, during a major blitz on London, the surrounding area was devastated, but again the Hall survived. The Company is much indebted to an unknown fireman who, seeing the curtains of the Court Room ablaze, broke into the Hall and extinguished the flames. Although his identity may never be known, his quick thinking undoubtedly saved the Hall. (Huge attempts were made to trace this man but without sucess. There is a school of thought that he was in the building initially for dishonest purposes).

The Livery Hall, with bold mottoes high under the roof lantern, has a rich display of 16th and 17th century arms and armour. The three George II brass chandeliers have been in constant use since they were made in the mid-1700s.

The ‘Gold’ Room is dominated by many magnificent paintings including those of Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth’s Champion, and his mistress, Anne Vavasour, which flank the Lee Armour. On the floor is a superb copy of the famous Ardebil Persian carpet at the Victoria & Albert Museum, made for Shah Tahmasp for the mosque in Ardebil

The elegant and beautifully proportioned Court Room has a fine Regency dining table with late 18th century mahogany chairs and contains Dutch and Elizabethan paintings together with an impressive array of documents including the Grant of Arms in 1556. The clock above the door, surrounded by the Coat of Arms, was made for the Company in 1767.

The Armourers’ and Brasiers’ Company ranks twenty-second in the order of precedence of Livery Companies. The Company’s motto is We Are One.

Henry Lee, born in Kent in March 1533. Lee became Queen Elizabeth I’s champion in 1570 and was appointed Master of the Armoury in 1580, an office which he held until his death. As Queen’s Champion, Lee devised the Accession Day tilts held annually on 17 November, the most important Elizabethan court festival from the 1580s. He retired as Queen’s Champion in 1590, . He was made a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1597. He was a MP for Buckinghamshire four times.

Sir Henry, like most courtiers of the day, had a portrait painted by a leading artist. In Lee’s picture, his sleeves are decorated with armillary spheres, a symbol of wisdom and also his device as queen’s champion. His sleeves are also decorated with lovers knots which, combined with the armillary spheres can be seen to represent his love for learning (the wisdom of the armillary spheres) and for the Queen (his symbol as her champion). Lee also wears several rings tied to his arm, and has his finger through a third ring around his neck. This may represent his marriages, and the third ring, which is not quite on his finger, may represent his relationship with Anne Vavasour.

Lee married, on 21 May 1554, Anne Paget who died in 1590. After her death, Lee lived openly with his mistress, Anne Vavasour, formerly one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting. Lee built up an estate at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, from 1583. He commissioned the Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, which shows her standing on a map of the British Isles, surveying her dominions; one foot rests near Ditchley in Oxfordshire, to commemorate her visit to Sir Henry Lee there.  Three suits of armour were made for Sir Henry Lee by the renowned Greenwich armoury, and are depicted in the album of drawings left behind by that workshop. Portions of the armour survive to the present day. One of the armours currently stands in the hall here in Coleman Street.

Anne Vavasour (c.1560 – c.1650) was a Maid of Honour (1580–81) to Queen Elizabeth, and the mistress of two aristocratic men. Her first lover was Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, by whom she had an illegitimate son – Edward. For that offence, both she and the Earl were sent to the Tower by the orders of the Queen. Their love affair also led to open skirmishes and duels in the streets of London, between Oxford and Anne’s uncle, Thomas Knyvet, which on one occasion led to the wounding of both men, and the death of one of Oxford’s men.

Sometime before 1590, Anne married a sea captain by the name of John Finch. Around this time, she took another lover in Lee by whom she had another illegitimate son Thomas. They lived openly together at Ditchley The Queen apparently approved of their liaison, as the couple entertained her at Ditchley House in September 1592. (Lee was later noted for refusing to receive his monarch a second time, because of the expense).

In 1605, Lee pensioned off Finch, and left Anne an income of £700 per year in his will, some property, and instructions for their joint burial in the tomb he had had erected for them in Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire. They remained together until his death in 1611. Anne outlived Sir Henry, but was forced to engage in a series of legal battles with Sir Henry’s son over the property he had left her.

By 1618, she had married a second time to John Richardson. At this point John Finch reappeared and she was brought up before the High Commission on 8 August 1618 and charged with bigamy. On 1 February 1622, she was ordered to pay a fine of £2000, however she was spared the ordeal of performing a public penance. She died in about 1650 at the advanced age of 90, and was buried at Quarrendon, Sir Henry’s monument showed him lying down in armour with an effigy of Anne kneeling at his feet.

Steve Welsh


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