The Abbey Museum’s Black Rider

The arrival of the Black Rider

In mid-2016, the Abbey Museum finally fulfilled a long-held dream to acquire a complete medieval suit of armour to complement the existing stories of the Abbey collection of medieval artefacts.  With the support of the Abbey Museum Friends and a private donor a 16th century composite suit of breath-taking and awe-inspiring armour was purchased, painstakingly restored and finally put on display in late 2017. Dubbed the Black Rider, after the original German Schwartz Reiter, this medieval piece of history has become one of the most popular objects in the Museum’s collection.

Respect to the Black Rider

When you first see the Black Rider, you experience a moment of silence, while your eyes take it all in.  One of the most noticeable things about this suit of armour is the extensive damage to parts of the helmet and arms; this is original damage left during its time in the field (the battle field that is!). This observation indeed merits slow contemplation.  Who wore this suit and what happened?

The most striking and obvious damage to the harness appears on the helmet. The helmet itself is made in the Savoyard style, also called Todenkopf, meaning ‘Death’s Head’ in German due to the eerie, skull shaped mask and visor seen in some examples. The majority of the damage sustained to the helmet appears along the edge of the gorget, or neck-armour, in the form of multiple edged-weapon blows. Other damage to the helmet includes a large dent in the rear of the skull (bowl) on the left side. The damage has been hammered out during the armour’s use-life, which tells something even more amazing.  There is a possibility that the wearer may have survived their torment!

Perhaps the most significant damage to the helmet is the peak and visor which has been bent out of shape as a result of a blow to the face. The repair on this appears rushed, as if it was simply bent back into shape on the battlefield.  And it’s clear that the most damaged piece of this cuirass is the harness in the lower cannon of the right arm. This piece covers the forearm of the wearer and is commonly found to be one of the most damaged pieces in both medieval armour and pre-armour warfare. When in danger, instinct moves the dominant hand/arm to cover the face, resulting in what shows as defensive wounds. It is entirely possible that the wearer of the armour lost their weapon or simply used their forearm to shield the face/head from attack, possibly while the eyes were obscured by the damaged visor. The forearm piece has suffered three directed blows which have cracked the metal and torn through in some places. This is a sobering thought.

The Black Rider’s story is not yet told

The damage to the Abbey Museum’s Black Rider’s cuirassier harness is quite rare, especially in an Australian museum context and this analysis is by no means the final product of our research into its violent history. We are still yet to determine where the harness comes from, and the workshop the armourer’s marks belong to. Perhaps with the help of international scholars and museums we may be able to complete to the story of our Black Rider.

Visit the Abbey Museum to view and wonder about the history of the Black Rider.

By Lincoln Morse