THE DISCOVERY OF THE ARMADA SERVICE
These two dishes are an extraordinarily rare survival, being part of an unprecedented hoard of thirty-one dishes, known as 'The Armada Service', made between 1581 and 1601, all of which were engraved with the arms of Sir Christopher Harris (b.c.1553-1625). Twenty-six of the dishes are now in collection of the British Museum. The service had been buried in a potato barn, in the small Devonshire village of Brixton and was unearthed by local labourers in 1827. Immediately the discovery sparked conflicts of ownership in the local community, principally between the occupier of the land, a Mr. Splat, and its proprietor, the Reverend Richard Lane (d.1858), whom one local newspaper serendipitously misidentified as Mr. Bastard. The spread of misinformation only grew from there, as national papers were quick to romanticize the provenance of this buried treasure. In February 1828 the Gentleman’s Magazine correctly reported that the service bore the arms of Sir Christopher Harris (b.c.1552-1625), but wrongly asserted that these arms had been quartered with each of his three wives, where in fact only the arms his second wife, Mary Sydenham, are represented. The magazine further imagined that the dishes were ‘richly chased in the old style’, perhaps wishing to trade off the present vogue for elaborately embossed Tudor silver, rather than report the more modest gilding of the Armada Service. In any case the identification of the Harris arms brought an end to the crisis of ownership, as well as any claims of treasure trove by the feuding landowners. Instead the Treasury suspended a coroner’s inquest, and the service passed to Sir Christopher’s heir, John Harris of Radford (1760-1837).
THE HISTORY OF THE DISHES
The popular mythology of the Armada Service did not end with the identification of the rightful owner. Speculation mounted that the service had been struck from silver plundered from Spanish ships during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-604), giving rise to the moniker of Armada. Though untrue, the belief was strengthened by Harris’ close ties to great English privateers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Harris once hosted Raleigh at his Radford estate in 1601 and later held the disgraced courtier in custody, following his return from the expedition to find El Dorado in 1518. While Raleigh was Vice-Admiral of Devon, he entrusted Harris to distribute booty taken from the captured Spanish ship the Madre de Dios, the single greatest prize of the entire Anglo-Spanish war. Similarly Harris’ second wife, whose arms are engraved on the service, was the aunt of Drake’s second wife Elizabeth Sydenham. Consequently Drake and Harris enjoyed a close relationship, and it was Harris whom Drake trusted to escort his New World treasure to the Tower of London in 1580. Given these close associations and proximity to plundered goods, it was often assumed that the Armada Service was gifted to Harris from the proceeds of one of these favours, but there is no indication that this was the case. Rather it is more likely that Harris obtained the service through the profit of his position as an admiralty official under Walter Raleigh, collecting the Lord Admiral’s tenth of all booty at a time when piracy and privateering was positively rife. Having been made in four distinct years between 1581 and 1602, the dishes passed by descent to Sir Christopher’s great-nephew, John Harris, remaining in the Harris family until the outbreak of the Civil War. During this time John, a royalist who held Liskeard Castle in the Duchy of Cornwall, served as Royalist Commissioner of Array in Devon. In 1645 Sir Richard Grenville’s second siege of Plymouth brought the fighting very close to Harris’ home of Radford and it is often theorised that the silver was hidden in a barn in Brixton during the battle, in order to avoid subsequent sequestration by Parliamentary forces. A less romantic tale notes that Harris earmarked £200 of plate in his will for the payment of a debt, so the service may have been hidden to avoid being melted down for restitutions. In either case the Armada Service was hidden at Brixton between February 1645 and Spring 1648, its secret lost to the world.
Upon recovery in 1827 the service remained with the Harris family for nearly sixty years, before 23 of the 31 dishes were auctioned at Debenham, Storr and Son in 1885. The set was later sold to Attenborough and Son of Fleet Street and then bought by Albermale Cator (1836-1906), who had married Mary Molesworth Cordelia, a distant relation of the Harris family. Mrs Cator sold the collection, which by that point had grown again to number 26 dishes, at Christie's in 1911, following the death of her husband. In 1992 the service was bought by the British Museum, where it is now on display. In all, five dishes are known to have been separated from the main body of the service since 1827, with the two presented here likely retained by a descendant of the Harris family, along with those later included in the 1911 sale.
THE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SERVICE
The dishes differ from earlier English dining sets in that they are far deeper than traditional silver or pewter plates, a style that became more popular during the latter half of the sixteenth century. The deep well of the Armada plates made them especially suited to broths, which were becoming increasingly popular in the period. The deeper dishes could also be paired, one covering the other, in order to keep meat courses warm, as exhibited in Heinrich Aldegraver’s 1554 engraving Lazarus Begging for Crumbs. Certainly the Armada Service’s style became prevalent amongst the European gentry classes: Flemish artist Frans Pourbus I depicts a similar design used by upper-class revellers in The Hoefnagel Family Wedding, dated 1581. The dishes of differing sizes would have been arranged on tables with a wide variety of dishes as illustrated by Abraham Bosse's engraving of 1633 depitcting a feast of the Order of Knights of Saint Esprit at Fontainebleau, shown here.
Despite this apparent popularity, however, surviving material comparable to the Armada Service is incredibly rare. The earliest and largest such set is the five dishes made by Hinrich Lambrecht I for Christian IV of Denmark between 1599 and 1609. The dishes were sold in 1628 to Czar Michael Romanov, following the expensive defeat of the Protestant states by the Catholic League. The Romanovs so valued the dishes that they had them engraved with Cyrillic inscriptions recording their use. Similarly the dining silver of Maximilian I of Bavaria was only preserved as the result of military and financial disaster in the Thirty Years War. Following Maximilian’s flight from Munich in 1648, the ship containing most of his silver rammed a bridge at Muhlsdorf and sank - not to be salvaged until the discovery of ten plates in 1925. All three sets therefore owe their survival to the common elements of war and the financial hardship which follows. The Armada Service, however, is unique as the earliest, most comprehensive, and only set to originate at gentry level.