York Castle Museum

The Fairfax Buff Coat

This cavalryman’s buff coat dates from around 1630-40. It is our earliest item of men’s clothing, and one of our most significant military objects. It is believed to have belonged to Sir Thomas Fairfax, who commanded Parliamentarian forces in the English Civil Wars, and was donated to the museum by the family of one of Sir Thomas’s descendants.  

A buff coat is a kind of light armour. Made of thick leather, they would have given some protection in battle. Military commanders often wore buff coats under metal armour, giving a double layer of protection. They were often painted wearing these layers of armour, and their buff coats often have very flashy silk sleeves. 

Thomas Fairfax was 18 in 1630, and the 1630s were a decade in his life when he was building his military experience and reputation. A coat like this would have helped him to keep up appearances with other military leaders and important political figures.  

The coat is extremely lavish. It has sleeves made of pink silk over a strength layer of linen. The sleeves and leather are trimmed with braid woven from silk, silver and gold, and the collar is made of felted wool, which would have been far more comfortable against the neck than leather. The coat is fully lined in silk, and contains a row of eyelets near the waist. This is where the wearer would have tied the points (ties) of his breeches, fastening his outfit together. The silk was originally a far brighter pinky red, and this can still be seen in protected areas of the arms. In these areas the braid is still shiny. We can only imagine the effect of a coat like this in candlelight with the metal shimmering.  

To make this coat involved the work of many people. The materials came from many different places. The silk would have been imported from China or India, while the linen hidden inside the sleeves and the wool of the collar would likely have been locally produced. All of the thread was spun by hand, and then the linen and silk fabrics were woven by hand on a loom: there were no automated looms in the 17th century. The metal would have to be mined and imported, and the metal thread made by hand. The wool for the collar was felted, a specialised technique that made it water resistant. All of these jobs were specialised trades. In total this buff coat would have taken hundreds of hours of labour to produce, which is part of the reason a coat like this was such a potent status symbol.  

We don’t know the names of the many people involved in the creation of this amazing coat, but we are lucky that the coat itself survives as a testament to their skill.