The Black Rider – a soldier in history

Art, Culture & Heritage

Posted 19 January


We call him Gustav, the Black Rider and every day we look at him, we are in awe of the secrets that he has yielded to us at the Abbey Museum. To those of us who have had the honour and experience of handling this 16th Century German Cuirassier harness, how lucky are we and indeed for anyone living in SE Queensland to have the opportunity to be able to see this display.

Gustav was a Black Rider. What do we know about the name Schwarz Reiter (Black Rider) and why was it used? Unlike the polished armours of the previous centuries, this type of armour was treated in a protective black lacquer to shield it from the rigours of campaign, earning these horsemen the menacing name of Schwarz Reiter or Black Riders.

Not quite a G.I. of the 16th Century, but close….

Backtracking just a little, the age of the armoured knight did not suddenly disappear with the introduction of firearms in the 1300’s; in fact what could be called ‘the Golden Age of plate armour’ takes place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Advances in technology meant it was now possible to equip almost every soldier with a protective harness. Armourers were working on a truly industrial scale utilising water-powered trip hammers, polishing and grinding wheels. Keeping pace with technology, the owner of our armour (Gustav) would have supplemented his traditional armament of sword and lance with a brace of deadly large calibre pistols.

Gustav was no show pony

In 1620, around the time our armour was made; for the Swedish army the cost of equipping a Pikeman or light cavalryman with a back and breastplates and a helmet was reckoned at 6 Rikskalder while the basic armour of a cuirassier (similar to our armour) was valued at 40 Rikskalder. So armour such as this was expensive, uncomfortable, but ultimately protective. And indeed, our armour was not a parade piece, but designed for battle and battle it did! Quite uniquely it displays evidence of damage, repairs and reuse. Putting this into perspective, with protection and mobility aside, armour is boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, uncomfortable, fatiguing and expensive. In Henry IV Part II, the future King Henry V uses the phrase “When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit like a rich armour worn in the heat of the day that scalds with safety”.

And as it is today with most things, budget determined quality; the rich had bespoke harnesses which were technically brilliant kinetic steel sculptures whilst the common soldier was equipped with much cheaper mass produced munitions grade armour that gave less protection and were not tailored to the individual. Even with munitions armour the cost varied with the completeness and complexity of the final product.

But the good news is, despite many erroneous books and movies, full armour did not render the wearer immobile, in fact the absurd idea of an armoured knight being almost immobile when dismounted or having to be winched into the saddle is a 19th century fiction which simply refuses to die! Marshal Boucicault of France (1366-1421) believed that a knight should be able to run an obstacle course, do handstands and mount a horse without the aid of stirrups, all in full armour.

In late 2017, Gustav, the Black Rider was added to the displays at the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology and is awaiting to tell his story.

ARTICLE BY: Damien Fegan

Don’t miss this amazing display! Come and ask us about Gustav’s story and how he found his way to the Abbey Museum.

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