York Museums Trust boss REYAHN KING introduces a civil war jacket that once belonged to Thomas Fairfax

The Fairfax Buff Coat

This military buff coat is reputed to have belonged to Thomas Fairfax, the Parliamentarian general in the English Civil War.

Known as Black Tom, he began his military career supporting Protestants in the Netherlands, fought against the Scots in 1639, and commanded cavalry in the early years of the English Civil War. Later, he became Lord General of the New Model Army and was instrumental in winning the Civil War for Parliament.

Buff coats of this type emerged in the 1610s. Originally made of European buffalo hide, by the time of the English Civil War they were usually made of cow or deer hides.

They were supplied to cavalry in both Parliamentarian and Royalist armies. An ordinary trooper’s buff coat cost the equivalent of a month’s wages for a skilled labourer.

This coat would have been far more costly. It dates to c.1630-40 when Fairfax would have been aged between 18 and 28. It has narrow shoulders and it would have fit quite a slender, younger man.

In the 1630s, when Fairfax was building his experience and reputation, a coat like this would have helped consolidate his identity as a military commander and aristocrat. It is very similar in style to a buff coat worn by Sir Thomas in a portrait by Edward Bower of 1646. In the painting we can see how it was probably worn: with a breastplate and backplate over it.

This is a garment designed to impress, and was not particularly practical. Although it would have offered protection to the torso, it is unlikely to have been useful in battle unless the sleeves were detached.

Compared with extant buff coats and those depicted in paintings, this coat is extravagant. It is made of thick leather with lining and sleeves of linen and pink silk. The pink has now greatly faded but its original bright pink-red colour can still be seen in protected areas of the arms.

The pink silk was an expensive imported fabric which would have shown through in the gaps between the rows of braid on the sleeves and peeped through the gap between the skirt flaps as the wearer moved.

All of the joins of the leather have also been covered in braid woven from silk, silver and gold. The braid has now tarnished, but would have been very bright when new.

Having survived nearly 400 years, we took the coat to textile specialist conservators in 2019. Conservator Sheila Landi found that former conservation work, undertaken before the coat came to the museum, was in fact pulling the garment out of shape and putting it in danger.

Thanks to a generous donation by York Museums Trust’s Chairman towards its conservation,the coat is currently undergoing conservation to reverse that damage and make it stable and secure for the future.

Several discoveries have been made during the conservation process. The sleeves were worn turned back to the first button to make room for fashionable lace cuffs. The strange line of buttonholes attached to the waist of the coat are eyelets which were used to help hold up Fairfax’s breeches.

The coat was refurbished with different lace possibly during Fairfax’s life, or updated for wear by another family member. Refurbishing garments to make them last as long as possible was normal in the seventeenth century, even for the very wealthy.

More discoveries may well be made before conservation is complete. Once the work has been done, the coat will be stored on a specially padded mannequin to help maintain its shape. This will ensure we can use it for talks and research visits without excessive handling, until the next time it goes out on display as part of York Castle Museum’s extensive costume collection.

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