The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I

Maximilian exhibit-190

Portrait of Maximilian I, from the workshop or a follower of Albrecht Dürer.

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) is one of those larger-than-life historical figures. Straddling the medieval and Renaissance eras, he worked tirelessly and spent a vast fortune to establish the Habsburgs as one of Europe’s dominant ruling families. In England, the House of York considered him a vital ally to the interests of English territories and trade on the continent.

In 1484, Maximilian’s envoy asked Richard III to send him 6,000 archers to strengthen that alliance, calling the English king ‘that prince of all Christian princes’ ‘of very great and excellent virtues’ to whom Maximilian had ‘most love and affection, and with whom he desires most to ally and confederate himself’[1].  Expressing no consternation over the deposition of Edward V or the disappearance of the ‘princes in the Tower’, and perhaps believing they were still alive, Maximilian later supported the Yorkist claimants Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, and Edmund de la Pole.[2]

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York assembled The Last Knight – an exhibit of 180 objects from 30 public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and America.  Featured were Maximilian’s own extravagant armors reflecting his patronage of the greatest European armorers of his age, as well as related manuscripts, letters, paintings, portraiture, sculpture, glass, and toys.  The exhibit displayed the Tournament Tapestry of Frederick the Wise, Prince Elector of Saxony, which contains a possible representation of Perkin Warbeck (see Ricardian Bulletin, December 2019, for an article deciphering the tournament scene and its portraiture). Through these objects, Maximilian’s dynastic ambitions and the centrality of chivalry to his personal rule were put into sharp focus.

Maximilian exhibit-179

Tournament tapestry of Frederick the Wise, prince elector of Saxony (circa 1490), which possibly depicts Perkin Warbeck watching from the loggia above, fourth from the left. Warbeck had been received at the Burgundian court of Maximilian I as the surviving second son of Edward IV.

The exhibit began with Maximilian’s first foray onto the international scene at age 17 when he married Mary Duchess of Burgundy (1457-1482) in 1477.  The marriage would not have been possible without the support of Margaret of York — Mary’s step-mother and Richard III’s sister.  Although he was the Archduke of Austria and the only surviving son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Maximilian brought no lands, no income, no affinity, and no experience in ruling.  He was openly ridiculed for being a crude German outsider, illiterate in French, Flemish and Dutch, and unfamiliar with the rituals of the sophisticated Burgundian court. Maximilian was not deterred.  He had his wife’s Burgundian inheritance to protect from external and internal threats following the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.

To demonstrate how Maximilian promoted himself as a credible protector of the Burgundian inheritance, the first object greeting visitors to the exhibit was the field armor that Maximilian commissioned from master armorer Lorenz Helmschmid and had worn in battle and in triumph in 1480 when he defeated the French forces of Louis XI at the Battle of Guinegate.  A masterpiece of late Gothic style, the exhibit offered the unique opportunity to see it mounted along with its matching sallet, now owned separately.  To say this armor dazzles the eyes is no exaggeration. With its elaborately worked fluting, pierced designs, and copper-alloy decorative bands and components, it shows a wasp-waisted young knight around 5’4” to 5’6” in height who wanted to make a strong statement.  The long, articulated sabatons which come to gently arched points, describe a man with his feet grounded in medieval tradition.  It cost Maximilian the modern equivalent of over £1,000,000 to have the suit tailor-made, something that would have told potential enemies that he had (his wife’s) money to support armies too.

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The exhibit’s curators surrounded this young knight with portraits and objects memorializing the preeminence and victories of Charles the Bold, including Charles’ gorgeously illuminated prayer book, and medallions and painted glass panels celebrating the union of Mary with Maximilian.  Originally constructed for the Bruges Chapel of the Holy Blood, the glass panels (now owned by Victoria & Albert Museum) show a haughty and beautiful Duchess Mary and her handsome, blond-haired husband.

One particularly resonant object was Maximilian’s personal copy of Charles the Bold’s military ordinances from 1473, a set of regulations for the organization and administration of a permanent Burgundian army.  It is possible that Charles gave the manuscript to Maximilian at their first and only meeting, in Trier, in 1473.  Maximilian’s personal interest in military ordinances for standing armies is reflected in the notes he made in the margins of this book.

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Because he was constantly engaged in military campaigns to defend his wife’s inheritance and that of his only son Philip the Handsome (1478-1506), Maximilian was in continual need of field armor.  But his interest in armor was also motivated by the chivalric pursuit of tournament fighting.  The Last Knight had as its largest component the wide variety of tournament armor commissioned by and made for Maximilian for jousts of war, jousts of peace, foot combat, and free tourney.  These events gave Maximilian a platform to show his physical prowess and bravery, and an opportunity to win other suits of armor as trophies.  Jousts of war and foot combat required the greatest protection, as the combatants used terrifying weapons of war to demonstrate their skills.  Thus, armors for the joust of war and that of foot combat were not luxuriously outfitted.  Jousts of peace allowed more decorative armors, such as the one made by Jörg Helmschmid the Younger around 1494, when Maximilian had settled affairs in the Burgundian realm and relocated to Innsbruck after being made King of the Romans in 1486.

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The manufacture of armor and military devices required industrial sophistication, and The Last Knight revealed how Maximilian was personally involved in encouraging new technologies.  He designed a battle horse saddle by which the rider could free up his right hand by ‘stowing’ his lance in a spring-loaded bracket.  He commissioned the design of mechanical breastplates for jousts of peace; when the target was struck, the breastplate would eject the shield and sometimes explode into pieces in mid-air.   Maximilian spent a lot of time devising new tournament games, and understood the dramatic effect of this technology on audiences.

Always seeking the most innovative designs, Maximilian’s patronage extended to locksmiths and clockmakers as well as armorers in Italy, Brussels, the Franche-Comté, and the German-speaking lands.  Some were given noble titles as a direct result of supplying him with armors needed for himself, his troops, and for presentation gifts such as the horse bard he gave to Henry VIII. A selected set of Maximilian’s letters of correspondence was on display, revealing that he habitually incurred large unpaid debts to these artisans.

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Maximilian’s armors not only reflected his self-promotion as the ideal knight, but also cast him as a patron of lofty fraternal organizations.  The most prestigious of these was his induction in 1478 as the sovereign of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. The Last Knight offered the exceptionally rare privilege of seeing one of only three known surviving Golden Fleece collars from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Livery collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece (16th century)

By securing the admission of his father and descendants to the order, Maximilian was able to associate the House of Habsburg firmly with Burgundy. In 1489, Maximilian became a member of the English Order of the Garter, an honor he greatly esteemed.  Four years later, Maximilian inherited from his father the patronage of the Order of Saint George, a Christian fellowship open to both men and women for the defense of Christendom from Ottoman attack.  Badges and motifs from the Orders of the Golden Fleece and of Saint George figured prominently in several of the armors made for Maximilian and his heirs.

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Maximilian enjoyed fighting and being patron of chivalric orders, but he also participated in other activities required of a knight.  One of the non-combative activities was the courtly art of dance.  Maximilian thoroughly enjoyed dancing and was widely reputed to be one of the best dancers in his kingdom, enthusiastically partaking in the celebratory rituals that followed a long day on the tiltyard.  For this, he wished his rule to be memorialized by a series of illustrations showing how tournaments would find their summation in feasts, dance pageantry, masquerades, and mummery.  Oddly enough, men like Maximilian would sometimes don women’s clothing during the masquerades, suggesting that a heroic concept of manhood was not incompatible with cross-dressing.

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Finally, The Last Knight demonstrated the intensity of Maximilian’s efforts to depict himself as a worthy paterfamilias of dynastic lineage.  Using epic story-telling as a medium, he composed Theuerdank to recount his highly romanticized journey to marry Mary of Burgundy in 1477.  Later, he created two literary alter-egos for himself in the characters of Freydal and the White King or Weisskunig.  The heroic exploits of Freydal were commemorated in a series of sketches showing his feats at various tournaments and jousts, and Maximilian later commissioned Albrecht Dürer to create woodcuts from them.

“Freydal” winning Joust of Peace against Jacob de Heere (Woodblock by Albrecht Dürer)

On a grander scale, Maximilian commissioned Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Springinklee, and Wolf Traut, to design and illustrate a monumental Arch of Honor showing Maximilian’s ancestry, his territories, his extended kinship, his predecessors as emperor, his deeds and accomplishments, his personal talents and interests, and thus his glory.  The sheer scale of the project, 195 woodblocks in total, mirrored his unquenchable desire to be remembered.

The exhibit concluded with a pair of gauntlets that belonged to Maximilian and were probably made by Lorenz Helmschmid around 1490.  They were brought from the Low Countries to Spain by his grandson Charles V.  The gauntlets, along with Maximilian’s favorite suit of armor, were objects of deep veneration for Charles, the future king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.  Maximilian left Charles and his other grandson Ferdinand with a staggering debt as a result of his spending on armor and all the commemorative art presented in The Last Knight.  Maximilian justified his fiscal profligacy using the voice of his literary alter-ego, der Weisskunig:

‘He who during his life provides no remembrance for himself has no remembrance after his death and the same person is forgotten with the tolling of the bell, and therefore the money that I spend on remembrance is not lost; but the money that is spared on my remembrance, that is a suppression of my future remembrance, and what I do not accomplish during my life for my memory will not be made up for after my death, neither by thee nor others.’

It took several generations of Habsburgs to pay off Maximilian’s debts, but his legacy was indelible.  As a result of the marriages he arranged for his children and grandchildren, the Habsburgs came to rule Spain and its New World colonies, Portugal and its New World colonies, Southern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and the Low Countries.  His direct descendants were Holy Roman Emperors through 1740 and he laid the foundations for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an empire that influenced European and world politics until its formal dissolution in 1918.  When Maximilian’s grandson Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, he was described by Ludovico Ariosto and others as a ‘world emperor’ ruling an ‘empire on which the sun never sets’.  This phrase would have greatly pleased Maximilian I, a man whose ambition for global fame and respect was forged in the very steel of his armor.

Here’s a further look at Maximilian’s children and his grandson Charles, including some of the stunning armor that he commissioned for them.

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Here’s a look at some more armor that Maximilian commissioned for himself, including his famous silver suit (now lost but preserved in depictions of Saint Maurice), and some other items that were produced by his favorite armorers:

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Text and Photographs © Susan Troxell, 2020

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Ricardian Bulletin, March 2020.

Notes & Sources:

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I, Anne Blood Mann, ed., Catalogue of Exhibit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019.

Harry Schnitker, Margaret of York-Princess of England, Duchess of York, Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 2016, pp. 69-89.

[1] Gairdner, James, Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, Rolls Series, 2 vols., 1863, vol. 2, pp. 3- 51, pp. 4-5, 22.

[2] Maximilian’s 1484 embassy to Richard III requested military aid to defend Flanders, and proposed a formal alliance between England, Burgundy and Brittany, against France.  At the time of this diplomatic overture, Maximilian’s only son and heir Philip had been forcibly taken from his custody by the burghers of Bruges, and Maximilian was being denied any access to the 6-year old boy as well as his 4-year old daughter Margaret.  Maximilian’s missive to Richard III complained bitterly and repeatedly of the ‘intermeddling’ injustice done by removing Philip from his protection, and setting up a false governing council in Philip’s name in Bruges.  The missive accused the burghers of using lying words, corruptions, and subtle unlawful ways to get into their hands and power both of Maximilian’s children, accusing them of an ambition to rule and govern, and spreading lies about Maximilian’s intentions to usurp his son’s titles.  Gairdner, Letters and Papers, vol. 2., pp. 8-9, 11-12, 20, 29, 37-38.  Given that Richard III was similarly rumored by some of taking wrongful custody of Edward IV’s sons and having had a secret agenda of setting them aside and ruling himself, it would seem remarkably tone deaf to emphasize this type of wrongdoing in a diplomatic embassy seeking a formal alliance with the English king less than one year after his accession.  There were other grounds to show that the burghers’ actions were illegal, namely, Mary of Burgundy’s last will and testament which provided that Maximilian should govern in Philip’s name during his minority.  Maximilian’s strategy seems to imply that he did not find the aforesaid accusations against Richard III credible, and was indirectly appealing to Richard’s indignation at having his honor and motives questioned by false rumors.

The following are some of the coats of arms that Maximilian achieved by his marriages to the Duchess of Burgundy, and his third wife, Bianca Maria Sforza.  His second marriage to Anne, Duchess of Brittany, was annulled.

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