Throughout the ages, noblemen, military officials, and wealthy merchants needed a way to keep their valuables safe. Locks and strongboxes were essential to the preservation of wealth, transporting valuables such as gold, silver, and jewels, as well as protecting important documents such as bills of laden or sensitive communiques.
Wooden chests with iron banding and locks could easily be broken into or carted off, so a stronger, heavier, and more secure alternative was needed.
This suit of armor was crafted by Kunz Lochner (German, Nuremberg, 1510–1567).
Sometime in the early 16th century, the locksmiths and blacksmiths began to design and build a state-of-the-art chest with an intricate locking mechanism made entirely out of iron and steel.
What they created ended up being so advanced and secure that it would be used all over the world for the next 300 years. Even George Washington used an Armada chest to store his valuables. 1
These prized strongboxes are commonly known In German as “Eisentruhe oder” or “Kriegskasse” (Iron Chest or War Chest) but are more commonly referred to as Armada Chests as many were used to carry gold and treasure on sailing ships. They are also known as Nuremberg chests, Corsair safes and of course treasure chests.
The majority were made in Nuremberg and Augsburg Germany, and many were hand decorated in Holland. Some similar chests were also made in Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain.
Armada chests were made in a variety of sizes from small 4-inch gift boxes, to foot long jewelry caskets, to large 6’ bank reserve or payroll chests. The most common size Armada chests seem to be the mid-size versions that could be moved by two men when empty. These measure roughly 24” – 36” in length, 14’-16” in width and 14”-16” high.
Empty, these chests can weigh around 150 lbs. Fully loaded with gold, these chests could weigh close to half a ton.
For perspective, if a mid-size chest could hold a pirate’s plunder of 15,000 1 oz. gold coins, the gold weight alone would weigh over 900 lbs. Some of the larger chests used in castles, treasuries, or banks weighed well over 500 lbs. empty.
Some Armada chests came with holes drilled at the bottom so they could be bolted down in the Captain’s quarters of ships to prevent them from tipping over in rough seas or being carted off by pirates.
The engineering, craftsmanship, and design of these beautiful hand-crafted chests is quite remarkable considering the technology and tools available at the time. To this day, locksmiths have a very tough time picking the locks on Armada chests.
Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782), provides some in-depth detail and illustrations in his book “Art du Serrurier Descriptions des arts et métiers” (Art of the Locksmith – Descriptions of Arts and Crafts) published in 1767. Monceau commented: “The locking mechanism consists of moveable and fixed parts. The movement of the key bit guides the centrally placed long bolt that transfers the movement via angled actuators to twelve self-closing obliquely beveled lock bolts, each one under the effect of ring-shaped springs.”2
Another 18th century illustration can be found in “L’Encyclopédie” or “Dictionaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers” (The Encyclopedia” or “Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts) written by Denis Diderot (1713-1783).3
Looks Can Be Deceiving
At the front face of most Armada chests, there is a false keyhole plate or escutcheon made of hammered iron flanked by two latches that fit over eyelets attached to the lid. Chests could have a single lock placed on each eyelet or opt for a long iron bar to be inserted through each eyelet and have a single lock attached through a hole at the end of the bar. Some hasps come engraved, which would have been done while the iron was hot and soft, which would make etching and cutting much easier.
Although some chests do not have the pair of hasps with eyelets, most did come with the false keyhole plate. These decorative escutcheons came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. Some were very simple, while others were quite ornate. At first glance, one would assume that the chest was secured by the two outer locks hung on each eyelet and one interior lock between them that is actually fake.
This false lock facade’s only real purpose was to deceive thieves into thinking it was the last hurdle to open the chest. When in reality, the nightmare of trying to open one of these chests would have only just begun, especially without the help of a modern-day cutting torch or electric tools.
To give you an idea of some of the false keyhole escutcheon plate designs, here are four examples:
|1. A round and very simple plate.||2. A more ornate “rosette” style plate.|
|3. A “four-pointed star” shaped plate.||4. A “fancy rosette” style plate.|
The Hidden Lock
The main locking mechanism of the Armada chest is typically accessed on the top of the lid by means of a keyhole hidden under a cleverly camouflaged spring-loaded door or false rivet. When the rivet or door is lifted and slid to one side, a keyhole is revealed where the key can be inserted into the lock.
Once the key is inserted into the lock, the locking mechanism requires considerable pressure to open. This often requires the use of a bar or rod inserted into the key bow for leverage to turn the key.
General Chest Construction
The outer construction of the chest is made up of a pattern of intersecting iron strips laid over rolled iron sheeting. The strips measure roughly 2-1/4” to 2-1/2” wide and 1/8” thick. These straps are fastened with large iron rivets at each intersection and with smaller rivets spaced about 2” to 4” apart.
Some of the early chests were made entirely out of solid rolled iron without intersecting strips and riveted on the edges with iron corner cover pieces.
The exterior of the chests were often Dutch polychromed with flowers, and vignettes of boats, hunting and fishing scenes or other designs.
The complex locking mechanism is comprised of numerous leaf springs, levers, bolts, and other components designed to operate in unison when the lock is turned. Some chests have a small inner lock box with a separate key that could have been used to hold jewelry or documents.
The interior is typically painted a brown or orange color. The application of paint was very important as it helped to prevent corrosion, especially from the salt air these chests were exposed to on voyages across the oceans.
The Artistry of the Engravers
Some of the most desirable Armada chests are those that have beautifully engraved and brightly polished steel cover plates that conceal the locking mechanism.
Some chests were commissioned by noblemen or wealthy merchants and have exceptionally detailed engraving, metal bluing, gilding, and painted vignettes.
The Armada Chest Keys
Armada chest keys are typically heavy and made of cast iron or steel. The top or “bow” of the keys are typically round with a pointed dimple located inside the bow at the bottom center. The “bit” or cut keyed portion at the end of the key is uniquely hand cut for each lock. The “shank” or length of the key from the bottom of the bow to the end of the bit for mid-size chests can range from 2” to 3”.
Some of the locks that were used on the hasps of Armada chests are illustrated in “Art du Serrurier”, Description des arts et métiers”, 1767 here: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5408471w/f389.item
References & Sources:
1) George Washington’s Mount Vernon: https://emuseum.mountvernon.org/objects/2557/iron-chest
2) Duhamel du Monceau, “Art du Serrurier”, Description des arts et métiers, printed in Paris 1767) A digital copy is available as well as an illustration of the chest construction at https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5408471w/f387.item
3) L’Encyclopédie” or “Dictionaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers” written by Denis Diderot (1713-1783). https://artflsrv04.uchicago.edu/philologic4.7/encyclopedie0922/navigate/26/9/29
4) The Domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire https://domaine-chaumont.fr/en/chateau-historic-grounds-and-stables/historical-apartments/guard-room
5) Information on the “Blacksmith” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blacksmith
6) History on medieval blacksmiths https://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-people/medieval-tradesmen-and-merchants/medieval-blacksmith/
7) Escutcheon plate details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escutcheon_(furniture)
8) Arms & Armor exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago https://www.artic.edu/collection?classification_ids=arms%20and%20armor&page=5
9) Arms & Armor exhibits at the New York Metropolitan – Wheelock pistol Peter Peck | Double-Barreled Wheellock Pistol Made for Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–56) | German, Munich | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org)
10) Photos of wheel lock pistol and suit of armor courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search?showOnly=highlights&department=4
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Sean Scott at Sean@CommodoreCoins.com.