AC Silver

Armada Dish History

Armada Dish History

The term ‘armada’ finds its origins in the Portuguese and Spanish terms for naval fleets. The backstory to the armada silver dishes that are so well-known to enthusiasts is that they got their name from the ships from which they were likely plundered. The ‘original’ armada dishes were seized from Spanish/Portuguese treasure ships throughout the Spanish Armada War in 1588.

Sir Walter Raleigh plays a significant role in this origin story, fittingly enough. Serving at various points in his life as an English landed gentleman, writer, poet, politician, soldier, courtier, and spy, he was most famously noted for his exploratory expeditions. Raleigh’s respected colleague, Sir Christopher Harris of Radford, Devon, is the counterpart to this inception.

Harris worked as an ‘Admiralty Official’ during the Spanish Armada War and had supposedly acquired these dishes around the same time. One ship in particular, the Madre de Deus (Mother of God) seems the likely source for the dishes, being hijacked by the English forces in 1590. Carrying precious cargo including, metals, gemstones, and spices, this ship would certainly fit the bill for being the origin of the armada dishes. Between the English hijacking and Sir Christopher Harris owning the dishes, however, there is significant grey area. Experts debate over whether Harris was directly involved in the acquisition of the dishes or if Raleigh gifted them to his friend as a token of his successes and prowess shown in the war.

silver armada dish

Eventually, the armada dishes were buried in a field – somewhat bizarrely – during the Civil War (roughly 1645) to prevent them from being looted to be melted down to pay for supplies and wages. The Harris family, who had buried the silver set, never recovered them. In fact, it wasn’t until 1827 that the dishes were rediscovered by farm labourers. It was reported that upwards of 30 dishes were unearthed, 26 of which are now on display at the British museum. Originally, there were 31 silver dishes in Sir Christopher Harris’s Armada service set. Each discovered armada dish is engraved with the arms of Sir Christopher Harris and his wife Mary Sydenham, making them easy to identify.

The Ongoing Mystery

The obvious mystery in this instance is the lingering question of where the remaining 5 dishes in the set are located today. If the entire set was unearthed, as is alluded to vaguely in contemporary reports, then perhaps some are now in the possession of a very private collector, or even possible someone who doesn’t truly know of their historical or monetary value.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to say what happened to prevent the full completion of the set in the possession of the British Museum, although thankfully there are a grand 26 available for the public to admire.

The Test of Time

Considering the intrinsic value of silver throughout history, both as a social status symbol and a financial investment, it’s easy to understand why silver is still so sought after today. It is important to remember that functional items of gold and silver of this date rarely survive, emphasising the value of the remaining armada dishes today; a unique survival of historic, English dining silver.

In modern reproductions and interpretations of armada dishes, there have been some changes made to the original design. They have less significant indents to their bases, with plain rims rather than those accented by circular engravings. Armada dishes today make lovely gifts for christenings, engagements, weddings and anniversaries. Larger examples of the same kind of dishes could be used for presenting awards or could be given as trophies.

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