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The word armada comes from the Portuguese and Spanish word for naval fleet. Fleet meaning a large formation of warships, at sea the direct equivalent is an army on land.
You’re probably wondering how this translation ‘naval fleet’ links to a silver dish? Good question, well the relevance to these silver dishes today is in fact the history hidden behind them.
These original silver dishes were believed to have been taken from Spanish/Portuguese treasure ships throughout the Spanish armada in 1588, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1.
Sir Walter Raleigh, an English landed gentleman noted for his exploring had a colleague named ‘Sir Christopher Harris’ of Radford, Devon. Harris worked as an Admiralty official during the Spanish armada war (1585-1604), similarly around this time Harris acquired these dishes into his possession. Perhaps as a gift from Raleigh himself for being part of the fleet this defeated the Spanish armada, however it is quite likely that the dishes were taken from the Treasure ships. One ship in particular that stands out is the Portuguese ship ‘Madre de deus’ (Mother of God), which was captured by the English in 1590 stocked full of exquisite cargo of gold, silver, jewels and spices.
Moreover these dishes were buried in a field during the civil war around 1645 in order to avoid seizure by parliamentary troops. The dishes lay undisturbed until rediscovered in the 1900s, a total of twenty six dishes were founded which are now owned by 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.
One of the big questions still unanswered is where are the additional five dishes making up the Armada service set?. This is yet to be answered, Are they still buried? Undiscovered in the bottom of the ocean? Or simply sitting on someone’s side board at home un-intentionally realising the value and history of the silver dishes.
During the 16th and 17th century collections of silver was usually associated with wealthy English families including the rich, royalty and the famous. Two specific purposes stood out, with one acting as an investment and the other being a way to boost family prestige and status. Formal events in the Elizabethan England would use these dishes; other purposes such as keeping food warm would be used by upturning smaller dishes to cover the larger dishes.
It’s 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 English dining silver. However throughout the Elizabethan era the dishes were often sold and melted down for cash or made into new fashionable, modern items back in the day.
Today, there have been slight changes to the reproductions of these dishes, including a less indented bottom of the dish and having the rims plain instead of inscribed with circles. Functions of these dishes today would be a lovely gift for a christening, engagement, wedding or anniversary or simply using slightly larger ones for presenting awards or as trophies.