This sturdy ox hide coat—essentially 17th-century body armor—probably was made in England in the 1640s and was worn in battle by John Leverett (1616-1679) during the English Civil War and then, according to family tradition, during military service in New England.
Buff coats were made to be worn under armor (breast and back plates), but, over time, became the principal protection of both cavalrymen and foot soldiers. A buff coat was made from thick ox hide panels sewn together (the Leverett coat is made up of 14 separate quarter-inch-thick pieces). The skirting consists of free-floating panels that would extend over the hips and upper legs of a rider, or allow greater mobility for a soldier on foot. Material was removed from the inner arms of the coat to make them flexible; undersleeves and heavy gauntlets would provide more protection for the wearer’s arms and hands. John Leverett’s coat bears the signs of heavy use and contains both cuts and bloodstains, so he appears to have been wounded while wearing it.
A portrait of Leverett at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, shows him attired in his coat and related gear, but in the painting the coat is closed with a wide sword belt and both fastened and decorated with a row of elegant silver clasps (now all missing, although a belt loop and the marks of pins used to attach the clasps remain).
The coat was given to the MHS by another John Leverett, a descendant of the original owner, in 1803. A brief, but helpful video conveys close-up details of the coat..
John Leverett was born in Boston, England, in 1616, the son of Thomas and Anne Fisher Leverett, parishioners at the church of the celebrated Puritan minister, John Cotton. John immigrated to Massachusetts Bay in 1633 with his parents who followed Rev. Cotton to America, and settled in the “new” Boston, named for his place of birth in England. Here he met and in 1639 married Hannah Hudson, another recent immigrant. They had four children. After Hannah’s death in 1646, John Leverett married Sarah Sedgwick and they had fourteen children although only seven of his combined eighteen children survived to adulthood.
In Boston, Leverett became a merchant, but he devoted much of his time and energy to public and military affairs. He returned to his mother country to serve as a cavalry officer in the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, returning to Massachusetts in 1648. In 1651 he was elected to represent Boston in the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature). On behalf of the colony, he made a second trip to England in 1653 seeking aid in the war against the Dutch. He later served in military operations against the Dutch and then against the French in Maine and Canada—receiving personal instructions on at least one occasion directly from Oliver Cromwell—before being sent back to England yet again as the colonial agent for Massachusetts.
Leverett returned to Massachusetts for the last time in 1662 and held increasingly important government and military positions. He was a major general in the colonial military forces, speaker of the colonial legislature; selected deputy governor in 1671 and then elected governor in 1673, a post he held until his death in 1679.
John Leverett’s coat is currently on display as part of the MHS’s Fashioning the New England Family exhibition. Historians of fashion note that what people choose to wear says much about the personality, interests, position, and beliefs of the wearer, but over time the “coded messages” in the attire of the past becomes harder for present-day observers to read. Fashioning the New England Family uncovers stories, including those of John and Hannah Leverett, as told by various examples of clothing, fabric, accoutrements, and associated manuscripts from the MHS’s collections, together with artifacts borrowed for the exhibition that continues through 6 April 2019, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
Alexander, Kimberly. "Roundtable: Fashioning the 17th Century in Boston: John and Hannah Leverett." The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, 11 Feb. 2017.
Cromwell, Oliver. "Letter to Captain John Leverett." Printed in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (3rd Ser., Vol. 7, 1838), 122.
The Protector’s personal instructions to Leverett about military posts seized from the French.
Leverett, Charles K. A Memoir, Biographical and Genealogical, of Sir John Leverett, Knt., Governor of Massachusetts, 1673-1679. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1856.
While Charles Leverett gathered much useful information about the life and career of John Leverett, his claim that "Sir John" was a knight was challenged by Charles Tuttle in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register: "Was Gov. Leverett a Knight?" (Vol. 35, 1881, 272-275). Tuttle's argument was supported by the review by the Society's Committee on Heraldry, (Vol. 35) 345-356.
Trent, Robert F. "Arms and Armor." New England Begins. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982. Vol. 1, 53-65.
Robert Trent’s description of arms and armor in early New England includes a description of the Leverett buff coat (item no. 46) that was included in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' landmark exhibition New England Begins in 1982.