This iron chest was made in Spain. It is fitted with a very secure locking system which made it ideal for storing valuables. It was probably brought to Waterford by a Spanish wine merchant many of whom were residing in the city in the early and mid 17th century.
This is one of the chests that was used to hide Ireland’s greatest treasure from the late medieval period, the magnificent cloth-of-gold vestments, following the fall of the city to the Cromwellian army in 1650.
Those who hid the vestments kept it a secret for the rest of their lives and never revealed their hiding place.
On the exuberantly engraved cover of the locking system inside the chest is a series of images of naked native South American women with spectacular plumed headdresses. This Spanish chest would have introduced the people of Waterford to these exotic people.
In the winter of 1649 the English general Oliver Cromwell arrived before the walls of Waterford and laid siege to the city which was under Catholic control. However he failed to capture Waterford - the only city Cromwell failed to take in Ireland since he had arrived in the country earlier that year. As the winter dragged on he was forced to break off the siege and retreat with his army. However the following summer his army was back at Waterford, this time led by his son-in-law General Henry Ireton. By this stage the defenders of Waterford were weakened by plague and short of food and munitions. They could mount only token resistance and the city finally fell to Ireton’s army.
The victorious soldiers pillaged and looted the city and most of the gold and silver cathedral treasures were discovered and melted down. However the magnificent 15th century cloth-of-gold vestments escaped destruction. They had been hidden away, locked in this and other chests and buried in a deep vault beneath Christchurch Cathedral.
Here they remained for a further 123 years until they were discovered when the medieval building was demolished in 1773 in order to build the present Church of Ireland Anglican cathedral. The bishop realised that these vestments dated to before the Reformation and in a gesture of goodwill he presented them to the Catholic dean at the time.
The Waterford cloth-of-gold vestments had survived destruction and this is the only complete set of medieval High Mass Vestments to survive anywhere in Northern Europe.