It’s simply ages ago that I last visited the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds – way back in the time I used to head up Communications at the now defunct ‘Yorkshire Electricity’. It opened in 1996 and YE was one of the companies that sponsored the building when the display moved from its previous storage in the Tower of London, where the Royal Armouries still maintains a presence in the White Tower.
I was recently back in Yorkshire for a month waiting for my visa application to be processed prior to coming out again to China, when one day my son and his GF suggested a revisit. With entrance to the museum free, and it being a particularly nice (but cold) day, the suggestion was a bit of a no-brainer… of course I would be delighted!
So we met up at Leeds bus station and together headed off to 53.791866°N 1.532258°W which, BTW, is at Clarence Dock, situated close to the city centre on the banks of the River Aire.
The Royal Armouries is one of those ancient institutions that was originally engaged in the manufacture of armour for the Kings of England. In 1545, it is recorded that a visiting foreign dignitary actually paid to view the collection at the Armoury (they didn’t have such an enlightened government in those days to ensure that UK museums were free, unlike nowadays); and by the time of Charles II, there was a permanent public display there. So I guess that early Royal Armoury can be counted as the very first museum in Britain.
Designed by architect Derek Walker, this modern Museum was originally scheduled to be in Meadowhall, Sheffield. But in 1991 Leeds was chosen instead for the venue and £42.5m was raised from both the public and private sectors. In March 1996 it was finally opened by HM the Q.
And here’s a little Trivial Pursuit piece of useless knowledge: Did you know the museum is actually mentioned in the Kaiser Chiefs song ‘Team Mate’, from the band’s début album, ‘Employment’? No, neither did I. I mean… wow!
The Royal Armouries collection actually consists of some 70,000 examples of arms, armour and artillery dating from antiquity to the present day, including royal armours of the Tudor and Stuart kings; arms and armour of the English Civil Wars; British and foreign military weapons; hunting and sporting weapons, as well as a small collection of fine and decorative arts, paintings, sculptures, antique prints and drawings, early photographs, stereoscopes and lantern slides.
It’s divided into five galleries: War, Tournament, Oriental, Self Defence and Hunting, and until recently the Museum used live presentations in addition to the static displays to explain the collection; but as is so often the way in Britain these days, funding cuts put an end to much of the live stuff .
Anyway, once you get to the Museum you simply cannot escape the unusual logo that is found everywhere – on the tops of poles, on posters, on stickers … just everywhere. Read on to find out WTF it’s all about!
The building of the Royal Armouries Museum was actually designed from the inside out – a bit like Batman and his underpants, if you get my drift! They started by determining the heights of the ceilings (have you ever tried carrying a full length pikestaff in a normal sized room?) and the size of the lifts (likewise!) and then wrapped a building around the space.
And then they simply popped a whole load of collections into the building, starting with five galleries which house 5,000 of those 70,000 objects in permanent displays. Covering Ancient and Medieval warfare, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries weapons; hunting around the world; oriental weapons; arms and armour dedicated to jousting; self defence… it has everything. In fact you name it, if it has anything to do with weaponry, there’s a good chance you will find it here.
In the summer months there’s even a jousting and sporting arms area, known as the Arena in which two important jousting contests are still held each year with competitors coming from all over the world.
But the sight that has everyone reaching for their cameras (before they realise that their lenses aren’t wide-angled enough!) is the amazing Hall of Steel – a collection of swords and shields that decorate the main giant staircase whose walls are covered with trophy displays composed of 2,500 objects reminiscent of the historical trophy displays erected by the Tower Armouries from the 17th century.
One thing that you see everyone puzzling over when they first enter the building is which direction to go in. Having visited many museums in China where you are steered through galleries as if you were shuffling your way through an IKEA store, here it is just … well, random. Even the galleries don’t really seem to lead on one from the next. But in a way that very lack of planning seems to work really well here.
Step out of the lift on the second floor and you are confronted by a jousting knight on horseback…
And if you mosey round the corner to the café (or are desperate for a loo break!) there are some rather nice jousting pictures adorning the walls there.
For me, one of the most impressive halls was the one dedicated to eastern armour. Take this reproduction of a horse and rider from the tomb of Shihuangdi in China around 210BC, for instance.
The 3000 terracotta warriors gave a great insight into the military equipment of China at a time when it was adapting from a long period of internal wars to one in which it was engaged against the cavalry armours of the eastern steppe – mainly Xiongnu, known as the Huns. In contrast to nomad cavalry, these very early Chinese cavalry were armed with crossbows in an attempt at using powerful long range weapons to combat the composite bows of the Huns. They also wore armour of laced plate, probably made of bronze.
The Japanese collection is no less impressive. From the Late Heian to the Kamakura period (AD897 - 1392) Japanese armies were organised around armoured horse archers supported by mobile auxiliary infantry. The mounted samurai used longbows (called yumi) as their primary weapon. This Japanese longbow was made of bamboo and mulberry wood and in the 10th century the length of the stave was fixed at 2.2 metres. A special leather glove with a reinforced thumb was worn on the right hand.
Further to the west, elephants played a significant part in warfare from as early as 1000BC until the 19th century. Mainly used in India and SE Asia (but occasionally also in western Asia, north Africa, and even Spain and Italy) they were valued for their strength, intelligence and ability to be trained. Their main role was as fighting animals but of course they were also used to move heavy loads. They could also wield swords attached to their tusks – reminiscent I always think of the knives attached to the feet of cockerels in traditional cock fighting.
Take a look at this Indian Mughal armour worn about 1600 and purchased by the Tower Armouries in 1833. The armour was known as ‘bargustawan-i-pil’; and this is the only example of an almost complete elephant armour in any public collection in the world. It is made of mail and plate and was originally formed of eight panels – three either side of the body and one each for the head and throat. It weighs in at 118kg but the original complete armour would have weighed around 160kg (so it is unlikely you would have got it into your baggage allocation, when returning home on leave, even if you flew first class). It was probably made in northern India in the late 16th or early 17th century.
While we’re in the region of the sub continent, let’s take a quick butchers’ at some daggers from Lahore from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were called katar…
And continuing the daggers theme, there’s a particularly nasty collection of flick knives and knuckle dusters that you might have come across walking the back streets of the ‘Smoke’ in days gone by…
One thing the museum has in abundance – apart from all the swords, that is – are guns. Here is a kolibri which is one of the smallest working pistols ever made. It fires a bullet of only 2.7mm calibre and holds five rounds. They say it would only be dangerous at very close range, though I’m still not sure I’d like to be on the receiving end of it!
There’s also a Walther Model PPK first manufactured in 1931. This 7.65mm police pistol was designed to be easily concealed. You’ll no doubt remember that James Bond was first issued with one in ‘Dr No’ as a replacement for his Beretta .25 – also shown – which was manufactured in Italy from 1920, and was Bond's favourite pistol in the first five books.
The museum has obviously thought long and hard as to how it can make the entire subject of arms and armour appealing to the masses; and in the main they have succeeded very well. As well as a James Bond display, there are also examples of, for instance, the Thompson sub machine gun which was made from 1928 and is forever linked in the public’s mind with American prohibition in the 1920s. The Thompson was used in the St Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, and, of course, in the blockbuster film Bonnie and Clyde.
Something I wasn’t expecting, but is an eye catcher in its own right, is a complete do-it-yourself anti-vampire kit! Complete protection against the undead. LOL! If traditional garlic and stakes don’t work, no worries! There’s a pistol included which is apparently also effective against vampires. More than 80 of these kits were actually produced! Yes, some people really did believe in vampires! As Bram Stoker wrote in his 1897 epic Dracula: "The branch of wild rose on his coffin keep him that he move not from it; a sacred bullet fired into the coffin kill him so that he be true dead; and as for the stake through him we know already of its peace; or the cut off head that giveth rest. We have seen it with our eyes.”
The first such kit was recorded only in 1986, however. It consisted of a hardwood box containing a Belgian percussion pocket pistol (about 1850), 4 wooden stakes with mallet, crucifix, bottled garlic, holy water and holy earth, a Book of Common Prayer (1851), rosary beads and a handwritten verse from St Luke's gospel.
And while we’re on the subject of fantasy – and returning to the Hollywood theme for a moment – there’s even a display of swords used in Middle Earth – or Hobbit land to you and me!
I mentioned earlier on that the weapons on display weren’t just for armed combat. There are also loads of hunting implements of destruction for instance; such as this whaling harpoon gun…
And ever the provider of gosh-well-I-never-knew-that-facts, the museum tell us that in 1826 in the port city of Hull the numbers of traders who used parts of whales in their products included 10 brush makers, 6 soap manufactures, 2 whalebone cutters, 1 bristle merchant, 16 tallow chandlers, 7 bone merchants, 3 comb makers, 8 stay makers, 7 button mould makers, 8 furriers, 6 umbrella makers, and 14 oil merchants. So maybe the Brits shouldn’t appear so self righteous when castigating other nations for their little bit of whale hunting!
In fact we ultra-clean Brits only developed our use of soap in the 18th century as a direct result of whale hunting making soap much more cheaply available. Whale oil was also used for domestic lamps until the discovery of petroleum in 1859. In the 1740s 5,000 street lamps using whale oil were installed in London and were used until the introduction of coal gas lighting!
Had enough of killing whales? OK how about slaughtering the odd tiger or two? Here’s a photo of the Nizam of Hyderabad and his entourage during a tiger hunt in about 1890…
There was even a gun especially designed for killing waterfowl from the safety of a long narrow boat as it sailed over the broads. Looks jolly uncomfortable to me and I can only imagine the bird killers suffered awful back ache by the time they returned home in the evening carrying their clutch of birds.
But by now we have turned yet another corner and arrived back in the oriental gallery, albeit a floor higher than before. In front of us is some mail and plate coat from the Philippines. Known as ‘baju lamina’ this Moro 19th century mail was made entirely of brass, with its plates joined by butted mail and with silver fittings. In form it closely resembles the armours worm throughout the Islamic world from the 14th to 17th centuries.
Across the way is a glass case stuffed full of Japanese small swords from the late 18th century. They were probably produced in a factory in Deshima for export to Europe. The hilts are made of gilt copper.
I mentioned earlier on that the height of the ceilings had been so planned to allow for pike-carrying museum staff; but there is also ample space for horses which the museum has in abundance … well, that’s to say models of horses!
Horses, of course, played vital roles in both battles and in hunting. They needed protection in battle and sport just like their riders and their armour would include a ‘shaffron’ to cover the head, a ‘crinet’ over the neck, and plates of metal called ‘barding' to protect the body.
And in this museum, wherever there is a horse standing idly about, you can guarantee that there will also be a knight of the realm showing off his armour. Take these examples of cuirassier armour from Holland about 1630. The gilt fittings have been punched in with incised decorations and they still bear traces of gilding. It is possible some of this armour was made for the accession of King Charles II in the 1660s.
As for this next one – it is widely regarded as one of the finest armours to be found in the world. It has spectacular decoration featuring twelve embossed lions' heads and was no doubt used for tournaments or parades at court events.
Fashionable Tudor knights wanted to look their very best to impress everyone how rich and powerful they were. It is said that members of court could tell at a glance who made your armour and whether it was the latest fashion. A knight could choose a style and decoration from a pattern book, and could even have matching armour made for his horse!
As Giorgio Armani once said "The difference between style and fashion is quality!"
And at last we come to the most iconic of all the museum’s items… The horned helmet, made by one of the finest armourers of the early 16th century. Konrad Seusenhofer of Innsbruck was court armourer to Maximilian 1st, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Maximilian presented a suit of armour – of which only this helmet remains – to King Henry VIII in 1514. The mask has wide set eyes, a stubbly chin, a pair of spectacles and a large hooked nose which is dripping! It is believed that the face is that of a court jester. The rams horns may have been added at a later date to exaggerate the strange appearance of the helmet.
It was chosen as the symbol of the Royal Armouries not only because of its association with Henry VIII but also because of its extraordinary appearance.
So there you have it. The Royal Armouries is a great day out. If you thought going to a museum could be dull, then think again. Sure, there are only so many swords / guns / suits of armour / horses’ backsides that you can take in at any one go, before you start feeling that you’ve seen them all!
But if ever you get up to the northern wastes of Yorkshire, you’d be well advised to put some time aside to visit. And with free entrance, it certainly provides great value for money!