Weird and Wonderful

Henry VIII was well-known for his interest in technological innovation when it came to armour and weaponry, whether it was for personal use or for equipping his army. The sixteen gun shields which survive in the collections of the Royal Armouries are a prime example of his fascination with new or unusual developments. These shields formed part of a group of thirty-five such contraptions listed in the inventory made of Henry’s armoury after his death in 1547, which recorded them as ‘targets steilde wt gonnes’. They are thought to have been produced for the King by Giovanbattista of Ravenna around 1544. He may have supplied them complete, or possibly just the shields, in which case they would then have been fitted with guns in England.

All the surviving shields are of similar form. They are circular, measure approximately 50cm in diameter, and are fitted with breech-loading matchlock firearms which protrude either from the centre of the convex face, or slightly above the centre point. In most of the shields with centrally mounted guns, there is a small aperture covered by a grill, which must have been used for sighting and aiming. The main shield bodies were constructed from two layers of thin strips of wood, possibly oak, ash or elm. The bases were then edged and faced with iron or steel plates. Some of the shields have the remains of textile linings, which seem to have been woollen cloth covering a layer of tow or hemp fibre which acted as padding for the arm holding the shield. Leather straps provided attachments for the arm, and the guns were braced with an iron bracket.

Shield front and rear view

Shield front and rear view

A further inventory of the armoury in 1676 shows that over time, the number of gun shields had increased to sixty-six. To have been present in such numbers, they seem to have had some credibility as military weapons, even if this was short-lived. This theory is supported by the recovery of fragments of gun shields from the wreck of the Mary Rose, because it is unlikely that they would have been on board if they were not considered potentially useful for offensive and defensive purposes. There has been speculation that their presence on the Mary Rose meant that they were specifically intended for naval use. However, it seems more likely that they had been packed to be transported as part of the royal arsenal, because they were placed in storage in the ship’s orlop deck rather than positioned for immediate use as part of the ship’s armament.

These gun shields never experienced widespread usage. This was probably due to their unwieldy nature and the risk of injury to the face, eyes and hands from the blast of combustion gases when the guns were fired. However, the shields are of exceptional interest today because they provide an early example of breech-loading firearms which used pre-loaded iron cartridges tapered to match the taper of the breech of the gun. Firearms were becoming increasingly versatile in the sixteenth century, and gun shields provide an important indication of this.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Neigh-ly Done

Previously on the Royal Armouries blog we posted a story about an equine project our Conservation Team have been working on. This life-size papier-mache horse was created by the early 20th century craftsman Felix Joubert. The horse came up to Leeds from the Tower of London to undergo repair work earlier this year.

Repair work on the horse's ear

Repair work on the horse's ear

Since our initial report the Joubert horse is starting to look a little better after a lot of filling, sanding, consolidating and infill painting. His ear is firmly back in place and the damage to his neck, sides and legs have been stabilized and fixed.

The horse awaiting transportation to our Stores area

The horse awaiting transportation to our Stores area

Now it is only the tail which needs conserving, this in itself will be a big project as great care needs to be taken so as not to damage it any further.  In the meantime the horse will be stabled in our Stores area.

Blogger: Alex Cantrill, Conservator

Jeremy Hall – A Celebration

A celebration of the work of the Tower of London photographer 1967 – 1996

Jeremy Hall photographing objects in the Royal Armouries Collection

Jeremy Hall photographing objects in the Royal Armouries Collection

Jeremy Hall joined the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London in January 1967 and for the next 29 years he not only photographed the Royal Armouries’ Collections but also recorded life in the Tower of London. He worked between sites when the Royal Armouries moved to Leeds in 1996, before retiring to Shropshire.

Sadly Jeremy died on Sunday 12 June 2011. The Royal Armouries would like to take this opportunity to celebrate his work with a selection of his photographs chosen by his colleagues. The record of Tower scenes he left is unparalleled, and his skill in bringing out details of objects gave us all fresh insight into the collection.

Jeremy also captured general life at the Tower of London in his photographs

Jeremy also captured general life at the Tower of London in his photographs

Jeremy was a cornerstone of the Armouries team at a time of great change and expansion. He could be very critical of his work, but we hope that he would approve of our choices. You can see more examples of Jeremy’s work, as selected by his colleagues, on the Royal Armouries Flickr pages.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections (South) & Tower History

STEN – Now and Then

Mass-produced military firearms rarely survive with much of their service histories intact. At the Royal Armouries in Leeds we recently discovered an exception that has been hiding a lot of history – in plain sight – in the markings stamped and scratched into its metal body.

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

It is a rare type of Mk.II STEN made in 1943 using a new, cheaper, wrapped steel body. These were found to be faulty and were all recalled – just like a car would be today. This particular STEN survived because it had been supplied to South Africa and ended up in Cyprus sometime in the 1960s.

An explanation for this is that lots of young Greek men went to South Africa during the Second World War to fight with both the South African and the Greek armies, and the STEN must have left with them at the end of the war.

Mk.II STEN on the production line

Mk.II STEN on the production line at BSA assembly facility plant at Tysley, 1942

Having been cut and welded internally to prevent it firing, it was then purchased by the Royal Armouries and spent 17 years being used for education and live interpretation. We don’t normally collect deactivated firearms, you wouldn’t blunt a medieval sword after all, but we have now added this example to the permanent collection due to its rather interesting history.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Exploded Firearms

As a soldier it was, and still is, important to be familiar with your personal issued weapon in order to be able to keep it clean and keep it functioning correctly. Before multi-media learning aids the best way to learn about the functionality of a weapon was to take apart the real thing and mount it on a wooden board, much like a 3-D exploded diagram today.

Board

Webley Mk.I and II revolvers of 1895 and several devices called 'Morris Tubes'

Three boards in the Royal Armouries’ collection contain all of the separate components for several iconic British military firearms. The first shows the Magazine Lee-Metford Mk.II and Lee-Enfield Mk.I rifles, both introduced in 1895. The next board focuses upon the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield of 1903 and the Pattern 1907 bayonet. The last contains the Webley Mk.I and II revolvers of 1895 and several devices called ‘Morris Tubes’. These were designed to allow military rifles in .450 .303 calibre to fire cheaper small-bore .22 rimfire ammunition for training purposes. All of these are pre-First World War, though versions of the SMLE and Webley revolver were standard issue right through to the Second World War.

Rifle board

Short Magazine Lee-Enfield of 1903 and the Pattern 1907 bayonet

We don’t know for sure where these particular boards originated but they were made to instruct soldiers and officers in the component parts of their issued weapons and would have been hung on the wall of a classroom in one of the army’s training establishments.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Collections Up Close September

An unusual item in the Royal Armouries collection is a horse’s hoof that has been made into a presentation box. The hoof is mounted with a horseshoe and fetlock-shaped lid in silver gilt. The hoof came from ‘Prodigy’, a horse ridden during the Crimean War (1853–56).

The lid of the box is engraved describing Prodigy’s exploits:

The near hind hoof of Prodigy a Bay Charger who was present at the battle of Alma Sept 20. ridden during the flank march and cavalry affair at Khutor MacKenzie September 25 and taking of Balaklava the following day also for several hours at the Battles of Balaklava Octr. 25 and Inkermann Novr. 5 1854 present in the trenches before Sevastopol June 18 1855

Hoof Presentation Box

Hoof Presentation Box

Inside the lid reads:

Prodigy received a contused wound on hind quarters from piece of shell at taking of Balaklava died and was buried in the Cavalry Barrack Yard, Norwich Decr. 1861 aged 13 years

Prodigy’s rider was Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Somerset J. G. Calthorpe. Calthorpe was nephew and aide-de-camp to Lord Raglan. His ‘Letters from Headquarters’ written during the Crimean War were published in December 1856.

Our Leeds Museum also houses a presentation sword belonging to Calthorpe, which is on display in the War Gallery. The sword was made by Charles Reeves of Birmingham and is dated 1855.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Mysteries of the Horned Helmet

One of the most mysterious objects in the Royal Armouries’ collection is the ‘Horned Helmet’, made for Henry VIII. It formed part of a magnificent armour, commissioned in 1511 by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I as a gift for the young king, who would have worn the armour for court pageants rather than in combat.

The Horned Helmet

The Horned Helmet

The decoration on the grotesque mask is etched, with life-like facial details even down to the stubble on the chin and crow’s feet around the eyes, and there is a pronounced drip beneath the nose. The mask is complete with a pair of spectacles, which heighten further the strangeness of this helmet. A pair of ram’s horns, beautifully modeled in sheet iron, complete this extraordinary piece and make it so remarkable that it was chosen as the object to represent the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds when it first opened in 1996.

Research into the identification of the source which inspired the mask of the Horned Helmet is continuing, but the copper alloy (possibly originally gilded) spectacles were never fitted with lenses. It is believed that the spectacles form part of the identity of a ‘fool’, a figure commonly found in late 15th- and early 16th-century imagery, suggesting that everyone, however noble or lowly, has elements of foolishness in their character.

Details of the Horned Helmet

Details of the Horned Helmet

A number of images of fools exist which show them wearing or carrying spectacles of this kind. The spectacles themselves are of so-called ‘rivet’ type, an almost universal design which hinged in order that they might grip the bridge of the wearer’s nose. Spectacles of this type are known in Europe from at least the middle of the 14th century.

Work on the iconography of the mask of the Horned Helmet continues, but there is increasing support for the view that it is that of a fool and that the spectacles are entirely a part of the representation of such a grotesque figure. An explanation for the presence of the horns, which at the time the helmet was made were usually the sign of a cuckold or of the Devil, also has to be finally established. Currently opinion is that it may not have been thought appropriate to fit horns to a helmet which was to be given to the King of England.

Blogger: Graeme Rimer, Academic Director