Royal Armouries to publish oldest known fencing manual in Western World

Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 is the oldest known fencing manual in the Western world.

In this Olympic year it is being lent for exhibition to The Wallace Collection in London.

The Royal Armouries have taken this opportunity to rebind the manuscript and
while it is unbound to photograph it so that a unique full scale colour facsimile can be published.

The Royal Armouries have teamed up with specialist publishers Extraordinary Editions who have designed a replica early 14th-century binding for the facsimile, which will be packaged in a solander box along with a companion volume and feature a page by page transcription and translation as well as a new introduction by Dr Jeffrey Forgeng of the Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Mass.

MS I.33 will be published as a limited edition and in order to fund the project a limited number of subscriber copies will be made available at £600 [plus postage and packing]. Remaining copies will cost considerably more.

If wish to register for a copy of I.33 please e-mail mm@extraordinaryeditions.com as soon as possible.

The first 25 copies have already been reserved.

Medieval manuscript illustrations of sword fencing

Royal Armouries MS I.33 – the oldest known fencing manual in the Western World

Here be Dragons

Today (Monday, January 23) sees the coming of the Year of the Dragon, and any Chinese Dragon stopping off to visit London’s sights might care to look up some of his occidental relatives among the exhibits in the Royal Armouries’ galleries at the Tower of London.

Henry Tudor – On entering the White Tower, Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour (II.5; VI.1-5) sports dragons on both the man’s and horse’s harness. Unfortunately both are being vanquished by St George – the one on the breast plate by George on foot; the other on the chest of the horse armour appropriately enough by the saint mounted.

Engraving of St George and the dragon

Engraving of St. George slaying the dragon on the horse armour of Henry VIII

Agincourt – Hurrying onwards, the first floor contains a veritable flight of dragons. Perhaps the most obvious – and certainly the oldest – are squeezed onto inlaid decorative plaques on the saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon (VI.95). Those joining the order founded by King Sigismund of Hungary in 1408, were presented with a sword and saddle. Indeed this may be the saddle given to Henry V of Agincourt fame in 1416.

Decorated saddle

Saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon possibly presented to King Henry V

Charles I – Continuing the Royal association, the case opposite the Gothic dragons of the 15th century holds the tiny 17th century armour (II.126) possibly associated with Charles I as a child. A spitting dragon crouches on top of the helmet, its tail curling down to the back of the neck. If you look carefully, the helmet surface is scaled, and a fearsome monster frames the wearer’s face, with growling companions adorning the pauldrons or shoulder pieces. At only 95 cm tall, this is still something of mystery armour. 18th century visitors were told that it had belonged to Richard, Duke of York – brother of the uncrowned Edward V persuaded into the Tower for security in 1485 and never seen alive again. By the 19th century, the armour was more accurately dated but attributed to Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf to the court of Charles I.

Dragon in steel on top of helmet

Dragon perched on the helmet of the armour possibly belonging to Charles I

More dragons – Darting back in time, the World Treasures’ case contains a roaring dragon’s head (VI.319). Made by the German armourer Kunz Lochner in about 1550, it was designed as part of a crupper fitting along the horse’s back, with the tail flowing from between its jaws. Today the rest of the dragon rests in Poland.

Dragon shaped decoration for a horses tail

Part of a horse’s armour for protecting the tail

Passing around the end of the case, and along the side of the main case to the displays of the Great Collectors, another dragon lurks, clinging to the side of a German horse muzzle dated 1569 (VI.400) . The fashion for such things was short-lived from the end of the 16th to the early 17th century, but they remain popular among collectors and this example was bequeathed to the museum by Dr Richard Williams in 1974.

Horse muzzle

Pierced steel horse muzzle decorated with dragons

The beasties decorating the sides of the wheellock pistols (XII.1250/1) slightly further along may be related to the wider dragon family, but only distantly.

pistol with dragon decoration

Detail of decoration which may be a stylised form of dragon

Power House – However, the most impressive of the White Tower dragons welcomes visitors to the Power House display on the top floor – a fitting reward for toiling up so many twisty stairs. Its body is formed from elements of all the Tower institutions celebrated in the wider gallery – from weapons of the Ordnance to coins from the Mint and much else between – it greets you with a dragon-like roar if you pass by its far side.

Dragon constructed from arms, armour, maps, coins and guns.

Impressive – 4m high, 3.5m long with a wing span of 5m and weighing 1200 Kg!

New displays – Finally on the way out, lurking in the shadows under the staircase in the Basement but moving to a more prominent position in the coming redisplay of the area, are a pair of Burmese dragons. Fabulously moustached, they sit atop a bronze bell (XVIII.19) dated 1797 and presented in 1874 by the Constable of the Tower Field Marshal Sir William Gomm, previously Commander-in Chief of British forces in India from 1850 – 1855.

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

The new displays open at the beginning of April, and this pair provides a fitting celebration of the Year of the Dragon.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections South, Tower of London

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…

One of the most popular symbols of the festive season is the Christmas tree, with its familiar fir-tree shape. Interestingly, the blades of three 16th-century Italian partizans in the Armouries’ collection all have a design in pointillé decoration which distinctly resembles this same recognisable outline of a fir tree. There is no evidence that this is what the design was actually intended to represent, but the similarity is striking. The outline of the staggered branches is depicted in small punched dots around the medial ridges of the blades.

Christmas tree partizan close up

Christmas tree partizan close up

Partizans were amongst a variety of European two-handed staff weapons that developed and experienced widespread usage in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time, foot soldiers became increasingly important on the battlefield, and infantry militias from Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands successfully fought against armies of mounted knights. These three partizans were part of the group of staff weapons that were imported from Italy by King Henry VIII, and formed part of his arsenal. Their long ‘ox-tongue’ type blades have a spear point and projecting, upturned lugs at the base. They are mounted on wooden shafts which are approximately nine feet (nearly three metres) long.

Christmas tree partizan

Christmas tree partizan

By the 17th century, the manufacture of partizans and their practical use as battlefield weapons was declining, but they continued to have a role as ceremonial weapons associated with military rank. For this purpose the blades were often shortened and highly ornamented. In this guise they came to be known as ‘spontons’ or ‘spontoons’.

The decoration on these particular partizans is not especially elaborate though, which may suggest that they were intended to be more functional than ornamental. The design on the blades seems immediately familiar to contemporary audiences as the outline of a fir tree, but why it was used is an intriguing question to which we cannot yet provide an answer. Was it simply a popular decorative motif for this type of weapon, or did it possess a greater symbolic meaning than we realise? It is unlikely to be a reference to a Christmas tree as we would understand it, because when these partizans were made in the 16th century, the custom of the Christmas tree was not well established outside Northern Germany; the rest of Europe only embraced the tradition a few centuries later.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Christmas Box

At Christmas 1914, the teenage Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, wanted to send a ‘gift from the Nation’ to all who were away from home for Christmas, fighting for our freedom. An advertisement in the national press invited contributions for a ‘Sailors & Soldiers Christmas Fund’.  Following a generous response from the public, the money was used to produce an embossed brass box, with various contents for the recipients.

The standard contents were 1oz of tobacco and 20 cigarettes, with a separate pipe and lighter. Non-smokers were alternatively offered a bullet pencil, writing paper and sweets.  Spices and sweets were provided for Indian troops, and chocolate for nurses. Most boxes also contained a Christmas card and a small photograph of Princess Mary.

The fund stayed open until 1920, and over 2.5 million boxes were delivered. Many of these survive, including one on display on the War gallery mezzanine, on loan from ex-senior curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries, Martin Pegler.

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

Martin writes:

In the 1980’s my wife and I were interviewing WW1 veterans. [We were given the tin by] Albert Edward Lee, though he was universally known as ‘Nick.’ He had been in the Machine Gun Corps in 1915, then was transferred to the Tank Corps in 1916. I don’t recall what regiment he served in prior to 1915, but do recall him saying that then he was a non-smoker and teetotal, so he never used the tin, and sent it home as a souvenir. Oddly, he became a confirmed pipe-smoker later in life, and always had a pipe puffing away when we visited him.

Nick Lee

Nick Lee

He won the Military Medal in 1916 with the tanks, was badly gassed in 1917, invalided out of the war, and told he had two years to live. So he became a medical experiment and lived in the open for three years, in his parents back garden in a sort of garden shed with only three walls. His lungs began to heal, and when we met him he was a robust 80-ish, and laughed at having outlived all the doctors who said he’d never survive!

The Christmas boxes for troops were revived in 2004 by the charity ‘uk4u thanks’! http://www.uk4u.org/charity

Trench biscuit

Trench biscuit

Very nearby in the gallery can also be seen a hardtack biscuit also on loan from Martin Pegler, inscribed ‘SOLDIER’S TRENCH biscuit, 1915, FRANCE, European WAR’. Renowned for being tooth-breakingly hard, in almost 100 years no one was desperate enough to eat it!

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Bite the Bullet

In 1857 native soldiers of the Indian Army rose up against the British Empire in what became known as the Indian Mutiny. It’s often said that the cause of this unrest was the paper cartridge issued for use with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. These were greased at one end to lubricate the bullet, which had to be pushed down the barrel from the muzzle end for loading. In order to open the cartridge, soldiers were instructed to tear it with their teeth, resulting in the ingestion of some of the grease. Rumours spread that this grease was derived from pig fat, forbidden to Muslims, or from cows, which would be a serious issue for Hindus. Moreover, the rumours suggested that this was a deliberate practice intended to degrade and even to force conversion to Christianity.

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P'53 rifle, containing a lead 'Minié syle bullet

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P’53 rifle, containing a lead ‘Minié syle bullet

In fact, the causes and background to the mutiny were rather more complicated than this, but historians agree the cartridge rumours were one of the main triggers or tipping points for the mutiny. Some have disputed the claim of pig and/or cow fat, but although it is clear that their use was not intentional, both types of grease were indeed used on the cartridges. Although many officers in India recognised this serious oversight and attempted to address it, the offence and concern had already been caused. The result was widespread violence, bloodily put down by the Imperial authorities, with ringleaders being ‘blown from guns’, or tied to the muzzle of cannon which were then fired.

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic 'V' notch

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic ‘V’ notch

One less obvious result of the mutiny was the introduction of a new pattern of arm. Though it outwardly resembled the Enfield rifle, the rifling lands and grooves themselves were machined away, and a much more basic rear sight fitted. These new Pattern 1858 and 1859 smoothbore muskets effectively put ‘Brown Bess’ back in the hands of Indian troops. This was a deliberate attempt to limit the effectiveness of any future uprising, as they would be much less effective at range, and make the targeting of officers far more difficult.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Weird and Wonderful

Though it looks like something out of a video game with its twin bayonets, this is a real gun. It is the Sterling S11 sub-machine gun, designed in 1965 as a follow-up to the classic Sterling Mk.4/L2A3 of the 1950s (the latter of which doubled as the Stormtrooper’s blasters in ‘Star Wars’). It was meant to compete with the then-new and now famous Heckler & Koch MP5, and took a few design cues from the equally well-known Israeli Uzi.

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Due to falling sales of sub-machine guns in general and to reliability problems with the gun, only one example was ever made; ‘EXP 001′. This was presented to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room in 1989 and came to the Royal Armouries with the accession of that collection in 2005.

Why two bayonets? One is of the type fitted to the SLR rifle and the other for the previous Sterling SMG. We can’t be sure why the S11 was fitted for both; the trouble Sterling went to suggests that it was intended to give export customers a choice. We can be certain of one thing however; you would never have used both at the same time!

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Collections Up Close – Remembrance Special

The Royal Armouries Archives contain a collection of letters between Jack and Gert Adam, written during the First World War. The letters poignantly show their loving and often humorous relationship, including letters from their three young children. However, in August 1918 Gert’s letters to Jack, posted overseas to France, began to be returned unopened and the remainder of the letters reveal Gert’s endeavours to find out exactly what happened her husband, who never returned. Official records of the war, photographs and War Office correspondence surrounding the events reveal the true impact of war on his wife and family back in Doncaster, an experience undoubtedly shared by thousands of families at this time.

Jack and Gert Adams

Jack and Gert Adams

The letters have their own remarkable story, after being purchased form a house sale by the Museum in 2006 they were written into a play performed at the Royal Armouries. One day an audience member recognised the names and it transpired the family were living in the area. Once in touch the family were relieved the letters had been found as they had been accidentally lost during a house move. Later, in 2009, the family found a further collection of letters between Jack and Gert and kindly donated them to the Museum to be kept with the rest of the collection.

A short film about these archives can be found here on YouTube, the film was previously shown by the BBC for Remembrance in Trafalgar Square.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Movember

In celebration of Movember, an increasingly popular annual celebration of gents growing moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues, this is a fine opportunity to examine a very unusual moustached helmet in the Royal Armouries collection.

When given a chance to graffiti art, many people’s immediate reaction is to draw on a moustache, as the ultimate disrespectful gesture, however this 16th-century German helmet is already decorated with a marvellous twisted moustache. It is a virtuoso example of metal-working: the moustache and nose were not attached but made as one with the visor, using the art of embossing, or drawing and raising steel. Enough metal had to be allowed for the moustache to be drawn evenly out of a single plate, then twisted and folded back underneath the nose.

Moustached helmet

Moustached helmet

Slightly later in date than the famous horned helmet displayed nearby in the Tournament Gallery this helmet was also for use in the parade, as part of a costume for special occasions, and may represent a specific character from a play or masquerade. However the moustached helmet differs in also having a practical barred visor underneath the decorative outer visor for use in the tourney, when groups of mounted knights charged at each other. The moustached visor could have been easily removed or even replaced by another more conventional visor. It is also possible that combat may have also taken place whilst wearing the grotesque masks, to great comic effect.

Helmet with moustached visor removed

Helmet with moustached visor removed

A third grotesque parade helmet, which currently resides in our stores, has a comical feline face, with pierced fan-shaped steel wings attached by the visor pivots. Metallurgic analysis found the steel to be very low in carbon and to be very soft, so of little use in a combat situation.

Feline armet

Feline armet

So like platform trainers or costumed marathon-runners today, the boundaries are blurred between fashion, practicality and entertainment. Those who could afford it would commission spectacular creations to show their individuality, or questionable generosity when giving diplomatic gifts. I just wish we could rediscover the original sources for these fantastic characters, and see if the jokes are still funny today. I think they probably would be.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Feuerwerkbuch – Book of Fireworks

With bonfire night approaching a topical object in the Royal Armouries collections is a 15th-century  German manuscript called Feuerwerkbuch, or the Book of Fireworks, a reference book for gunpowder manufacturers and those who work with making fire or explosions.

Detail from folio 84r – Two besiegers bravely hold early handguns, while barrels of incendiary material fall around them.

Detail from folio 84r – Two besiegers bravely hold early handguns, while barrels of incendiary material fall around them.

Our manuscript is one of about 50 existing versions, probably copied by apprentices from their master’s original document, each adding their own recipes and observations throughout their working lives.

The oldest section of the text (c.1380) is structured in 12 questions and answers about how a stone ball is fired from a Steinbüchse gun using a new type of gunpowder manually compressed into pellets. This is followed by a mythologised account of the invention of gunpowder by the (probably legendary) alchemist, Berthold Schwarz.

A list of the qualities and abilities of a good master gunner includes: God fearing, restrained and reliable, always calm, and never intoxicated. Literate, numerate, knowledgeable about weights and measures. Familiar with siege warfare against fortresses and walled places, including knowledge of ‘fire cats, fire shields, fire eyes.’

folio 86r The Master gunner (identified by his red leggings and feathered cap) calmly directs a canon and fire-arrows towards a besieged town or fortification.

Folio 86r The Master gunner (identified by his red leggings and feathered cap) calmly directs a canon and fire-arrows towards a besieged town or fortification.

The manuscript includes instructions on growing and purifying saltpetre, and the various proportions of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal needed to create gunpowder with different strengths of explosion. Using pre-scientific alchemical techniques and beliefs, concepts such as gases, crystals, precipitate and temperature were as yet undefined. Instead there are references to vapours, frost, and boiling ‘to the same extent that one cooks fish’.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

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