Weird and Wonderful Halloween

This rather gruesome painted iron mask is from the 17th/18th centuries. It is made of three plates, roughly constructed with openings for the eyes, nostrils and mouth. In the nineteenth century, it was displayed at the Tower alongside a block and axe as an executioner’s mask. However, it is unlikely that an executioner would have worn an iron mask like this.

Executioner's Mask

'Executioner's' Mask

The more probable explanation is that it was once part of a ‘scold’s bridle’ or brank, which were devices used in the punishment of men and women for minor offences. Their most popular use is said to have been to punish scolds or gossips. They usually consisted of a form of muzzle in a metal framework, designed to effectively and painfully prevent the wearer from talking, and shame them in public by making them conspicuous. The 18th-century example shown here came from England or Scotland. It comprises an iron frame for the head which was padlocked in place at the back, and a serrated iron tongue for insertion into the mouth.

Scald's bridle

Scold's bridle

It is doubtful that branks were used at the Tower as instruments of torture and punishment; it seems more likely that they were acquired to augment and enhance the historic collection.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Collections Up Close October

This Halloween many people will be carving lanterns from pumpkins, a long-standing Halloween tradition. We’ve even had a go at making our own bespoke Royal Armouries pumpkin!

Royal Armouries pumpkin

Royal Armouries pumpkin

Meanwhile in our collection on display on the First Floor of the White Tower at the Tower of London is a shield fitted with a lantern. The shield, or buckler, is Italian and dates to around 1550, and the lantern, added later, dates from about 1600. A lantern fitted to a shield would be very useful when walking in the narrow unlit streets of an Italian city at night. It could also possibly be used to dazzle an opponent in a duel. In The School of Fencing first printed in 1763, sword master Domenico Angelo gives instructions on defending against an opponent with a sword and ‘dark lanthorn’.

Shield lantern

Shield lantern

The shield is 56.5 cm (22.25 inches) across and is made of wood covered on both sides with canvas coated with gesso (the white mineral gypsum used as a ground or preparatory layer to ensure a smooth surface for painting or gilding on wood). The outside surface is black with a gold decorated border and it has a large plain gold panel in the centre, which may have originally been decorated. The inside of the shield is painted to show scenes from the life of Camillus, who saved Rome from the Gauls. The small cylindrical iron lantern has been inserted later, and is decorated with cast brass human heads on its top. It has a rotating shutter and a clear horn window.

On the subject of lanterns; the Lanthorn Tower at the Tower of London is the second largest tower. Its name comes from the lantern placed in the small turret on top of the Tower, which served as a guide for ships on the Thames.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

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

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

Triplex Harquebusier’s Breastplate

X-radiography can often reveal unexpected things about even the most common objects in our collection, this is just one of reasons it is such a useful tool for conservators and curators alike.

During an important project looking at the construction of 17th-century duplex and triplex armour in our collection using a combination of X-radiography, metallurgy and metal hardness testing, one of the triplex breastplates was shown to have a surprising internal construction. Triplex breastplates, as the name suggests, are made of three layers of wrought iron sandwiched together on all sides.

Breastplate front view

Breastplate front view

The aim of this type of construction, which was not known about until the project was undertaken, was to produce a shot-proof armour without adding noticeably to the breastplate’s weight. The way in which the layers of metal in a triplex breastplate are held together, with the outer and inner layers folding together along all sides of the breastplate, mean that the middle layer is totally invisible by any means of non-invasive examination other than X-radiography.

Following the radiography of one particular breastplate it was possible not only to observe the internal metal layer but to see that it in fact consisted of a large portion of an English pikeman’s tasset. In addition to this it was possible to determine that the tasset’s decorative rivets had been removed prior to inclusion in the breastplate and that the surface of the tasset had been decorated with incised horizontal lines to give the appearance that the object was made up of individual lames or strips of metals rather than from one solid piece. Also faintly visible running along the bottom edge of the tasset is roped decoration.

Xray of Triplex Harquebusier’s Breastplate (Circa 1650)

Xray of Triplex Harquebusier’s Breastplate (Circa 1650)

The breastplate itself is English and dates to around 1650 and was originally part of the Littlecote Armoury which came to the Royal Armouries in the 1980s. The origin of the tasset is not known for certain however it is though to date to around 1630, which if correct means it was in use for around twenty years before being incorporated into the breastplate. Re-use like this is not uncommon as armour and its component metal have long been expensive commodities however, as with the triplex breastplate re-use is often hidden and can only be clearly seen using X-radiography.

As this breastplate reveals any object in our collection, even the plainest or most generic looking, may potentially house hidden secrets waiting to be found.

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservator

Flintlock Repair Work

This English flintlock is a William III Land Service musket dating from approximately 1689-1702. The lock-plate is engraved with the cipher of William III and Mary II and the maker’s mark ‘WP’ is stamped on the right side of the lower breech and repeated near the muzzle. The barrel is also marked ‘EG’ crowned, referring to Edward Godward, c.1695-96. The dog-catch of the lock has been previously restored.

Flintlock musket before conservation

Flintlock musket before conservation

The metal components on the flintlock were in very good condition prior to entering the conservation lab as they were only showing yellowed oil on the metal surfaces. The wooden stock was structurally unstable due to multiple large horizontally running cracks appearing mostly around the lock and around the muzzle. A large area of wood loss was present where the barrel is pinned to the stock. Some earlier repair material was present suggesting previous attempts on the cracks with what seemed to be wax. Tinted wax had also been used to fill a deep dent near the muzzle at some point in the past.

After carefully checking that the musket was not loaded, the lock-plate was taken off and disassembled in order to remove superficial dirt and residues with solvent swabs. The barrel was similarly cleaned and the stock was given a mechanical cleaning to rid it of superficial loose dirt. Any previous repair material was carefully removed as it had failed and no longer provided any adherence. The cracks were then refilled with adhesive.

Repairing the damage - before and after conservation

Repairing the damage - before and after conservation

The large area of wood loss was a problem as the pin located at the centre of the area of loss was loose as a result. To fix this problem it seemed best to try and refill the gap with a suitable material. The fill needed to be strong but also flexible in order to not get damaged with the wood’s natural movement. The material used needed to be reversible which in addition would make it easier to redo the fill if the first attempt was unsuccessful due to the critical location of the gap. The colour of the fill was also taken into consideration in order to achieve the best colour-matching result.

Tinted polyester webbing provided great support on the inside and helped mould the internal shape of the fill. To help estimate the trajectory of the pin a slightly wider cocktail stick was pushed through the opposite end of the hole which could serve as an outline for the pin and which could be easily removed half-way through drying time.

Blogger: Leila Mazzon, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Collections Up Close July

The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds displays several archery prizes, one of which is a medal from the Stockwell Archers, presented to George Ellis Esq., “for the skill displayed by him in Archery on the 9th July 1832”.

Archery medal in the Royal Armouries collection

Archery medal in the Royal Armouries collection

Archery has a long-standing place in history as both a method for hunting and for warfare. It later developed into a competitive sport. The first known organised competition in archery was held at Finsbury in 1583 and had 3000 participants.

By the 17th century, due to the introduction of guns, the bow was no longer used as a primary weapon. Archery as a sport was later revived in the 18th century. This was attributed to the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who took up the sport. He became patron of many societies established during the late 1700s in which both men and women took part.

Female toxopholite in competition

Female toxopholite in competition

Competitions have always formed an important part of archery, the most significant being the Grand National Archery Meeting, first held in York in 1844. Archery prizes have included engraved arrows, archers bracers and medals. The museum’s displays include medals from the Derbyshire Archers dated 1823, the Tottenham Archers dated 1825, the Stourbridge Archery Society dated 1850 and the Grand National Archery Society dated 1880.

In 1900 archery was introduced into the Olympics but was then dropped after 1908. Other than a single appearance in 1920 the sport was not re-introduced until 1972. In 2012 the archery contest will be held at Lord’s Cricket Ground with 128 competitors taking part.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher