Agincourt 600: Triumph of the longbow?

As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London.To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries, writes about the iconic longbows of the battle.

© His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library

The battle of Agincourt from the Brut Chronicle (Chronicle of St Albans), English, late 15th century. © His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library

The accounts of the privy wardrobe, the fourteenth century organisation which ran the armoury at the Tower of London and the earliest ancestor of the present-day Royal Armouries, give incredible detail about the manufacture, storage and issue of armour and weapons, especially longbows and arrows, throughout the first half of the Hundred Years War. Unfortunately the records run out after 1410, so the details about what went over to Harfleur with Henry V for the Agincourt campaign don’t survive. But we have a pretty good idea of all the processes from what went on before.

On the whole, each archer in an English army was issued for each campaign with a bow, between two and five bowstrings and two ‘sheaves’ of arrows (each of twenty-four arrows tied up with hemp cord, which they reused to tie the arrows round their waists for battle, no quivers).

An example of an 'arrow bag' as used at the battle in 1415.

An example of an ‘arrow bag’ as used at the battle in 1415.

Ordinary arrows were of poplar, fletched with goose feathers and fitted with a single type of low-barbed head. The best bows were painted, and supplied with ash arrows with steel heads, fletched with peacock feathers.

Though hardly any medieval longbows survive either, we now have an amazing group of them from the Mary Rose, which have revolutionised our understanding of the weapon in the last twenty years. We now think they ranged in draw weight between 65–160 lb, with an average about 110 lb, double what we thought a generation ago.

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Bow, from the wreck of the Mary Rose sunk in 1545, English, mid-16th century.

Odd that this change in understanding should have taken so long, as we have had two of the Mary Rose bows, excavated from the bottom of the Solent by John Deane and William Edwards using their newly invented diving apparatus in 1840, on display at the Tower ever since.

Anyway, the ‘new’ high-powered bows have been reconstructed, experimented with, and enabled the rediscovery of a medieval style of shooting ‘in the bow’ which had been lost through centuries of target archery with much lighter longbows. One of these experimental archaeologists, Mark Stretton, who is one of the best exponents of this rediscovered style of shooting, undertook a fascinating experiment with a bow, some arrows and a radio-controlled lawnmower, which showed that a skilled medieval archer could shoot just three aimed arrows into a charging French knight (or lawnmower). See below a clip of Mark shooting a 140lb self yew bow made by Pip Bickerstaffe.

Filmed at the shooting at Malestroit Medieval Festival 2011, by bowyer (longbow-maker) Ian Cootes (40bowyr).

While the bows have ‘become’ more powerful than we used to think, the ‘arrowstorm’ beloved of English archery enthusiasts has diminished. We used to talk about resupply of arrows as if it was a natural and simple process, but the privy wardrobe accounts show otherwise. Each archer had two sheaves of arrows to last a campaign, and would probably go into battle with just one of them. So all the statistics of how many arrows an archer can shoot in a minute are very much put into perspective by realising that such an arrowstorm could last just three minutes, then the arrows were gone. Once we are aware of that, we can see it happening in the sources: at Poitiers in 1356 the English archers ran out, and tried to recover spent arrows. At Towton in 1461 the Lancastrian archers ran out of arrows, and suffered the indignity of having the Yorkists shoot their own arrows back at them. So the vision moves away from darkening the sky with arrows like the Persians’ at Thermopylae towards a smaller number of accurately aimed arrows shot from very powerful bows by highly skilled and practised professional archers.

The Battle of Agincourt catalogue and exhibition present a whole new way of looking at English medieval archery, derived from the study of actual objects, experimental archaeology and medieval documents, all working together to provide a new understanding of the past. And we have acquired a large group of English arrowheads of the period, mostly from the River Thames, to go in the exhibition. Sadly Westminster Abbey, who own the only fifteenth century arrow in England, couldn’t lend it to us, but our bows and arrowheads will join forces with the Mary Rose bows and arrows (no heads, iron hardly survives at all on the Mary Rose) to present in the catalogue and exhibition the most comprehensive display about English medieval archery ever staged.


Broadhead (arrowhead) European, 15th c. Royal Armouries collection.

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.

Agincourt 600: An introduction to the battle

Battle of Agincourt (1415) Chroniques. d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) - H. W. Koch: Illustrierte Geschichte der Kriegszüge im Mittelalter, S. 133,

Battle of Agincourt (1415) Chroniques. d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) – H. W. Koch: Illustrierte Geschichte der Kriegszüge im Mittelalter, S. 133,

The battle of Agincourt took place on St Crispin’s day, Friday 25 October 1415, between the armies of King Henry V of England and King Charles VI of France. For the 600th anniversary of the battle, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection of arms, armour, objets d’art, and manuscripts at the Tower of London, as well staging a family events programme and publishing a book commemorating the battle in association with Yale Books.

To introduce you to this battle and the Hundred Years War period, we’ll have to take you through some family history of Henry V.

The background

Henry V was the son of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV of England). Edward III was Henry V’s great-grandfather;his grandfather was Edward’s third son John of Gaunt (1st Duke of Lancaster). Henry V inherited the ‘Hundred Years War’ from his great-grandfather after Edward III challenged Phillip VI’s right to the French crown.

When Charles IV, the French King, died in 1328 he left no male heir. His nearest male relative was his nephew Edward III;Charles IV’s sister Isabella was Edward’s mother.The French nobility did not want to be ruled by an English King, and there was already recognition that femailes could not succeed to the throne. Therefore they agreed that the heir would be Phillip of Valois, Charles IV’s first cousin. Despite this Edward III argued that although a woman was unable to inherit , it did not  prevent inheritance through the female line – which formed the basis of his claim.

100 years war family tree

There were many other factors that contributed to  outbreak of  the Hundred Years War: including England’s relationship with Scotland, France’s disruption of the English wool trade, and England’s complicated land ownership history of Gascony and Aquitaine (regions of South West France) – but it was his claim to the French throne that Edward III’s campaigns, and those  of his descendants, would be later justified.

The Battle

Agincourt was one of three major land battles of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), which in fact lasted 116 years. On 26 August 1346 Edward III defeated Philip VI at Crécy. On 16 July 1356 Edward’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) captured Philip VI’s successor John II at the battle of Poitiers. He was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London. Yet it is hard to imagine national celebrations of these battles or a major exhibition devoted to them.

Battle of Crécy, 1346. Copiste inconnu - Grandes Chroniques de France, British Library Cotton MS Nero E. II pt.2, f.152v

Battle of Crécy, 1346. Copiste inconnu – Grandes Chroniques de France, British Library Cotton MS Nero E. II pt.2, f.152v

Battle of Poitiers (miniature from the Chronicles of Froissart).

Battle of Poitiers, 1356 (miniature from the Chronicles of Froissart).

Agincourt is a well-documented battle. 1415 was the first occasion since 1359 that an English king had invaded France in person. It was also the largest army taken to France since the battle of Crécy 69 years previously. His preparations indicated that Henry V was planning to conquer the kingdom in what would be a long campaign. Despite this, Agincourt was a swift victory; one chronicler suggesting it was over in half an hour, while others suggest that it lasted between two and three hours.

Henry V set sail for France on 11th August, landing near Le Havre on the 13th. He then laid siege to Harfleur from  17th August until the 22nd September when the town surrendered. Despite his intention to conqueror France, this would be Henry’s one and only capture of his campaign.

A map of Henry V's campaign route

A map of Henry V’s campaign route

On the morning of Friday 25th October both English and French armies met in battle at Agincourt.  In the early afternoon, fearing a renewed French attack, Henry famously ordered the French prisoners to be killed. This has generated controversy in more recent times, even to the extent of asking whether Henry V should be deemed a war criminal. Contemporaries, however, saw the battle as distinctive primarily for the high number of French casualties and prisoners, and for the exceptionally low number of English casualties.

There was no ‘standing army’ (a permanent, often professional, army composed of full-time soldiers that is not  disbanded in times of peace) in either France or England in 1415. Troops were raised on a campaign-by-campaign basis. There were many similarities between the armies in terms of their recruitment, armour and equipment, but one crucial difference: the English brought relatively few men- at- arms on campaign (soldiers who wore full plate armour in battle) but a much greater proportion of archers. The significance of archers in the battle was noted at the time. Their ‘arrowstorm’ disrupted  the French advance, thereby undermining  their numerical superiority. Henry’s deployment of his archers has been a contested area in modern historical work, alongside the sometimes heated debate on the size of the armies.

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Images of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt diorama, made by model maker David Marshall and Perry Miniatures, which forms part of the exhibition at the Tower of London. To find out more about how the model was made, please click this link.

This takes us to the nub of historical study of the battle. Despite pioneering work in the mid nineteenth century by Sir Joseph Hunter, one of the founders of the Public Record Office, and the extensive but antiquarian narrative of the campaign in James Wylie’s Reign of Henry the Fifth (1914), there was no full- scale study of the financial records of Henry’s army until Professor Anne Curry (trustee of the Royal Armouries) published ‘The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations’. There are many documents to draw on, especially the muster lists which provide names and details of pay. Records for the French army also exist but are less extensive and await fuller analysis.

Narrative sources are numerous, as Curry’s study outlines. The most well-known English sources include the Gesta Henrici Quinti (‘Deeds of Henry V’) written by an English priest present on the campaign, plus battle narratives in two eulogistic Latin lives of Henry V written in the late 1430s, and insights into ‘popular’ views through English poems and chronicles – especially the vernacular chronicle known as the Brut. On the French side, the most influential account has been that of Enguerrand de Monstrelet, who sought to continue the earlier chronicling begun by Jean Froissart in the late fourteenth century, but there are many others – testimony to the impact of the battle on the French. Many studies of the battle have drawn on the sixteenth- century English histories of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, which informed Shakespeare, rather than on narratives written closer to the period.

The battle’s legacy

Why should there be so much interest in commemorating this battle today? Agincourt was not a decisive battle. The French suffered heavy losses in terms of dead and captured but politically these were not significant enough to force the French to the negotiating table. Henry’s victory made his later conquest of Normandy easier, as the French were reluctant to meet him in battle again. But his final triumph in May 1420 – acceptance as heir and regent of France by the treaty of Troyes – was the result of political divisions in France rather than simply military success.


Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

The simplest explanation for the special place of Agincourt is Shakespeare. His Henry V (1599), probably the first play performed at the Globe Theatre, provides the image of a charismatic individual and his great victory that still predominates today. Had Shakespeare’s involvement in the writing of the play Edward III (1590–94) been greater, we might have been celebrating Crécy and Poitiers too, but its language comes nowhere near the memorable and inspirational speeches of Henry V (for more on this topic please see this link). Over the centuries Shakespeare’s Henry V has come to stand for Englishness and for triumph in the face of adversity Nowhere is this more evident than in Laurence Olivier’s famous film of the play released in 1944, dedicated to the commandos and airborne troops who made D- Day possible.

Poster of Henry V. British Film Institute.

Poster of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, 1944. British Film Institute.

The dominance of Shakespeare explains why we have included the play, the Olivier film and the musical legacy in this exhibition. The Agincourt Carol, which may have been composed only weeks after the battle for Henry V’s triumphal entry to London, was used to good effect by William Walton in his film score. It was also played when the announcement was made that London had pipped Paris to the 2012 Olympic Games. A fifteenth century manuscript of the Agincourt Carol is included in our exhibition at the Tower of London.

Performance of the Agincourt Carol by the Alamire.

The frequency of conflict with France until the Entente Cordiale (peace treaty between England and France) of 1904 helped to keep Agincourt in the public gaze. It is not surprising that families, from the sixteenth century onwards, have been keen to find (or invent) ancestors who distinguished themselves at the battle, or that objects should be forged to provide a tangible link with the glorious victory.

The first serious study of the battle by Harris Nicolas in 1827 was coloured by the Napoleonic Wars. Even though it publicised important sources it also perpetuated myths, including the notion that we did not know the names of the archers in Henry V’s army. Excavations at Azincourt in 1818, initiated by Lt- Col. John Woodford – who commanded the army of observation in the region after Waterloo, clouded rather than extended knowledge of the battlefield. Current efforts to apply modern standards of battlefield archaeology are starting to advance our understanding, but as yet the location has not been confirmed.

The aim of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition, events programme, and publication, is to set the battle in context as well as to explore the event itself. The aim is to enhance understanding of the proceedings leading up to the battle, including the military preparations made by each side, the immediate consequences of Henry V’s victory, and finally the influence that Agincourt has exerted on historical and cultural memory in the centuries following the battle. The Tower of London provides an ideal starting point since it played a crucial role in preparations for the campaign as well as its aftermath. The Royal Armouries were not formally established until 1984, but as the successor body to the Tower Armouries and, before that, the Ordnance Office, we have enjoyed a continuous presence at the Tower of London since the establishment of the privy wardrobe in the early fourteenth century. The privy wardrobe managed the supply and logistical requirements for the military campaigns of English kings from the reign of Edward III onwards. The 1415 campaign was no exception.

The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition will run at at the Tower of London from 23 October 2015 until 31 January 2016, please visit our website to find out about the objects on display and our half term events programme. Further posts on the content of our ‘Agincourt’ catalogue, in association with Yale University Press, can be found as they are published via this link.


Facing-Recovering at Fort Nelson

Artist Jevan Watkins Jones talks about his experiences collaborating with soldiers and veterans for new exhibition facing – recovering, currently on display at the Royal Armouries Fort Nelson until February 1.


Jevan Watkins Jones & Luke Hardy 2013

(Facing-Recovering Image: Jevan Watkins Jones and Luke Hardy, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite.)

What was your role in the project?

My role was as lead artist responsible for designing and delivering a socially engaged art project with wounded and injured soldiers (WIS) as an Associate Artist to the Learning Team, firstsite in partnership with Chavasse VC House, Recovery Centre, Colchester Garrison. The project was based at the centre one day a week for 10 months.

How did you work with the soldiers and veterans to share their personal stories and experience of injury and post-traumatic stress?

Words became drawing and drawing became words – they were interwoven. My original intention had been to draw more myself in the situation, directly from them and their stories. I had intended to create an active studio space where drawings were left on the wall of the canteen. First mine then theirs. This was not allowed on the new centre walls but also it became less relevant. The space I had created appeared to have founded itself upon talking together; talking about soldiering and art and, liminally, the human relationship between these two – me and them. I say ‘me and them’ though I often listened more than I spoke because it was still the offer of ‘Drawing with Jevan’ that instigated that space and my job to draw the visual out in a relational way. It was my duty in this instance not there’s. They didn’t have to participate or even turn up. The only way that the drawing-out could happen was to keep hold of these conversations as best I could in note form in order to draw on them in weeks to come. Key events were up most in my mind and these became drivers, or more rewardingly, evidence of a growing rapport with a few individuals channelling the course  of the project at what was and still remains for many a raw time.

(Image: Josh Green, Eye Crowd, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite. Please use title as caption)

(Facing-Recovering Image: Josh Green, Eye Crowd, 2013. Image courtesy of firstsite.)

How is this exhibition significant to the current experiences of the armed forces?

From my perspective as an artist, civilian and having a step-son who has served in Afghanistan, it is significant in as much as it presents the contemporary soldier as a fellow human being who is as vulnerable if not more because of the extreme situations they face. My experience through this project is that many soldiers feel unable, even disabled, to reconcile their experiences with living a civilian life. The adjustment appears to be challenging and is certainly exacerbated by persistent stereotypes that can reinforce a sense of isolation or at least difference. The few soldiers I met wanted to express themselves personally and grab an opportunity to publicly declare their voice so that as Luke Hardy, Ex-Private and Sniper said people would be able to see ‘..the person behind the soldier.’

Is there a particular piece in this exhibition that stood out for you?

They, of course, all do for different reasons but because I have a particular love for drawing I would single out Josh’s drawing, ‘maimed Man’ as it really rocked me when he first presented it to me. Art has this potential but it is infrequently met. It is drawing in its most elemental, stripped back and sincere. It is also such a timeless image – man against man, defence, protection and humanity all rolled into one.

facing – recovering is on display at the Royal Armouries Fort Nelson until 1st February 2015.



They That Are Left: the Royal Armouries hosts a stunning Remembrance photographic exhibition


…They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them…”

from Laurence Binyon’s ‘The Fallen’ (first published in The Times, 21 September 1914)

Last week the Royal Armouries hosted the opening of photographer Brian David Stevens’ ‘They That Are Left’ exhibition, an inspiring ten-year project comprising of portrait photographs of war veterans, taken each Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph from 2002 to 2012. The project consists of 100 portraits, a selection of which is currently on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds until 1 February, as part of our First World War Centenary commemorations.

IMG_8474- TTAL - 111114

IMG_8483- TTAL - 111114

As with each passing year our war veterans do grow older, and age both wearies them and condemns their valuable memories, they are thus at risk of becoming unknown. With this in mind, Brian took inspiration from Binyon’s famous poem, saying “the viewer is given no information, just a portrait. These faces then are as of unknown soldiers; no cap badges, no ribbons of spooling medals, no insignia for military rank. They are faces only. Each deep-etched with who they are and what they did, that we might look, and think – and thank them.”

“As the years pass, the number of veterans from World War I has dwindled to nothing and the number from World War II is steadily reduced, but their places are taken by other veterans from newer conflicts, who are also included.”

They That Are Left

Below is a short interview with Brian at the Royal Armouries about his collection, currently showing until 1 February.

The exhibition – which forms part of Royal Armouries’ ‘Inspired by…’ programme – transfers in March to Fort Nelson, Portsmouth, home to the national collection of artillery. For more information about Brian David Stevens’ work, please see his website here; .


Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – Telling the story…

Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson talks to us about the stories behind the armour ahead of the new exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

Why is it important that the Royal Armouries tells the story behind the weapons and armour?
Weapons and armour are pieces of technology and on their own can be impersonal and difficult to make sense of. Mauser rifles and Vickers machine guns aren’t nice to look at, like say, a highly decorated flintlock pistol. They speak of industry and death. But they are hugely significant in terms of military history, social history, and had effects at the time that still impact our lives today. Our aim is to relate these tools of war to the people that actually designed, built, and used them, and we have a unique opportunity to do that.

 Jonathan Ferguson (curator of firearms), test firing a Vickers Mk.II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK, 29th March, 2014  © Royal Armouries

Jonathan Ferguson (Curator of Firearms), test firing a Vickers Mk.II belt fed machine gun (XXIV.8841) at the National Firearms Centre, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK, 29th March, 2014 © Royal Armouries

Do you have any favourite objects or stories?
Although I specialise in firearms, my favourite object is probably a simple, hand-stitched cloth badge. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it actually looks like a pirate flag; we tend to associate piracy with fun and adventure, but this is far from that. It’s actually an unofficial design approved by the commander of the 117th Company, Machine Gun Corps. The crossed Vickers guns and royal crown of the Corps have been overlaid by a skull and crossbones design. We think of First World War soldiers as reluctant heroes, but this very personal object is a clear expression of this unit’s determination to do what they had been trained to do; to kill the enemy.

On the technology side, I was blown away by something called the ‘Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger’, which is as wacky as it sounds and totally unique. Some objects like this were way ahead of their time, and it’s fascinating to see the origins of modern weapons in these 100-year-old objects. We have also collected several medals for this exhibition, and one group in particular is there to tell the story of how new weapons changed the job of individual soldiers. But it’s hard not to be touched by the tragic story behind them when you read the letter from the soldier’s father, who had heard of the sinking of a hospital ship only one month from the end of the War, desperately asking if he’s OK. It’s this perfect museum triangle of real object, real history, and real person that I think really engages visitors and curators alike. It’s what we go into the job for, really.

Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger © Royal Armouries

Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier grenade launcher © Royal Armouries

How many objects will be displayed within the exhibition?
We have 153 individual objects on display, from a huge anti-tank rifle to a tiny silk pincushion! It’s a lot for a small space, making for an intense series of encounters between visitor and object, and giving some sense of the scale of mass production and of violence that characterised the First World War more than any other.

Briefly take us through the process of creating an exhibition of this kind.
We didn’t want to simply replace a few faded images and add a lick of paint to our existing display. We looked at what worked, but also at what newly acquired objects and ideas had emerged in the past 15 years, and re-thought the display from the ground up. It was clear that our strength lay in the more personal, individual weapons, helmets and early body armours.

The machine gun became the centrepiece of this story, bringing with it human stories but also being the only truly strategic firearm of the War. The first step was to create a long list of objects. Often exhibitions will start with ideas and then look for the most relevant objects to illustrate them, but with our specialist collection and expertise, we were able to tie the ideas to the objects at this early stage. However, we did have to recognise what gaps we had that we might need to fill with loans or new acquisitions. We were fortunate to acquire a large collection of medals, documents and personal possessions; all the types of objects that we do not routinely collect. Requests were also lodged with private lenders and our colleagues at the Imperial War Museum to round out the final displays.

Based on our initial theme ideas, my team and I began to research around them, to draft text, and with the help of our library, to search for images to illustrate the final stories. An external design company was engaged to develop a 3D design for the space. All of this brings together a visitor experience intended to evoke, but not attempt to recreate, the experience of those who encountered these objects under very different circumstances 100 years ago. Alongside all this, we also generated content for our new online feature, which will be part of our new Collections Management System and will provide another way to experience the objects and stories we’ve been working on.

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers: the personal arms and armour of the First World War will open to the public in September 2014.

For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.

Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – An introduction…

Last week we announced our plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, with new exhibitions, a series of talks and seminars, online content and events across Leeds, Fort Nelson and the Tower of London.

In the run up to and during the centenary programme, we will post a series of blogs covering all aspects of the programme.

Ahead of the opening of the new exhibition in Leeds Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – the personal arms and armour of the First World War – we spoke to Curator of Firearms and Lead Curator for First World War, Jonathan Ferguson…

What themes are included within the exhibition?
We start with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; many heads of state in 1914 owned an early form of bullet-proof vest made of silk and other textiles. We’ve had one recreated and tested it, and you can see the results displayed along with the type of pistol used to kill the Archduke and essentially the start of the First World War.

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Royal Armouries has undertaken research of the capabilities of Zeglen type replica armours against the FN Browning Model 1910, in .380 ACP, the same model of self-loading pistol used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. © Royal Armouries

Moving into the main space, we tell the story of the attempts to design the perfect sword; and the consequences for cavalrymen who faced machine guns and barbed wire on the Western Front. We tell the story of Frank Elms, who started the war as a cavalry trooper, and ended it as a highly trained machine gunner. Other cavalry actually did fight successfully on horseback. We then show the parallel story of the infantry rifle and bayonet; thought to be key to victory by many at the start of the war. In the event, machine guns and artillery became the important weapons, but to the individual soldier of any side, his rifle and bayonet were his best friend. The French even gave their bayonet a girl’s name!

As mobile warfare proved impossible and trench warfare took over, everyone involved began to look for ways to break through and push back the enemy. The machine gun forms the core of the exhibition, as visitors encounter some of the biggest killers of the war as they pass through the space. Personalising this theme is the forgotten story of the men of the Machine Gun Corps, set up as an elite unit to make best use of the famous Vickers gun. We then have a series of cases showing the wealth of responses to the challenge of trench warfare. Medieval style weapons and armour made a comeback, existing weapons were adapted and used in different ways (for example, in the air), and surprisingly modern weapons were invented from scratch.

Finally, we see how faith placed in weapons technology to actually end war forever (the so-called ‘War to End All Wars’) was misplaced, and how it in fact enabled a century of conflict whose effects are still with us today. Not many people realise that the phrase ‘First World War’ was coined during the war itself, when people realised that they now had the means to kill each other more effectively than ever before. The technology of 1880 – 1918, like all technology, is neutral; it doesn’t care how it’s used. It was used to start the war, it caused the hell of trench warfare and took millions of lives, but then went on to end that hell and actually save lives. Finally, it paved the way for the Second World War, the Cold War, and future wars. The objects are intrinsically interesting, but what makes them truly relevant and interesting are the personal stories. You’ll see plenty of both in this exhibition.

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson with a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Launcher © Royal Armouries

What are visitors going to learn from the exhibition?
I think people will be surprised at how advanced some of the thinking was, and that both before and during the war, there were constant attempts to innovate and to put the right equipment in to the soldiers’ hands. However, the right tactics to make best use of it could only be learned on the battlefield. That meant that no amount of ingenuity or innovation could prevent a horrific human cost and a legacy that still echoes today.

Why is the exhibition unique?
Our museum is the only one in the country that focuses exclusively on arms and armour; it’s what we do best. Our collection was already world-class in 2005, but in that year we also received the entire Ministry of Defence ‘Pattern Room’ collection of 19th-20th century firearms. This allowed us to do far more than we could back in 1996 when the existing display was installed. So the unique aspect here is that we lead with the personal weapons and armour, and then give them context by linking back to the real people who made them, held them and used them in anger. We do that in ways people will be familiar with; stories, and a wealth of imagery, and oral history recordings but we have also filmed a range of original weapons being fired, including high-speed camera footage of bullets striking forensic ballistic soap. We explore what these objects were capable of and what people’s opinions and feelings about them were. Instead of using them simply as illustrations in a generic narrative of the War, we make the interaction of objects and people with the battlefield the focus of the exhibition.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

For more information about the Royal Armouries First World War centenary programme, visit the website.

Inspired by Heraldry

This Spring, the Yorkshire Heraldry Society brings a fascinating display of hand-painted heraldry to the Royal Armouries’ as part of the museum’s Inspired by… Programme.

We spoke to calligrapher and long serving member of the Yorkshire Heraldry Society, Jim Winstanley to find out a bit more about his passion for the historical art of heraldry…

Jim Winstanley

Jim Winstanley

What is the Yorkshire Heraldry Society?
The Society was founded in 1970 and was originally known as the Leeds Heraldry Society. As more people joined from outside Leeds, namely Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford it then changed its title to the Yorkshire Heraldry Society in 1987. The Society promotes heraldry through lectures, Art and local History and meets about 8 times a year.

How long have you been a member of the society?
I have been a member for over 20 years.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of heraldry?
Heraldry came about by people decorating shields with patterns and animals, in time these became permanent and handed down from father to son. Richard III founded the College of Arms.

What interests you about heraldry? How did you get into it?
I am interested in the Historical side of heraldry – War of Roses etc. Historically, they say heraldry is shorthand to history. I am a calligrapher and I received commissions from Civic bodies, which, included Coats of Arms, and this increased my interest in heraldry.

How long does it take you to produce a piece of heraldry?
It depends on the design and elements involved. Usually drawing and research (if any is required) takes between 4 hours and 6-10 hours for a finished piece.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Heraldry day on 10 May – what can people get involved with?
The heraldry day is an annual event at the Royal Armouries Museum and this year there will be four lectures – each about a different aspect of heraldry. The topics are; An introduction to the Stall Plates of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle, Scottish Civic Heraldry on Postcards, Royal Charters and the Royal Mint and Heraldry in our Country Houses. Tickets are £15 including lunch.

How can people join the heraldry society?
Anyone can join – you don’t have to be artistic and we would welcome any new members. The talks given at the meetings include, not just local heraldry but National, Civic, Royal and Continental heraldry.

Blogger: Jim Winstanley, Member of the Yorkshire Heraldry Society

If you would like to attend the Heraldry day on Saturday 10 May or would like further information about joining the society, contact Terry Melia at

The Inspired by Heraldry exhibition will be on display at the Royal Armouries Leeds from 28 March 2014. For more information, visit our website.