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

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

Collections Up Close August

The Royal Armouries’ collection contains several items belonging to Ernst August I (1688-1748), Duke of Saxe-Weimar, later Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Germany from 1728–1748. Ernst August was noted for his extravagant spending and love of splendour.

The Duke maintained a standing army that was disproportionately large for the duchy’s financial resources, which resulted in him having to rent out some of his soldiers to other leaders. He spent much of his reign desperately seeking resources, even arresting rich subjects in exchange for ransoms. However, legal proceedings were mounted against him and he was eventually bankrupt.

A selection of guns belonging to August

A selection of guns belonging to August

He had eight children with his first wife but none of their sons survived into adulthood, leading him to remarry after her death to try again for a male heir. He fathered four more children and an illegitimate son, but only one survived to adulthood- Ernst August II.

Several items of the Duke’s possessions are on display at the museum. These include a saddle from about 1720, typical of those used by cavalry in Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Duke’s EA monogram can be seen on the gilt brass fittings of the saddle, which is on display in the War Gallery.

Close up of August's saddle on display

Close up of August's saddle on display

The museum also displays a set of hunting weapons and accessories made for the Duke by artist craftsman. It was popular for wealthy sportsmen of the 17th and 18th centuries to have a complete set like this. The items were made by various craftsmen from across Europe, including double-barrelled flintlock pistols (Flemish, made by Daniel Thiermay), single barrelled flintlock pistols (Italian, made by Gioanni Botti with barrels by Lazarino Cominazzo), a flintlock over-and-under sporting gun (French), and a German hunting sword.

The Duke’s passion for hunting was so extravagant that when he died, aged 59, he had 1,100 hunting dogs and 373 horses. However, August had left a financially ruined duchy, and his one surviving son, Ernst August II, succeeded aged just eleven.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Arcade Games

The Royal Armouries in Leeds is now home to four retro arcade games. The games have been selected for their links to our wide-ranging collection – from medieval armours, Japanese swords to the Second World War.

You can try your hand at piloting a Second World War plane in 1942, playing Arthur the medieval knight in Ghosts ‘N Goblins,  hand-to-hand combat in two-player game Street Fighter, and being a legendary samurai warrior in Samurai Shodown.

Arcade Games at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Arcade Games at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Arcade games became popular in the 1970s, spurred on by the smash hit ping-pong video game PONG released in 1972. Space Invaders, released in 1978, proved to be an even greater success. During the 1980s video gaming became a worldwide industry, with popular games including Pac-ManBattlezone and Donkey Kong and the advent of two-player fighting games, such as Street Fighter.

However, advances in home video game console technology followed on, and eventually overtook, arcades. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, networked gaming across the Internet had also appeared, replacing the need for a venue for head to head competition, once provided solely by arcades.

Video games grew from simple moving block graphics to a global industry of enormous proportions, now played by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Even today, there is still a keen interest and nostalgia for these earlier games.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

A Short Sharp Shock

The most well-known form of Japanese bow is usually the long war bow which was the original prime weapon of Samurai warriors on horseback. These impressive bows were constructed from a layer of deciduous wood sandwiched between layers of bamboo, and could measure up to two and a half metres in length. The eighteenth-century Japanese bow shown here, however, is made from whalebone and is much smaller, measuring a mere 63cm when strung.

It is a kago hankyu, also known as a riman kyu after Riman Hayashi of Kii province who invented this miniature device. The bow fits into a lacquered carrying frame, and eleven arrows are slotted in alongside it. The arrows are constructed from dark red bamboo, and most of them have gilding between the fletchings. Six of them retain their small armour-piercing heads, whilst another has a small broadhead pierced with a heart shape.  The base of the case is decorated with a triple overlapping diamond kamon (family crest) in gold.

Palanquin bow

Palanquin bow

The diminutive proportions of the kago hankyu could almost suggest that it was made for a child as a plaything. However, the bow and arrows were actually fully functional and potentially lethal. Indeed, their small size was a crucial part of their practical use. They had to be short because they were carried as defensive weapons by Japanese daimyo (nobles) and their senior staff when they were travelling inside palanquins (a covered sedan chair).

During the Edo period (1603–1868), the daimyo had to spend a lot of time in transit, complying with the demands of sankin kotai, the enforced biannual attendance at the court of the shogun. This resulted in a lot of long journeys in procession with large retinues of samurai and servants. If they were attacked on the road, a daimyo would be confined inside the palanquin, folded up into a kneeling position, and therefore had to be able to use his bow and arrows rapidly and effectively in very cramped conditions.

Kago yari short spear

Kago yari short spear

The daimyo also employed other weapons made on a smaller scale for the same reason, such as this kago yari (short spear) from the early Edo period, which is just over 80cm long.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Tales of the Tournament

This August Bank Holiday weekend will witness a clash of knights fighting it out at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in a spectacular Tournament.

Few things can compare with the colour, theatre, and spectacle of a Medieval tournament which at the time were hugely popular. The archetypal image is of armoured knights on horseback galloping towards each other with lances. However tournaments took place over a period of about 600 years, evolving from military exercises and including courtly displays of wealth and sportsmanship.

Image of two knights in heraldic finery, from the Turnierbuch of Maximilian I (Hans Burgkmair the Younger, ca. 1540)

Image of two knights in heraldic finery

The tourney probably began in the 11th century, as opposing groups of Norman knights practiced tactics for the battlefield. These early combats used swords and lances, and were highly dangerous.

The earliest form of jousting, known as the Joust of War, was fought between combatants on horseback. They attempted to unhorse their opponent, or at least hit their head, shield or body. Blunted weapons became popular, and so began the Joust of Peace. Hollow lances shattered dramatically on impact; the frog-mouthed helm was designed to protect the eyes from flying splinters. Unfortunately these helmets also restricted the horseman’s view at the moment of impact. A barrier called a tilt was erected to prevent the horses from crashing into each other.

Tournaments also included events such as individual foot combat with a variety of weapons and the foot tourney which pitched two teams against each other across a barrier.

Knights Jousting at the Royal Armouries Museum

Jousting at the Royal Armouries Museum

Combatants with their faces hidden are hard to identify, so brightly coloured heraldic designs were displayed on their shields, the crests of their helmets, both their own and the horses’ ‘coats-of-arms’. Vast sums of money were spent on armour, feasts, ceremonial processions, and pageants. King Henry VIII was an enthusiastic participant and host of several tournaments, including the extravagant Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, with Francois I of France, which you can find out more about in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

You can find out more about our Tournament and book tickets on the Royal Armouries website.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant