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

Illustrating Armour

The Royal Armouries, Leeds has teamed up with local artist Sean Casey to showcase some of his latest works inspired by the Museum’s collection.

Sean hard at work in the Tournament Gallery

Sean hard at work in the Tournament Gallery

The drawings Sean has produced at the Royal Armouries relate to a lifelong interest in armour, from playing with toy Timpo Knights, because he couldn’t get Greek warriors, but which were beautifully made all the same, to an admiration for the awe-inspiring skills of the people who produced the armour itself. For him war games, at the top of the landing steps, evoked childhood notions of a fairytale world of romantic heroism and honour, that gave way to the academic investigation into the true horrors of warfare, coupled with his feelings of pride in our armed forces.

Sean hopes that all those who see his artwork will gain an aesthetic pleasure through the medium in which the subject matter is presented – detailed and often intricate drawings that pay homage to the craftsmanship of the armourers themselves. An exhibition of Sean’s work is currently on display in the Tournament Gallery of our Leeds Museum.

Blogger: Projects Team

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

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

Horsing Around in Conservation

The Royal Armouries Conservation Department currently has a rather special visitor – a life-size model horse.  It was made by Felix Joubert, a well-known designer, cabinet-maker and arms and armour collector of his time. Joubert produced several horses of this type at his Chelsea studios and other examples can be found at the Wallace Collection, and Windsor Castle.

The papier-mache horse and Conservator Alex Cantrill

The papier-mache horse and Conservator Alex Cantrill

This particular horse was created to display the silver and engraved armour of Henry VIII.  Images from the Royal Armouries archive show the horse being craned in to the Tower of London in 1913.

Horse being winched into the Tower of London, 1913

Horse being winched into the Tower of London, 1913

Now painted grey, although originally black, the horse is posed as if being sharply reigned in. It is constructed of papier-mâché formed over an iron framework.  The model is currently in a bit of a sorry state; the tail and one of the ears have almost become detached, a chunk is missing from one of the hooves and there is damage to the papier-mâché surface all the way down the back.  There is evidence of previous repair work having been done but these repairs have now either failed or become very obvious.

Repairing the damage to the tail and ear

Repairing the damage to the tail and ear

During the horse’s stay in Conservation we will be correcting these previous repairs and stabilizing any damage.  Work has already begun on consolidating any flaky paintwork.  This is the first stage, making sure that the fragile surface paint layer is stable and held in place firmly before beginning any more in-depth conservation treatments. We’ll be reporting back on our four-legged friend’s progress so stay tuned!

Blogger: Alex Cantrill, Conservator

Collections Up Close Special

With Royal Wedding celebrations in full swing this month we’re exploring armours which relate to one of the most influential marriages in British history. The Royal Armouries at the Tower of London is home to ornate armours which belonged to King Henry VIII and commemorate his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Henry was crowned and married Katherine in 1509 when he was 17 years old and she was 23. Katherine had previously been married to his elder brother, Prince Arthur who had died. However, Henry and Katherine’s union ended when after 24 years together Henry sought an annulment of their marriage in his quest for a male heir instigating one of the most turbulent periods in British history.

Henry VIII's armour and detail of tonlet decoration

Henry VIIIs armour and detail of tonlet decoration

The suit of armour is decorated with Katherine’s pomegranates and also has a border of intertwined letters H and K for Henry and Katherine. The armour also features scenes from the lives of the royal couple’s patron saints, St George and St Barbara.

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

This ornately engraved, gilded and embossed horse armour was a gift to Henry from Emperor Maximilian I, the ornamentation features both her badge, the pomegranate, and Henry’s Tudor Rose. The elaborately decorated suit of armour and this horse armour was partly imported from Flanders and some parts were probably made in Henry’s own armourer’s workshop at Greenwich in 1515.

The Tower of London also houses military uniform and polo kit belonging to Prince Charles, on display in the Power House exhibition in the White Tower.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Power House Installation: Week One

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Creative Programmes

Construction of the Power House exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London began last week. Preparing the gallery for the installation has involved ripping out the old displays, which in an old building can be problematic if unanticipated issues are found.

Often all the pre-planning and preparation done prior to installation can be overturned in an instant – with new solutions and decisions needed immediately. However, with the right project team these moments feel more exciting and a challenge to be solved rather than finding them to be insurmountable problems.

 

Squeezing into the Tower of London

Squeezing into the Tower of London

On day three of the build a clear blue sky greeted the delivery of the crane – an excellent situation as snow or high winds would have meant potential schedule delays. The crane lorry squeezed its way under the Tower’s historic archways and over bridges to take up residence, allowing the removal of the old exhibition material and lift in of new build items.

Craning items in and out

Carefully craning items in and out

By day four it was apparent that the existing showcases had originally been screwed very firmly to the floor and each supporting foot had to be located and unscrewed before they could be moved to their new positions. However, as move after move took place and with a van and 2 builders skips of old material left the site, it was clear that a new exhibition was beginning to take shape.

As the first week drew to a close not only had all the cases been repositioned, they had also received a complete internal fit-out and one of our new cases was also finished. Everything was ready for graphic installation – and then objects…

More images of the installation at the Tower of London can be found on our Flickr page.