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

Conservation, Museums and Blacksmithing

As part of the National Heritage Ironwork Group’s Heritage Blacksmiths Bursary, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Skills for the Future Programme’, I have had the pleasure of spending three weeks working in the Conservation Department of the Royal Armouries. Coming from a background in blacksmithing, where often the delicate work simply requires the use of a slightly smaller hammer, it was a bit of a change swapping to cotton wool buds!

The craftsmanship and skill of the weaponsmiths and armourers that made the Museum’s objects is unbelievable. The time and care that has been spent on some of the pieces is so impressive you can see why a suit of armour could have cost as much as a small farm.

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

While working here I have been lucky enough to get involved in behind the scenes aspects of the Museum, from putting objects on display to cleaning and conserving items in the collection. The conservation of the brass nipple-studded breast plate, pictured above, required removing corrosion without disturbing the original patina in unaffected areas. This can be quite challenging and the conservation work that the department does is vital in maintaining the collection for future generations.

I will be using the skills and conservation techniques which I have learned at the Royal Armouries to protect and maintain the heritage ironwork I hope to be working on in the future.

Blogger: Matthew Boultwood, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

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 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

The Battle of Edgehill, 23 October 1642

English Civil War began in 1642 when forces under King Charles I clashed with Parliamentarian troops under the Earl of Essex. The King was marching from Shrewsbury to seize the military stores in the Tower of London, and Essex was sent to stop him. The two forces met at Edgehill in Warwickshire. After several hours hard fighting neither had gained an advantage, and both generals drew their forces off.

A pikeman's arms and armour, and the equipment of a musketeer. From Principles of the art military by Henry Hexham (1642), Vol. 1.

A pikeman's arms and armour, and the equipment of a musketeer. From Principles of the art military by Henry Hexham (1642), Vol. 1.

At the start of the war both King and Parliament had to raise and train their armies very quickly; England had been peaceful for many years and had no standing army. Only men who had taken part in the European wars had any experience, but these adventurers brought back knowledge of how the Europeans trained and used their soldiers.

One such man was Henry Hexham, and in 1642 he published The First Part of the Principles of the Art Military, Practised in the Warres of the United Netherlands. Two further parts were published in 1642 and 1643. These books give instructions on how to raise and equip forces, the roles and duties of the various military officers, tactics in the field, and how to train recruits in the use of pike and matchlock musket.

Drill postures of the pikeman. From Principles of the art military by Henry Hexham (1642), Vol. 1.

Drill postures of the pikeman. From Principles of the art military by Henry Hexham (1642), Vol. 1.

Hexham had served in Holland, the leading centre for military innovation in Europe at this time, and his works are substantially based upon those of contemporary Dutch authors. The book is lavishly illustrated, and it is interesting to note the original Dutch commands are still present in the illustrations of pike and musket drill, suggesting that Hexham recycled existing engravings rather than commissioning new ones.

The Principles of the Art Military provide us with a great insight into how the Civil Wars were fought, and how armies were created out of ordinary citizens at this time. Strategically Edgehill was a victory for Parliament, as the King was prevented from marching on London. But in reality the bloody stalemate merely set the scene for several years of grinding, savage fighting.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library 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