The Leeds’ Library has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Antique oak bookcases, obtained from the National Maritime Museum (NMM), have replaced the former, rather bland metal shelving.
The Library at Royal Armouries, Leeds before…
The bookcases came from the old Caird Library at the NMM where they had stood since it opened in 1937. They were originally designed with the help of the Maggs Brothers, an eminent rare books dealership who still trade in London today, in consultation with British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens is famous for designing the Cenotaph in London, the Thiepval Memorial and much of New Delhi. The bookcases became redundant as the Caird Library has moved to the new Sammy Ofer wing at the NMM, and the Royal Armouries jumped at the chance to save some of them, and bring them to Leeds.
Moving the bookcases turned out to be a logistical nightmare. They easily break down into 8 pieces, however each one is still over 3 metres long, ranging from 60kg to around 140kg in weight. Narrow and twisted corridors meant that there was only one way to get the cases into the Library (short of removing windows or knocking holes in the wall) by lifting them onto the mezzanine and carrying them straight through the curators’ office!
Now where did I put the instructions…?
Once in the Library, the bookcases had to be assembled and remodelled to fit a much smaller room, which was done as sensitively as possible to respect the original designs. The new Library looks incredible and there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction from staff and the public – the main comment being that it now looks like a “proper library”. The atmosphere has been drastically transformed to a much more academic setting, and a section of the old Caird Library has been saved.
One of the oldest and most enigmatic treasures in the Royal Armouries archives is a manuscript – which we refer to as Royal Armouries MSS 1.33 – dated to the latter 13th century. We don’t know who it was written by or for, or even why it was written; but it is the oldest known European fencing manual anywhere in existence.
Illustrations from the manuscript
The manuscript is made up of 32 leaves of parchment. The text is in Latin, but the use of German words which have been used to describe technical terms indicate that it is German in origin. The most impressive feature of the manuscript are the magnificent illuminated illustrations, showing the techniques of sword and buckler combat described in the text.
The main characters in the illustrations are a priest and a scholar, which throws up many questions as to why these men would learn how to sword fight at all. Another unsolved mystery is that on the last two pages one of the combatants is a woman.
Illustrations from the manuscript
Manuscript I.33 – also sometimes called the Tower Fechtbuch – was bought by the museum at auction from Sotheby’s in 1950. It was kept at the Tower of London, hence the alternative name, until it was transferred to Leeds in 1996.
The manuscript has had a hard life and some of the pages have been damaged and crudely repaired. A number of the illustrations show evidence of later additions – such as beards and moustaches -possibly scribbled on by a bored child! Despite this graffiti the manuscript remains a beautiful and very rare treasure which the Royal Armouries is privileged to own.