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

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

Neigh-ly Done

Previously on the Royal Armouries blog we posted a story about an equine project our Conservation Team have been working on. This life-size papier-mache horse was created by the early 20th century craftsman Felix Joubert. The horse came up to Leeds from the Tower of London to undergo repair work earlier this year.

Repair work on the horse's ear

Repair work on the horse's ear

Since our initial report the Joubert horse is starting to look a little better after a lot of filling, sanding, consolidating and infill painting. His ear is firmly back in place and the damage to his neck, sides and legs have been stabilized and fixed.

The horse awaiting transportation to our Stores area

The horse awaiting transportation to our Stores area

Now it is only the tail which needs conserving, this in itself will be a big project as great care needs to be taken so as not to damage it any further.  In the meantime the horse will be stabled in our Stores area.

Blogger: Alex Cantrill, Conservator

Jeremy Hall – A Celebration

A celebration of the work of the Tower of London photographer 1967 – 1996

Jeremy Hall photographing objects in the Royal Armouries Collection

Jeremy Hall photographing objects in the Royal Armouries Collection

Jeremy Hall joined the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London in January 1967 and for the next 29 years he not only photographed the Royal Armouries’ Collections but also recorded life in the Tower of London. He worked between sites when the Royal Armouries moved to Leeds in 1996, before retiring to Shropshire.

Sadly Jeremy died on Sunday 12 June 2011. The Royal Armouries would like to take this opportunity to celebrate his work with a selection of his photographs chosen by his colleagues. The record of Tower scenes he left is unparalleled, and his skill in bringing out details of objects gave us all fresh insight into the collection.

Jeremy also captured general life at the Tower of London in his photographs

Jeremy also captured general life at the Tower of London in his photographs

Jeremy was a cornerstone of the Armouries team at a time of great change and expansion. He could be very critical of his work, but we hope that he would approve of our choices. You can see more examples of Jeremy’s work, as selected by his colleagues, on the Royal Armouries Flickr pages.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections (South) & Tower History

Northern Film School Premiere

On Thursday 26th May the Royal Armouries hosted the premiers of six short films produced by students at the Northern Film School, part of Leeds Met University.

The Royal Armouries and the Northern Film School have collaborated on projects for their year two students for the last few years. The Museum provides briefs for the films and the students then pitch their ideas to a panel from the Film School, Museum and other industry specialists. The chosen briefs then go into production.

The films were shot last December and several of the productions faced problems caused by the heavy snow fall. The final six films were premiered at the Museum to Film School staff, students, and guests from the Royal Armouries.

Northern Film School students

Northern Film School students

The evening started with Za App, a unique film using arcade game graphics, sounds and narration to explore the idea of an iPhone app which has devastating consequences. The film La Resistance showed the conflict faced by many in the Second World War who sought revenge and the possible repercussions this may cause. Like Father Like Son was a touching short following a young solder returning home, to the words of his father’s thoughts on his experiences of war and its impact on the individual.

The next two films dealt with the reporting of war, raising issues of the dangers faced by photographers for their art and also the possibility of provocative images being falsified. Reporting the War was notable for its very engaging tone, music and very well constructed flashback sequence. The final film, Two Soldiers was a visually engaging piece showing two soldiers as they prepared for battle – cleverly comparing and contrasting a crusader with a modern day soldier both in conflict in the Middle East.

All the films are available to view on the Royal Armouries YouTube channel along with previous year’s films.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher