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

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

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

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

A Perfect Pair

Thanks to the generosity of a member of the public the Royal Armouries has recently able to reunite this pair of big double-barrelled Victorian pistols. Custom-ordered from Adams of London (more famous for their revolvers) in around 1880, they had been split up around 60 years ago. The owner’s initials are engraved on both pistols. Although we may never know who ‘H.C.’ was, we can assume that he was a big-game hunter in India or Africa.

The reunited pistols

The reunited pistols

Weapons like these are known as ‘Howdah’ pistols, a howdah being essentially a saddle for an elephant that could be used as a firing platform. You can see a life-sized recreation of this outside the Hunting Gallery at our Leeds Museum. The pistols weren’t for hunting but for self-defense against dangerous and fast-moving game animals like lions and tigers. They were a compromise between the power of a rifle and the small size and handiness of a pistol, the two barrels allowing for two quick shots without reloading. They were more powerful and reliable than a multi-shot revolver.

Hunting diorama, Royal Armouries Leeds

Hunting diorama, Royal Armouries Leeds

Many howdah pistols are chambered in large calibres for better ‘stopping power’, but our pair is unusual. One is in a commonly available revolver and lever-action carbine cartridge (.44-40) – also a favourite in the Old West. The other, recently donated, is smooth-bored (20 bore) like a shotgun, so of less use against large animals. One possibility is that it was for defense against venomous snakes, the spread of shot giving a better chance of hitting the soft-skinned creature.

You can see pistols like these in the 2009 movie adaptation of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, fired at Robert Downey Jr as he escapes into the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. An over-and-under version appears in ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’ (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas as hunters called in to protect railway workers from two ‘man-eating’ lions.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Supergun Moves into Place

In the Royal Armouries collection are sections of one of the most infamous pieces of 20th Century artillery – the Iraqi Supergun. We have two sections of the barrel, weighing 2.1 tonnes, which have been the next objects moving into The Voice of the Guns gallery at Fort Nelson.

Development of the Iraqi weapon remains shrouded in secrecy – along with the murder of its inventor – but if all the tubes had been fully assembled the Supergun would have stretched over 150 metres and would have been able to send projectiles into a low orbit.

Inside the Iraqi Supergun

Inside the Iraqi Supergun

British Customs’ officers seized eight sections of the gun in March 1990 at Teesport Docks – as part of a consignment en route to Iraq.  Allowing the Bahamas-registered vessel to sail with its consignment would have contravened a ban on arms sales to Saddam Hussein’s state. Investigations revealed the gun was part of Saddam’s  “Project Babylon”.

If assembled, the gun would have been the biggest gun in the modern world. The weapon was the brainchild of Canadian Dr Gerald Bull, who was assassinated shortly before the parts were discovered.