Agincourt 600: Shaping the battlefield, with David Marshall

As part of the museum’s commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For this special exhibition, the museum commissioned a bespoke diorama of the battle with David Marshall, model maker of MMDioramas, along with the Perry brothers of Perry Miniatures.

So far in our blog series on making the model David Marshall has given an overview of how the project took place (see this link), and the Perry brothers have detailed how they produced the bespoke figures for the battlefield (see this link). Here, David will take you through how he made the terrain of Agincourt for this extremely detailed diorama.

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When we started the project in January 2013 we had an outline of what the battlefield would look like and its size, but the details and final decisions were still to be made. The first few months were taken up with working out these elements until we had a final design concept.

The completed diorama would be 4m x 2m in size, with woods flanking on either side comprised of a selection of autumnal trees and evidence of coppicing.

(Coppicing is a traditional English term for a method of woodland management, which takes advantage of the fact that many trees make new growth from the stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. In subsequent growth years, many new shoots will emerge, and, after a number of years the coppiced tree, or stool, is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again.)

The plan and terrain of the fields of Agincourt where the battle took place was then decided on, and a contour map supplied of the area for reference. The terrain of the battlefield would be muddy as a result of the trampling armies (think Glastonbury festival), but there would also be evidence of ploughing and planting in areas less touched by the action. There would be no roads and no buildings.

As the model would have to be installed into the top floor of the White Tower in the Tower of London via crane through a 1.2 meter wide window (the Normans weren’t big on wide access stairs or lifts), the whole model had to be split into four smaller sections of 2m x 1m. This dividing of the model also made the diorama easier to work on.

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Making the terrain of the diorama – shaping the field of battle:

The contour map of the battlefield was converted into a series of profiles so a carpenter could use them to make four wooden carcasses. Each one was 2m x 1m and was the foundation of the whole diorama.

Once I had these delivered back, I filled each one with polystyrene and weighted them down and left them to dry for a week or so. This keeps the weight down but still gives me a firm base to add all the texture and figures later on.

3CAE359E-2E41-45D9-9545-363FA34A164CThen I shaped the polystyrene with a hot wire cutter and sandpaper until it resembled the right shape. This job turned my workshop into a snow storm as the polystyrene went everywhere!

3C4517CD-6507-417A-BCF5-0A871CFD8AFBAlthough I had used sandpaper the surface was still quite rough, so I then skimmed it with a thin layer of tile grout before putting another thicker layer on top, so it would be strong enough to support the figures later.

Up until now it was just hard work with no creative touches. Now the fun could begin, starting with a layer of Artex. Most have heard of this used to create texture on ceilings, but it is great for model making. It is a powder that you mix with water to the thickness needed. The result was I could use a more watery mix for the areas that were very muddy and firmer for the ploughed areas. It also takes ages to dry, so I was able to work a long time on it as it set.

The trampled area needed hundreds of small footprints added so it looked like an army had walked all over it. I found a piece of resin that resembled a small footprint so I just set to pushing this into the Artex until the whole area was covered in tiny footprints! This process was rather time consuming so I wasn’t sorry to finish it!EF5DB256-38C2-402F-8CC9-CC40F193C973

For the ploughed areas, I ran a small trowel repeatedly over it in a series of straight parallel lines until the field was covered in furrows.IMG_0626

I left that to dry for a week or so and then painted the whole battlefield a special mix of brown wall emulsion paint that I selected to match the sample of Agincourt earth I had been given by the Armouries.AF702946-C3DB-41D3-986E-3D303F42D6F4

82849A75-5BB6-441A-AC76-9C7AFFC4554DA single coat of brown paint gives a very dull and uninteresting finish, so I then diluted raw umber acryllic paint and splashed that all over the brown base. This ran into all the footprints and furrows adding extra colour and tone to the whole field, which started to bring it to life.FFF49013-D0D7-4AC3-B263-787DDA45DB47

The final paint job was to dry brush a cream paint all over it. Dry brushing is the technique where you add paint to a brush, wipe as much of it off as you can and then very lightly draw the brush backwards and forwards over the field. The cream paint stays on the peaks of all the footprints and furrows highlighting all the detail and adding more contrast and life to the field.1DA7CC97-08C9-4C9B-87DD-8F62C8238769

Months before I had ordered the trees and coppicing from Realistic Modelling Services. We had long discussions about the colour of autumnal foliage on the trees and worked very closely with the Royal Armouries to get the coppice looking authentic. It was worth the effort when all the trees were planted.

Then I had to add the grass where the English army was deployed. I used a series of coloured ‘flock’- different shades of green, brown and cream of finely chopped foam and static grass. I counted 7 different layers and shades by the time I had finished.5404C27C-ED47-4653-9A70-EAFB1B32F027

Finally, I needed to add a few puddles where water hadn’t drained away. It made sense to use the low areas of the field where water would collect and just left to slowly drain away. The field’s high point runs along the middle of the field and then slopes away to each of the woods on both flanks so the puddles were added near the woods. I remember it fooled a number of people who thought we had had a water leak. Very satisfying!

The finishing touches on the battlefield occurred was once the model had been safely craned into the White Tower. We needed to fill the gaps between each section with Artex, once this was done the final footprints or furrows could be added and finally painted with the same colours as the rest.

All of this, of course, was the canvass to display the battle involving 4,500 figures…..that is another story….

Next up – painting the armies of Agincourt.

To see David Marshall and Perry Miniatures stunning diorama in the flesh, be sure to visit our Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London, running from October 23 until the 31 January.

Find out more about how the model was made and the figures made in the posts below.

For more details about the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition please click this link.

Agincourt 600: Making the model – the figures

As part of the museum’s commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For this special exhibition, the museum commissioned a bespoke diorama of the battle with David Marshall, model maker of MMDioramas, along with the Perry brothers of Perry Miniatures.

In the last post, model maker David Marshall introduced himself and the Perry’s and gave an overview of the project. Here, Alan and Michael talk through how these figures were made.

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When David Marshall approached us initially to ask whether we would be interested in working on the Agincourt diorama with him for the Royal Armouries, we of course considered it an honor to be involved in such an amazing project.

Fortunately, we had already developed an Agincourt range of figures with the help of Tobias Capwell (Head of Arms and Armour, Wallace Collection in London), so we were fairly confident that our figures were historically accurate enough for the job.

The way we make original Perry Miniature figures before they’re cast in metal is fairly standard. The figures we make are generally 28mm from the foot to top of head. We start with a 1mm tinned copper wire armature (or framework); bent in the right places to form the basis for the torso, head and legs in the right pose.  This is placed into a cork (see stage 1 below), which is handy to hold and maneuver in your other hand (or bionic arm in Michael’s case).

An ‘Epoxy putty’ is then added to the wire, but only a thin skin in the bulkier areas of the torso and muscles of the legs. This is then left to set, which takes about an hour. Once hardened, more putty is applied to the figure starting with the feet and legs, adding the general body shape and adding detail (stage two below). Starting with the feet and travelling up is the best way, as any overhanging cloth/armour etc. will automatically hang over in layers going up the body. Once the legs have dried, the body and head are treated in the same way (stage 3). Armour is usually added to the body at this stage, the head is left to dry before the hair/hat/ helmet is added (stage 4-5). When this is all dry, holes are drilled in the shoulders for the arms (stage 6).

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Wire is inserted and bent into the right pose, and a thin skim of putty is then attached to the arms and shoulders to hold them in place and left to dry (stage 7). The arms are then worked up with more putty as before, whilst also adding the finer details. After the arms have set, the weapons are added with super glue and the figure’s hands are sculpted around the weapon (stage 8). We usually make and cast the weapons in metal before the figures so we have ready supply at this point. After this, the figure is removed from the cork and glued to a base. These putty figures are then sent off to be cast in metal.

As the majority of the figures were already in our range, one of the first jobs was to get the entire Agincourt metal figure range approved by the Royal Armouries before we could start production on the diorama itself.

Unlike our Perry Miniatures range however, these model figures weren’t intended for wargaming but for a static diorama. This meant once they had been approved we had to take off all their bases and replace them with pegs, so they could blend in seamlessly with the terrain on the model. This meant quite a bit of work as we had to go through the entire range, but it was well worth the effort in the end. Once this was done, these figures all went off to be re-moulded and cast in a tin alloy centrifugally i.e. spun-cast (see examples below).

Metal castings with pegs

(Above, a short video showing the process of spin-casting metal miniatures in a rubber mould. Casting being done by DP Casting.)

This was the way we were going to produce all the figures for the diorama, in just the same way we make all our metal figures. However, Alan came up with the idea of making a resin block of around 40 French men at arms, all tightly packed and weathering the arrowstorm (as mentioned in accounts), which conveniently reduced both some weight and painting time required.

Along with the lightness of the resin, the middle two ranks of men at arms were just heads and shoulders, which saved a little painting – although metal spears still had to be drilled into the figures’ hands. Single metal figures were then placed along the front and rear ranks of these resin blocks on the diorama in order to blend the mass together, which worked really well.

Basic resin blocks in rough formation

As the project progressed we also needed to make more bespoke figures specifically for the diorama i.e. falling horsemen, key nobles at the battle, artillery pieces on carts, arrow carts with attendees, running bowmen making way for the nobles to fight, etc. Most of these were metal, although we did use a few plastic parts as our new English Army box had just been released. Making these ‘one off’ figures for the model was great fun and what we think big dioramas are all about. In the end it’s all about the detail, something that the public – especially kids with their keen eyes – will pick up on.

King Henry V miniature from the Agincourt Model

King Henry V miniature from the Agincourt Model

French cavalry falling back French unloading guns from their wagons Marurding peasants resupplying arrows

To see the figures for yourself visit the stunning Agincourt diorama in the Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London. Please visit this link for further blog posts from David Marshall and the Perrys on how the model was made as they are published.

After the exhibition closes at the Tower on the 31 January, the model will be making its way to Leeds later in the year where it will remain in our permanent War Gallery. The museum will be marking the occasion when it arrives with a special Hundred Years War Wargaming event. For details please get in touch with Kirsty Rogers via kirsty.rogers@armouries.org.uk.

Pick up or download the October issue of Wargames Illustrated for more pictures and details of the model!

Agincourt 600: Shakespeare’s Henry V

As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London. To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Ros King, University of Southampton, writes on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Shakespeare’s play of Henry V covers the whole of Henry’s 1415 campaign in France from initial discussions as to the validity of going to war to his eventual conquest of the French Princess Catherine in marriage. En route it presents the uncovering of the plot against him by the Earl of Cambridge and others, the death of Falstaff, Henry’s former friend and drinking companion; the embarkation of the army on an enormous flotilla of ships, the siege of Harfleur, and his notable victory at Agincourt—all, as the play’s Chorus famously remarks, by exploiting the imagination of its audience. But it is also one of Shakespeare’s most contentious works, dividing readers between those that think the play glorifies Henry’s role as one of England’s most successful military leaders, and those who think it condones war-mongering brutality. Ever since it was written, it has been cut and rearranged in attempts to iron out its contradictions and make it more simply heroic, more ‘band of brothers’. Meanwhile its most famous phrase ‘Once more into the breach’ has taken on a life of its own, being pressed into myriad uses great and small by those seeking to persuade others to do something they would probably rather not do.

A print of Act III, Scene i: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!". Thomas Robinson (printmaker) - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/v91611

A print of Act III, Scene i: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”. Thomas Robinson (printmaker) – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/v91611

My chapter in the Royal Armouries ‘Agincourt’ exhibition catalogue argues that the evident contradictions in the play are a deliberate part of its design and the reason why it is still so compelling 400 years on. The play presents a variety of crunch points on the road to war: Henry seeking the church’s support so that he does not have to bear the moral responsibility for war; church leaders persuading him to make war in order to distract him from the bill before parliament that would confiscate church lands; French ambassadors delivering a load of tennis balls, thus goading him into waging a war they believe he will lose. Most tellingly we see a poor ordinary soldier, Michael Williams, one of the very few commoners in the history plays to whom Shakespeare ever gives a name, as he struggles to make sense of what has brought him, cold and hungry, to a field in France. How does he know that this war is just? What will happen to the many wives and children who will be left destitute back home? And how is it that an unknown stranger (Henry in disguise) somehow manages to deflect his anxieties with platitudes about an individual’s responsibility for his own soul? He knows that the stranger has not answered his question about whether the war is just, but cannot put his finger on quite how he has sidestepped the issue. His frustration breaks out into violence.

Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

In fact the play is as full of instances of treachery, deceit, exploitation and violence between the multinational, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish troops in Henry’s so-called ‘English’ army as it is of battle between English and French. Its contradictions ask us to consider both the idea of ‘right’ on the road to war, and the nature of justice in the conduct of that war: these are the same questions that currently fill the news channels with regard to the conduct of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Henry horrifies us with his attempt to force the surrender of Harfleur by threatening to rape and murder its women, children, and old people. In Shakespeare’s day this speech might have recalled the behaviour of (Catholic) Spanish troops sacking (Protestant) towns in the Netherlands. Today it evokes the actions of so-called Islamic State. But the licence to sack a town that has held out under siege, and to kill or enslave its inhabitants is justified in the bible (Deuteronomy 20.10-20). Objecting to that behaviour means being able to reject part of a revered religious text. In the end, the play’s Henry orders that the inhabitants be well treated; the historical Henry expelled them so that the town could be settled by poor Englishmen.

Shakespeare’s play also presents, one after the other, two different historical versions of Henry’s other potential violation of the law of war: his order to kill the French prisoners. In one version, this act is pragmatic, although still brutal: the French are regrouping and the English cannot afford to keep prisoners alive. In the other, it is retribution for a French war-crime—the massacre of unarmed boys. The Welsh and English captains, Fluellen and Gower, are completely satisfied by this second explanation. Audiences, though, have just been made to witness the so-called ‘fog of war’ in operation.

Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt : The King wears on this surcoat the Royal Arms of England, quartered with the Fleur de Lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the throne of France. Harry Payne - http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm

Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt : The King wears on this surcoat the Royal Arms of England, quartered with the Fleur de Lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the throne of France. Harry Payne – http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm

It is well known that Shakespeare borrowed extensively from other writers—for this play, his main source was Holinshed’s Chronicle history of England. But he was not someone who would make do with the obvious sources if something else could be brought in to complicate the plot.  My colleague Craig Lambert has recently demonstrated that the fleet that transported Henry’s army to France was only half the size previously thought: a mere 700 ships rather than the 1500 claimed in the St Albans Chronicle or even the 1000 in Holinshed. In reality, he says, rather than the ‘city on th’inconstant billows dancing’ that Shakespeare describes, it was more of a ‘town’.

But truth in plays, even history plays, is sometimes wider than a single set of historical facts. I demonstrate that Shakespeare was exploiting a very different maritime event in order to make his dramatic point: Cleopatra in her barge on the River Cydnus when she first beguiled Mark Antony. Shakespeare knew of this extravaganza from the description by the Romano-Greek historian Plutarch in a recently published English translation by Sir Thomas North. He would later incorporate it word for word in the play Antony and Cleopatra. As used in Henry V, a few strangely antique words betray their origin, and give the description of Henry’s fleet an exotic, mythical character. If it seems odd to liken Henry’s military expedition to the most famous seduction event in history, the idea finds ironic culmination at the end of the play when he presses his suit to Catherine: ‘in loving me you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine’; all his, even though it now lies in ruins from the effects of his war.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1884, Sotheby's New York.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1884, Sotheby’s New York.

Thus, although the confident assertions of the play’s Chorus have contributed to the lasting myth that is Agincourt, the play’s structure, taken in its entirety, with its wide-ranging comparisons, contradictions, ironies, and black humour raises questions to which we still seek answers: about appropriate punishment; the nature of loyalty, and of treachery; the responsibility of friendship; and the right to make war. If we really were to engage our imaginations, this structure might help us expand our ethical understanding of these topics. Rather than asking us to make an either/or interpretation, the play invites us to respond with ‘yes, and . . .’.

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.

Agincourt 600: Making the Agincourt Diorama – an introduction

As part of the museum’s commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For this special exhibition, the museum commissioned a bespoke diorama of the battle with David Marshall, model maker of MMDioramas, along with Alan and Michael Perry of Perry Miniatures.

Here, the model maker and project manager David Marshall introduces himself, the Perry brothers, and how this model took shape over the last two years.

Meet the model makers: David Marshall, MMDioramas

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David Marshall (me) and the Agincourt diorama

I’ve been a wargamer from the moment I bought my first packs of Airfix soldiers from the local toy shop over 40 years ago. I still remember what they were, WW1 German infantry and American Civil War artillery! Since then I have bought, painted, played and built anything to do with the wargaming and toy soldier hobby. As a regular show demonstrator, my work was getting increasingly positive responses from people, so one Monday morning in April 2002 – after I had had a particularly successful weekend show – I walked into my boss’s office and handed in my notice.

TmTerrain was born, a business I started initially with my friend Mark, supplying one off quality terrain to the hobby market. As a full time model maker for over a decade I’ve built all sorts of projects for customers all over the world, and I haven’t had a day off due to lack of work in all that time – something that continually amazes me.

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When the Agincourt project with the Royal Armouries came along, I decided that I wanted to develop this side to my work through MMDioramas, so I could work on future large military based projects for museums and other similar organisations. Time will tell if it is a success, but one thing I can say though is that any future work will have to go some way to get more high profile!

Perry Miniatures:

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The Perry brothers, Alan and Michael, have been making figures professionally for 37 years, as they began freelancing when still at school! They started sculpting professionally at Games Workshop in 1978, making historical wargames figures for Wargames Foundry in their spare time from 1985 (alongside their Games Workshop 9-5 day job). After leaving Wargames Foundry in 2001 they started up their own company Perry Miniatures, making historical figures in over 30 ranges covering periods which range from the first Crusades to World War Two. They aim to make more ranges in both metal and plastic, and they both sculpt figures in the traditional way – by hand rather than digitally.

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Recently they were heavily involved in a massive Gallipoli diorama for Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, which is now on show at the Pukeahu National War Memorial museum, Wellington.

The Perrys are both keen wargamers themselves and enjoy using their own ranges to game with. Being re-enactors since 1980 (until 2014) they have a full grasp of how various weapons are used/held and armour is worn etc. which is invaluable when designing figures. Michael’s right hand was blown off in an accident when loading cannon in 1996 at a re-enactment of the Battle of Crécy, but learnt to use his left hand in a couple of weeks. The brothers have also illustrated many military books and are keen collectors of militaria.

Introducing the model: the facts and stats

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The Agincourt diorama is 4 meters by 2 meters in size, and made up from four 2m x 1m sections. 4,400 28mm figures make up its face, supplied by Perry Miniatures. 4,000 of the figures were painted by only two gentlemen from Nottingham, Painted Wargames. The other 400 on the field were painted by Andy Taylor, Dave Andrews, Steve Hall, Simon Chick, The Perrys, the Royal Armouries Thom Richardson and me.

The 100 trees and coppicing were made for the model by Keith from Realistic Modelling Supplies, and the 40 banners were supplied by GMB designs. The model itself took two years to make.

Overview of the project.

In January 2014, the letter arrived informing myself and the Perrys that we had won the contract to work with the Royal Armouries on this project. I had to put my project manager hat straight on as I realised my model making skills won’t be seen for a few months! Now was the time for planning.

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The first priority was to get the figures started. We had not got a final number confirmed yet, but there would be 1000’s required to finish the model, so the sooner we got going the more time we would give the painters to get them done. Every figure from the Perrys Agincourt range was approved by Royal Armouries, which was really important to everyone involved as it reflected our commitment to a true authentic representation of the battle. As the Perrys had worked closely with the Wallace Collection’s Tobias Capwell when creating their original Agincourt range of figures, we were confident there shouldn’t be any major issues, but it was still a relief when the approval came through.

At the end of June (2014) we got to see the figures, and received an approved colour pallet (see below) which went straight to Painted Wargames for reference. They had committed to painting 500 figures a month so getting this to them on time was vital. Phew!

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August saw the first 500 figures back from Painted Wargames. This gave me something to play with and it felt like real progress was being made. The battle was starting to take shape. Around the same time a big box full of trees arrived for us to play with. I love making terrain so I was really looking forward to this part.

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We discussed whether the landscape should be 3D printed with the Royal Armouries, however this was soon discounted due to cost and so I could apply a more traditional approach, which meant I could get my modelling hat on at last.

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The model base being constructed

In January 2015, the landscape was mostly shaped and nearly 3,000 figures painted, so we could start playing soldiers – which involved moving blocks of figures around to decide on the final layout. The overall layout and content had been decided months before, when the figure scale of each 1 figure equaling 5 men was agreed on (see initial sketch at the top). We still had to pin the detail down however; including the personalities, banners, stakes, and we had to check that the whole exciting story of the battle was being told and interpreted properly.

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Allan Perry with Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries and the Queen of Agincourt herself Anne Curry, who is also Trustee of the Royal Armouries.

I think this was the most frustrating, exciting, worrying and ultimately rewarding part of the whole project. It was worth every minute of discussion and it just left us to push on now to completion. Details still needed to be decided on such as field patterns, woodland use, and the style of coppicing in the woods either side. It took two or three goes at it to get the coppicing right, but the attention to detail really paid off.

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Furnishing the model involved placing 4,500 figures, 100 trees, 100s of wooden stakes, and over 1,000 arrows stuck into the ground. A mammoth job but with amazing results!

The first figures are fixed to the board. No going back now!

The first figures are fixed to the board. No going back now!

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Alan and Michael Perry having an ice cream break from placing figures

June (2015) saw the diorama 95% complete, so it was time for the final meeting with the Royal Armouries before the model went off to have its special case fitted for the exhibition. I expected this to be one of the most nervous days of my life as I collected everyone in a conference room before the big reveal. When the moment came however, I was totally calm. I was confident that we had delivered a spectacular diorama of the battle and just couldn’t wait to share it with them!

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The project took about 2 years to complete. During that time many people have seen the diorama as they worked on it, and a few other war gamers and history fans have had the chance of a sneak a peek.

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The Perry brothers, Royal Armouries team, and myself placing Henry V on the battlefield.

Just before the model was due to be delivered, I had a visit from my son Ben and his girlfriend Rachel. She has been put through visits to tank museums, and other military and architectural delights since joining our family. I was very pleased to see her and they spent a while having a good look at the diorama. They then went off to lunch with her family where the discussion started about the battle, as her Dad has read a lot about it so could explain what happened during the engagement.

Rachel suddenly realised she understood and could visualise what happened on that day in 1415. The diorama allowed her to connect and understand the battle. I have had lots of people tell me how good the diorama looks and what a great job we’ve done, but it was Rachel’s experience that was the most satisfying for me. It demonstrates how powerfully a diorama can connect with the viewer and make historical moments such as the battle of Agincourt accessible to a wider audience. The perfect result!

 

The 22nd September saw the team working in the shadow of the Tower of London in the pouring rain, looking at a crane to winch the whole exhibition up into the top floor.

We waited for our turn, which was easily the most nervous part of the whole project, and thankfully when it was the rain stopped and each piece went up beautifully. I suddenly realised I was running high on adrenaline and coffee up to then, so once I saw all of the sections up there I was very relieved!

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The next two days saw us install the diorama in the exhibition space and complete the final hand over, with the project sign off occurring at 2pm on the 23rd September. The Royal Armouries team gave us the all clear.

After two years of work completed successfully, we packed up our tools and drove home! To celebrate when I got home, I watched the Great British Bake Off and then went to bed! Mission accomplished.

To see David and the Perrys stunning work make sure you visit the Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London. Please visit this link for further blog posts from David and the Perrys on how the model was made as they are published.

After the exhibition closes at the Tower on the 31 January the model will be making its way to Leeds later in the year, where it will remain in our permanent War Gallery. The museum will be marking the occasion when it arrives with a special Hundred Years War Wargaming event. For details please get in touch with Kirsty Rogers via kirsty.rogers@armouries.org.uk.

 Pick up or download the October issue of Wargames Illustrated for more pictures and details of the model!

Agincourt 600: Triumph of the longbow?

As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London.To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries, writes about the iconic longbows of the battle.

© His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library

The battle of Agincourt from the Brut Chronicle (Chronicle of St Albans), English, late 15th century. © His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library

The accounts of the privy wardrobe, the fourteenth century organisation which ran the armoury at the Tower of London and the earliest ancestor of the present-day Royal Armouries, give incredible detail about the manufacture, storage and issue of armour and weapons, especially longbows and arrows, throughout the first half of the Hundred Years War. Unfortunately the records run out after 1410, so the details about what went over to Harfleur with Henry V for the Agincourt campaign don’t survive. But we have a pretty good idea of all the processes from what went on before.

On the whole, each archer in an English army was issued for each campaign with a bow, between two and five bowstrings and two ‘sheaves’ of arrows (each of twenty-four arrows tied up with hemp cord, which they reused to tie the arrows round their waists for battle, no quivers).

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An example of an ‘arrow bag’ as used at the battle in 1415.

Ordinary arrows were of poplar, fletched with goose feathers and fitted with a single type of low-barbed head. The best bows were painted, and supplied with ash arrows with steel heads, fletched with peacock feathers.

Though hardly any medieval longbows survive either, we now have an amazing group of them from the Mary Rose, which have revolutionised our understanding of the weapon in the last twenty years. We now think they ranged in draw weight between 65–160 lb, with an average about 110 lb, double what we thought a generation ago.

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Bow, from the wreck of the Mary Rose sunk in 1545, English, mid-16th century.

Odd that this change in understanding should have taken so long, as we have had two of the Mary Rose bows, excavated from the bottom of the Solent by John Deane and William Edwards using their newly invented diving apparatus in 1840, on display at the Tower ever since.

Anyway, the ‘new’ high-powered bows have been reconstructed, experimented with, and enabled the rediscovery of a medieval style of shooting ‘in the bow’ which had been lost through centuries of target archery with much lighter longbows. One of these experimental archaeologists, Mark Stretton, who is one of the best exponents of this rediscovered style of shooting, undertook a fascinating experiment with a bow, some arrows and a radio-controlled lawnmower, which showed that a skilled medieval archer could shoot just three aimed arrows into a charging French knight (or lawnmower). See below a clip of Mark shooting a 140lb self yew bow made by Pip Bickerstaffe.

Filmed at the shooting at Malestroit Medieval Festival 2011, by bowyer (longbow-maker) Ian Cootes (40bowyr).

While the bows have ‘become’ more powerful than we used to think, the ‘arrowstorm’ beloved of English archery enthusiasts has diminished. We used to talk about resupply of arrows as if it was a natural and simple process, but the privy wardrobe accounts show otherwise. Each archer had two sheaves of arrows to last a campaign, and would probably go into battle with just one of them. So all the statistics of how many arrows an archer can shoot in a minute are very much put into perspective by realising that such an arrowstorm could last just three minutes, then the arrows were gone. Once we are aware of that, we can see it happening in the sources: at Poitiers in 1356 the English archers ran out, and tried to recover spent arrows. At Towton in 1461 the Lancastrian archers ran out of arrows, and suffered the indignity of having the Yorkists shoot their own arrows back at them. So the vision moves away from darkening the sky with arrows like the Persians’ at Thermopylae towards a smaller number of accurately aimed arrows shot from very powerful bows by highly skilled and practised professional archers.

The Battle of Agincourt catalogue and exhibition present a whole new way of looking at English medieval archery, derived from the study of actual objects, experimental archaeology and medieval documents, all working together to provide a new understanding of the past. And we have acquired a large group of English arrowheads of the period, mostly from the River Thames, to go in the exhibition. Sadly Westminster Abbey, who own the only fifteenth century arrow in England, couldn’t lend it to us, but our bows and arrowheads will join forces with the Mary Rose bows and arrows (no heads, iron hardly survives at all on the Mary Rose) to present in the catalogue and exhibition the most comprehensive display about English medieval archery ever staged.

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Broadhead (arrowhead) European, 15th c. Royal Armouries collection.

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.

Agincourt 600: An introduction to the battle

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Battle of Agincourt (1415) Chroniques. d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) – H. W. Koch: Illustrierte Geschichte der Kriegszüge im Mittelalter, S. 133,

The battle of Agincourt took place on St Crispin’s day, Friday 25 October 1415, between the armies of King Henry V of England and King Charles VI of France. For the 600th anniversary of the battle, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection of arms, armour, objets d’art, and manuscripts at the Tower of London, as well staging a family events programme and publishing a book commemorating the battle in association with Yale Books.

To introduce you to this battle and the Hundred Years War period, we’ll have to take you through some family history of Henry V.

The background

Henry V was the son of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV of England). Edward III was Henry V’s great-grandfather;his grandfather was Edward’s third son John of Gaunt (1st Duke of Lancaster). Henry V inherited the ‘Hundred Years War’ from his great-grandfather after Edward III challenged Phillip VI’s right to the French crown.

When Charles IV, the French King, died in 1328 he left no male heir. His nearest male relative was his nephew Edward III;Charles IV’s sister Isabella was Edward’s mother.The French nobility did not want to be ruled by an English King, and there was already recognition that femailes could not succeed to the throne. Therefore they agreed that the heir would be Phillip of Valois, Charles IV’s first cousin. Despite this Edward III argued that although a woman was unable to inherit , it did not  prevent inheritance through the female line – which formed the basis of his claim.

100 years war family tree

There were many other factors that contributed to  outbreak of  the Hundred Years War: including England’s relationship with Scotland, France’s disruption of the English wool trade, and England’s complicated land ownership history of Gascony and Aquitaine (regions of South West France) – but it was his claim to the French throne that Edward III’s campaigns, and those  of his descendants, would be later justified.

The Battle

Agincourt was one of three major land battles of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), which in fact lasted 116 years. On 26 August 1346 Edward III defeated Philip VI at Crécy. On 16 July 1356 Edward’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) captured Philip VI’s successor John II at the battle of Poitiers. He was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London. Yet it is hard to imagine national celebrations of these battles or a major exhibition devoted to them.

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Battle of Crécy, 1346. Copiste inconnu – Grandes Chroniques de France, British Library Cotton MS Nero E. II pt.2, f.152v

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Battle of Poitiers, 1356 (miniature from the Chronicles of Froissart).

Agincourt is a well-documented battle. 1415 was the first occasion since 1359 that an English king had invaded France in person. It was also the largest army taken to France since the battle of Crécy 69 years previously. His preparations indicated that Henry V was planning to conquer the kingdom in what would be a long campaign. Despite this, Agincourt was a swift victory; one chronicler suggesting it was over in half an hour, while others suggest that it lasted between two and three hours.

Henry V set sail for France on 11th August, landing near Le Havre on the 13th. He then laid siege to Harfleur from  17th August until the 22nd September when the town surrendered. Despite his intention to conqueror France, this would be Henry’s one and only capture of his campaign.

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A map of Henry V’s campaign route

On the morning of Friday 25th October both English and French armies met in battle at Agincourt.  In the early afternoon, fearing a renewed French attack, Henry famously ordered the French prisoners to be killed. This has generated controversy in more recent times, even to the extent of asking whether Henry V should be deemed a war criminal. Contemporaries, however, saw the battle as distinctive primarily for the high number of French casualties and prisoners, and for the exceptionally low number of English casualties.

There was no ‘standing army’ (a permanent, often professional, army composed of full-time soldiers that is not  disbanded in times of peace) in either France or England in 1415. Troops were raised on a campaign-by-campaign basis. There were many similarities between the armies in terms of their recruitment, armour and equipment, but one crucial difference: the English brought relatively few men- at- arms on campaign (soldiers who wore full plate armour in battle) but a much greater proportion of archers. The significance of archers in the battle was noted at the time. Their ‘arrowstorm’ disrupted  the French advance, thereby undermining  their numerical superiority. Henry’s deployment of his archers has been a contested area in modern historical work, alongside the sometimes heated debate on the size of the armies.

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Images of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt diorama, made by model maker David Marshall and Perry Miniatures, which forms part of the exhibition at the Tower of London. To find out more about how the model was made, please click this link.

This takes us to the nub of historical study of the battle. Despite pioneering work in the mid nineteenth century by Sir Joseph Hunter, one of the founders of the Public Record Office, and the extensive but antiquarian narrative of the campaign in James Wylie’s Reign of Henry the Fifth (1914), there was no full- scale study of the financial records of Henry’s army until Professor Anne Curry (trustee of the Royal Armouries) published ‘The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations’. There are many documents to draw on, especially the muster lists which provide names and details of pay. Records for the French army also exist but are less extensive and await fuller analysis.

Narrative sources are numerous, as Curry’s study outlines. The most well-known English sources include the Gesta Henrici Quinti (‘Deeds of Henry V’) written by an English priest present on the campaign, plus battle narratives in two eulogistic Latin lives of Henry V written in the late 1430s, and insights into ‘popular’ views through English poems and chronicles – especially the vernacular chronicle known as the Brut. On the French side, the most influential account has been that of Enguerrand de Monstrelet, who sought to continue the earlier chronicling begun by Jean Froissart in the late fourteenth century, but there are many others – testimony to the impact of the battle on the French. Many studies of the battle have drawn on the sixteenth- century English histories of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, which informed Shakespeare, rather than on narratives written closer to the period.

The battle’s legacy

Why should there be so much interest in commemorating this battle today? Agincourt was not a decisive battle. The French suffered heavy losses in terms of dead and captured but politically these were not significant enough to force the French to the negotiating table. Henry’s victory made his later conquest of Normandy easier, as the French were reluctant to meet him in battle again. But his final triumph in May 1420 – acceptance as heir and regent of France by the treaty of Troyes – was the result of political divisions in France rather than simply military success.

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Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

The simplest explanation for the special place of Agincourt is Shakespeare. His Henry V (1599), probably the first play performed at the Globe Theatre, provides the image of a charismatic individual and his great victory that still predominates today. Had Shakespeare’s involvement in the writing of the play Edward III (1590–94) been greater, we might have been celebrating Crécy and Poitiers too, but its language comes nowhere near the memorable and inspirational speeches of Henry V (for more on this topic please see this link). Over the centuries Shakespeare’s Henry V has come to stand for Englishness and for triumph in the face of adversity Nowhere is this more evident than in Laurence Olivier’s famous film of the play released in 1944, dedicated to the commandos and airborne troops who made D- Day possible.

Poster of Henry V. British Film Institute.

Poster of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, 1944. British Film Institute.

The dominance of Shakespeare explains why we have included the play, the Olivier film and the musical legacy in this exhibition. The Agincourt Carol, which may have been composed only weeks after the battle for Henry V’s triumphal entry to London, was used to good effect by William Walton in his film score. It was also played when the announcement was made that London had pipped Paris to the 2012 Olympic Games. A fifteenth century manuscript of the Agincourt Carol is included in our exhibition at the Tower of London.


Performance of the Agincourt Carol by the Alamire.

The frequency of conflict with France until the Entente Cordiale (peace treaty between England and France) of 1904 helped to keep Agincourt in the public gaze. It is not surprising that families, from the sixteenth century onwards, have been keen to find (or invent) ancestors who distinguished themselves at the battle, or that objects should be forged to provide a tangible link with the glorious victory.

The first serious study of the battle by Harris Nicolas in 1827 was coloured by the Napoleonic Wars. Even though it publicised important sources it also perpetuated myths, including the notion that we did not know the names of the archers in Henry V’s army. Excavations at Azincourt in 1818, initiated by Lt- Col. John Woodford – who commanded the army of observation in the region after Waterloo, clouded rather than extended knowledge of the battlefield. Current efforts to apply modern standards of battlefield archaeology are starting to advance our understanding, but as yet the location has not been confirmed.

The aim of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition, events programme, and publication, is to set the battle in context as well as to explore the event itself. The aim is to enhance understanding of the proceedings leading up to the battle, including the military preparations made by each side, the immediate consequences of Henry V’s victory, and finally the influence that Agincourt has exerted on historical and cultural memory in the centuries following the battle. The Tower of London provides an ideal starting point since it played a crucial role in preparations for the campaign as well as its aftermath. The Royal Armouries were not formally established until 1984, but as the successor body to the Tower Armouries and, before that, the Ordnance Office, we have enjoyed a continuous presence at the Tower of London since the establishment of the privy wardrobe in the early fourteenth century. The privy wardrobe managed the supply and logistical requirements for the military campaigns of English kings from the reign of Edward III onwards. The 1415 campaign was no exception.

The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition will run at at the Tower of London from 23 October 2015 until 31 January 2016, please visit our website to find out about the objects on display and our half term events programme. Further posts on the content of our ‘Agincourt’ catalogue, in association with Yale University Press, can be found as they are published via this link.

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First World War Archives Project: An introduction

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For the centenary of the First World War, Leeds Royal Armouries is collaborating with a number of other heritage organisations to digitise archives relating to the Royal Small Arms Factory (Enfield) and Local Regiments.

The project is running until March 2016 and is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

As the project develops we will be sharing any news, exciting discoveries, and points of interest on this blog – so keep checking back for the latest updates.

Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/1/1/4/4)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/1/1/4/4)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Royal Small Arms Factory

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Established in 1816, the Enfield factory developed into the main Government producer of military small arms during the First World War. The factory produced, among others, the famous Lee-Enfield Rifle which served the British Army as a standard issue weapon for over 60 years.

Below are a few thoughts from Philip Abbott, Archives and Records Manager leading the project at the Royal Armouries:

“Enfield was such an important Governmental factory because it was a fundamental pillar throughout the 200 years of the Industrial Revolution. The factory’s fascinating history is not just that of firearms production but of our industrial and social heritage, with discoveries such as staff registers and Minute Books. We will hopefully be able to link together projects and documents through the digitalisation process and discover new clues. One main aim of this project is to find out where original records of the Royal Small Arms Factory lie now and with whom, as many important documents remained in the possession of ex-employees and administrators”

“This specific area of the project advances our knowledge of the Royal Armouries collection and creates fantastic new partnerships, which helps create and support future projects.”

The project will digitise and make available records including staff registers, plans, technical drawings and photographs in order to create a valuable resource for researchers interested in the history of the factory and its employees.

Our partners are:

Enfield Museum
Enfield Local Studies and Archives
Royal Small Arms Trust
RSAF Apprentices Association 
Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association (HBSA)
Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association. Northern Group

Regimental and Corps Museums

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Regimental and Corps Museums of the British Army contain a wide range of archives, including personal diaries, photograph albums, battalion orders and trench maps.

Working with 7 regimental museum partners, the project will digitise First World War material from their collections in order to create digital resources commemorating the lives of the allied soldiers who fought on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

Philip Abbott: “The important factor of Regimental Museum’s collections is that it’s about ‘ordinary people’, which is an aspect our own collection at the Royal Armouries can sometimes lack. We need that personal view for WWI items and documents, whether reflecting life in the factory as at Enfield or the trench via the Regimental Museums.”

“Regimental Museums have a wealth of the material we need, but need the resources we have available to bring it to the public. Therefore it’s a perfect partnership.”

Our partners are:

Green Howards’ Regimental Museum
The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding) Museum
The Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment of Yorkshire Museum
The Royal Dragoon Guards Museum
The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
The York and Lancaster Regimental Museum
The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum

Armourers course group photo - Enfield 1910

The Royal Armouries Leather In Warfare Conference

Recently the Royal Armouries played host to a wealth of knowledge and passion as we, in partnership with the Archaeological Leather Group, held the Leather in Warfare conference here in Leeds. We were fortunate to hear from a wide variety of fantastic speakers, each providing delegates with a fascinating new perspective on leather and its uses on the battlefield and in arms and armour.

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Yvette Fletcher, Head of Conservation, Leather Conservation Centre.

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Dr David Nicolle, Honorary Research Fellow, Institute for Medieval Research, Nottingham University.

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Nicholas P. Baptiste, Archivist-Curator Morges Castle (Swi), Doct-Researcher, University of Savoy (Fr).

Attendees were treated to a range of presentations on subjects as diverse as Roman army tents and mamaluk armour. Royal Armouries Emeritus Curator, Ian Bottomley, enthused the audience with his paper on Japanese leatherwork, and Helen Adams’ porcupine fish helmet from the Pitt Rivers museum also caused much excitement. Other Royal Armouries speakers included Senior Curator of Armour Karen Watts, Conservation Manager Suzanne Kitto, Assistant Curator of Edged Weapons Henry Yallop, and Assistant Curator of Armour Keith Dowen. Dr Thom Richardson, Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries, chaired the conference as well as providing his own paper.

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Japanese leather items presented by Royal Armouries Emeritus Curator, Ian Bottomley.

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Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries Thom Richardson.

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Helen Adams, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, presenting on Ethnographic examples of animal skin armour – with a porcupine fish helmet pictured.

Debate arose on the final day of the conference when Barbara Wills, senior curator at the British Museum (department of Conservation and Scientific research) presented her project on crocodile skin ‘armour’ from Egypt.

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Barbara Wills, Senior Conservator, British Museum Department of Conservation and Scientific Research – presenting her crocodile skin armour project.

Fellow speaker Carol van Driel-Murray questioned whether this discovery was indeed armour at all, and if it were purely intended for ceremonial use should we not avoid describing it as such altogether? However it was also argued whether this armour was representing specific Egyptian religious beliefs through symbolising Sobek – the crocodile warrior god who signifies strength and power. Was this therefore an example of ‘costume armour’ and therefore should be called such? Was this a complex ceremonial layering of a human, dressing as crocodile, dressing as a solider? No doubt this isn’t the last we will hear of this fascinating project!

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Carol van Driel-Murray, University of Leiden, presenting on Roman Military leatherwork.

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Barbara Wills, British Museum.

The event was organised by Curatorial Manager Alison Watson, who commented, “it was fantastic to work with the Archaeological Leather Group to produce such a successful conference and we look forward to working with them on the proceedings, due out 2015.”

A study day commemorating the Battle of Waterloo is currently proposed at the Royal Armouries for spring 2015, and Armouries staff will be speaking at a number of conferences throughout the upcoming months, for more information please contact enquiries@armouries.org.uk. For more images from the Leather in Warfare conference, please visit our Facebook and Twitter pages.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…

One of the most popular symbols of the festive season is the Christmas tree, with its familiar fir-tree shape. Interestingly, the blades of three 16th-century Italian partizans in the Armouries’ collection all have a design in pointillé decoration which distinctly resembles this same recognisable outline of a fir tree. There is no evidence that this is what the design was actually intended to represent, but the similarity is striking. The outline of the staggered branches is depicted in small punched dots around the medial ridges of the blades.

Christmas tree partizan close up

Christmas tree partizan close up

Partizans were amongst a variety of European two-handed staff weapons that developed and experienced widespread usage in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time, foot soldiers became increasingly important on the battlefield, and infantry militias from Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands successfully fought against armies of mounted knights. These three partizans were part of the group of staff weapons that were imported from Italy by King Henry VIII, and formed part of his arsenal. Their long ‘ox-tongue’ type blades have a spear point and projecting, upturned lugs at the base. They are mounted on wooden shafts which are approximately nine feet (nearly three metres) long.

Christmas tree partizan

Christmas tree partizan

By the 17th century, the manufacture of partizans and their practical use as battlefield weapons was declining, but they continued to have a role as ceremonial weapons associated with military rank. For this purpose the blades were often shortened and highly ornamented. In this guise they came to be known as ‘spontons’ or ‘spontoons’.

The decoration on these particular partizans is not especially elaborate though, which may suggest that they were intended to be more functional than ornamental. The design on the blades seems immediately familiar to contemporary audiences as the outline of a fir tree, but why it was used is an intriguing question to which we cannot yet provide an answer. Was it simply a popular decorative motif for this type of weapon, or did it possess a greater symbolic meaning than we realise? It is unlikely to be a reference to a Christmas tree as we would understand it, because when these partizans were made in the 16th century, the custom of the Christmas tree was not well established outside Northern Germany; the rest of Europe only embraced the tradition a few centuries later.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant