There’s a world-class museum on our doorsteps, but even if you’ve been, you only know a fraction of what goes on inside…
You probably know that the Royal Armouries is home to the National Collection of Arms and Armour. But did you know it was once a working armoury? It’s true, it really was. And now that it’s an internationally-renowned museum, they’ve helped to identify the weapon that killed Richard III and even had a visit from NASA. There are so many stories behind this incredible institution and no one knows about them.
One of the oldest museums in the UK is right here in Leeds
Although the Royal Armouries as we know it only opened in 1996, the museum itself is one of the oldest in Britain. It’s been around in some form or another since 1078, when the Tower of London was first built, and it was here, all those years ago, that the Royal Armouries began life as the main royal and national arsenal. But since then, it’s been transformed from a working armoury into one of the most impressive collections of arms and armour in the world.
The collection has been shaped by various battles and monarchs over the centuries. From the events of the Hundred Years War to the turmoil of the English Civil War, it includes 75,000 objects and traces the history of arms and armour from antiquity to the present day. Henry VIII had a huge influence on the collection too, his determination to make England a force to be reckoned with led to the creation of an unparalleled Tudor artillery arsenal. And of course, our colonial and imperial expansion brought artefacts from all over the world.
In 1996, the collection was moved from The Tower of London to a new £42.5 million museum, right here in Leeds. The Royal Armouries Museum was designed from the inside out and the five galleries inside have been specially made to showcase the collection, right down to the height of the ceilings, which were built to fit their tallest staff weapons. It also has a state-of-the-art building management system that constantly monitors the heat and humidity in the museum to help preserve their priceless collection (along with three full-time conservators).
Ten years after the new museum opened, there was another big development – the MOD Pattern Room collection was gifted to the Royal Armouries, creating the National Firearms Centre. And that’s when things start to get really interesting. They now hold one of the biggest reference collections in the world, and it includes a copy of every weapon currently in service, both at home and abroad. Not only is it used by the Ministry of Defence for training purposes, but the Royal Armouries is often called upon to provide ballistics services and expert advice to the authorities. Bet you didn’t know that.
You won’t believe what wonders await inside
Let’s start with some numbers. There are over 8,000 artefacts on display in the Royal Armouries Museum, with 2,738 in the Hall of Steel alone, and they’ll take you on a journey through the depths of time, into every corner of the globe.
You can venture into a world of jousting and combat in the Tournament Gallery, where you’ll find one of the most important pieces in their collection. Henry VIII’s Foot Combat Armour will give you a glimpse of the king as he once was. At the age of 29 years, he had a 36-inch waist and a 41-inch chest, which is a stark contrast to his 51-inch waistline 20 years later. Henry’s armour is like no other in Britain. Every part locks into another, so there’s no chink in his protection – which is why NASA came calling. It was 1962, they were developing their new spacesuits and they wanted to see if Henry’s innovatively designed armour held the secret to space travel.
From tournaments to machine guns, the War Gallery offers a different experience entirely. It follows the evolution of war from ancient Greece through to the modern day, so you can see knights in shining armour, a prototype of the first-ever machine gun and one of the oldest shaffrons in the world – the Warwick Shaffron is a metal face defence worn by a war horse and this one dates back to 1400, at the time of the Hundred Years War.
Upstairs, the Hunting Gallery is full of surprises. You can see the elegant 18th-century hunting weapons of Elizabeth Petrovna, the Empress of Russia, alongside a huge Norwegian whaling cannon, and our personal favourite – the assassin’s crossbow. This teeny, tiny weapon was once so lethal (and so easy to conceal) that it was banned in Venice in 1545 – if you were unlucky enough to be found with one in your possession, you’d be likely to lose a hand.
But at least you’d keep your head, which is more than we can say for those who went under the executioner’s sword in the Oriental Gallery. This collection is unique because it has items from all over Asia. There’s medieval Turkish armour, a Ming dynasty sword from the workshop of the Yongle Ming Emperor, and of course, their famous elephant armour – this is the biggest and the heaviest suit of armour in the entire world. They do, from time to time, get loan requests, but at 118 kilograms, it would be a very expensive endeavour and they haven’t found anyone who could afford it yet.
And finally, you have the Self-defence Gallery. Despite the name, weapons are still the primary focus here, but they’re primarily used for protection. From rapiers to duelling pistols and a real-life ‘vampire killing kit’ complete with stakes, garlic powder and holy water, you can see how people have protected themselves through the ages and what the ramifications of their actions were.
But there’s more to the Royal Armouries than meets the eye. Within their almighty collection, they have swords owned by Cromwell, Napoleon, Wellington… and Frodo Baggins. That’s right, it’s not all history, they also have five swords based on the props used in Lord of the Rings – they’re limited edition artist copies by Weta’s Master Swordsmith Peter Lyon, the man who made the originals. You can also see James Bond’s weapon of choice and the pulse rifle used in Aliens. It’s not your usual museum fare, but it sure makes things interesting.
And that’s just the stuff you can see. Behind the scenes, they have even more items, including things you’d never expect to find here. From antique prints to rare books and the entire history of the Tower of London, they collect anything and everything that will help them understand the history of arms and armour. Just to give you an idea of scale of it all, they have 500,000 items in their archive and another 70,000 in their library and special collections.
There’s a world beyond the displays that you never see
First and foremost, the Royal Armouries is a museum – their job is to make the collection accessible for everyone. But beyond the display cases, there’s another stream of work at play. In fact, they’ve been involved in a series of incredible discoveries and unusual experiments over the years.
In 2012, the Greyfriars Project at the University of Leicester uncovered the remains of Richard III and Bob Woosnam-Savage was part of the team. He’s the Royal Armouries Curator of Armour and Edged Weapons, so he was the perfect person to help identify the weapon that killed the king on the battlefield.
“We found the skeleton on the very first day, in the very first trench, then along with pathologists, osteologists, historians and DNA specialists, working as a team, we successfully identified him as being Richard III,” he told us. “I was looking at weapons that might have caused the trauma to the skeleton. He received a number of wounds to the skull, including a slicing blow from an axe-like blade. The science tied in with the history actually, because there was only one account of the particular type of weapon used to kill Richard, which was a halberd axe blade mounted on a wooden haft. And lo and behold, the trauma actually matches up.”
From a king killed in action to the assassination of an archduke – Lisa Traynor, the Royal Armouries Curator of Firearms, is coming to the end of a 5-year research project into Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. Around the time of his death, Polish inventor Casimir Zeglen had designed various patents for bullet-proof vests made out of silk.
President William McKinley was offered one shortly before he was assassinated in 1901, but he turned it down, and his successor Teddy Roosevelt had ‘samples’ of Zeglen’s bullet-proof cloth sent to the White House. Reports suggest that Ferdinand might have had one too, but could it have changed the archduke’s fate? That was the question that popped into Traynor’s head when she discovered a Browning Model 1910 in the Royal Armouries collection. It was so close to the one that killed Ferdinand that the serial numbers of the two guns were just 516 apart – in fact, it was probably in the factory at the same time as the murder weapon.
The answer, as it turned out, is probably yes – but what might surprise you is how she’s going to prove it. Working with expert forensic teams and Polish academic Professor Slawomir Lotysz, she recreated Zeglen’s bullet-proof vests from the original patents and set up a ballistic experiment to see if they would stop the bullets from the Browning.
“There are lots of different patents to this particular armour, because Zeglen kept improving it, therefore I had various samples and full vests of different patents made. I think I’m the first person who’s gone back and done that,” Traynor told us. “I started shooting the early patents with black powder revolvers, as they are less powerful, to see if they could actually stop bullets – and they did. Then I started testing it against the Browning Model 1910. It got very scientific, we started measuring the speed of the bullet using a chronograph, until samples of the last patent finally stopped it.”
The true test is yet to come. Traynor still has to make the successful patent into a vest to see if it can resist a shot to the neck, where Ferdinand was shot. Soft armour is notoriously weak in this area, so you’ll have to wait to find out if it would have saved his life. But one thing’s for sure – this unconventional experiment has brought a piece of history to life and revealed the truth behind one of the great mysteries of the past. Until recently, we simply didn’t know if Zeglen’s vest could actually stop bullets. Now we do.
And there may be another, equally important, experiment in the pipeline. The Royal Armouries is home to one of the oldest handguns ever made. The Danzig gun is almost unrecognisable. It doesn’t have a handle, instead the barrel attaches to a wooden staff, and the muzzle itself is surprisingly small and decorative. There’s only one other like it in the world, but no one knows if it would actually fire, and if it did, whether it would be effective. So when the next research programme opens, Jonathan Ferguson intends to find out.
He’s the Royal Armouries Keeper of Firearms & Artillery and he helped to acquire the Danzig gun, so it’s no surprise that he’s curious. Right now, it’s just an idea, but it wouldn’t be all that different from Traynor’s experiment. “The first phase would be remaking a copy, because it’s so old and so unique that we wouldn’t dare fire the original. We’d recreate it exactly, including the decorations, because we’d want it to be a perfect replica,” he explained.
From there, they’d have to research and replicate the gunpowder used in 1400, before testing the gun on ballistic gelatine. They might even go one step further by adding forensic simulated bone into the equation, so they can see how the Danzig gun would affect a real human being. They’ve tried it before with an original Flintlock musket from the Battle of Waterloo and it looked exactly like the medical skeletons they have from the time.
These experiment and research projects aren’t just for their own eyes. They use them as inspiration for the many events and conferences they put on throughout the year. Each one is meticulously researched, so whether you’re hearing the story of Buffalo Bill this weekend or joining them for their all-day conference on Britain and the Thirty Years War in September, you’ll always get a unique insight into the past.