The Royal Armory Museum was moved here from London. It’s located away from downtown Leeds, across the river but still within walking distance. It’s not small, as you can see. Still, we thought we could view all the interesting stuff in an afternoon. Boy was that wrong! We spent another entire day, and did not see it all. It contains a history of the world’s weapons and armor – almost always the real McCoys! There are Roman artifacts, lots of medieval armor from throughout the world – the UK, Japan, India … the only elephant armor in existence … jousting armor worn by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, ditto for Henry VIII, etc.
Let me give you the flavor of the place by showing you this incredible suit of armor, called the “Lion Armor”. It’s Italian or French (the provenance is uncertain), from about 1550. It’s highly decorated, with embossed lion heads at the shoulders, elbows, gauntlets and
knees. One large lion head forms the top and back of the helmet. The intricate decoration is applied gold. Apparently the armor was not just ceremonial but was used in combat, as suggested by the sword cuts on the helmet’s left side.
Armor became not only protective gear in battle, requiring technical expertise in its manufacture, but also a fashion statement, requiring the skills of the best craftsmen in Europe. National styles developed; for instance, the high point in style (‘Gothic’) came from Germany in the mid 1400’s, with ripple-like fluting imitating the darts and tucks of contemporary dress. Many suits of armor were in color (eg, sky blue), but only traces of the original color remain after all these years. A little different from the shiny metal armor we thought, eh?
The Armory had room after packed room! The displays were arranged around countries and themes (Japan, jousting etc.) rather than chronologically. I was interested in the temporal development of the weaponry and armor throughout the world, so I’ve tried to organize what we saw accordingly (but let’s be clear, this is only based on the Armory’s collection, and I am far from an historian). Let me also be clear – this is a looooonnggg post, wading through changes in history that will not be very compelling to many; you may find it useful to just skim through the pictures and wait for the next post!
I’ll start with Bronze-age armor. The knowledge of how to make bronze disseminated slowly from the Middle East, where it originated. It didn’t find its way to Britain and into armor and weapons until much later. And since this is the UK Armory, very early weaponry and armor, such as this bronze armor from Greece (1400 BC), are presented only in pictures. These bronze plates would have been worn by a charioteer during an age when light chariots were the mainstay of armies.
Later, armies were primarily composed of infantry spearmen, with shields and helmets. There was a lot of variation in the design of helmets and shields across Europe and Asia.
The bronze helmets pictured above are Danish, from 1000 BC. Around 700 BC the elegant bronze “Corinthian” helmet appeared in Greece and became the most popular helmet type
for the next 300 years. The Armory owns the Corinthian helmets shown above (650 BC) as well as the Italian bronze armor (400 – 300 BC) that was used by infantry and calvary (above, right) – hence the reflections and fuzziness from photographing through glass cases.
Next we enter the time of Alexander the Great: the infantry, which charged and fought in a deep phalanx, was armed with long spears wielded with two hands; the cavalry charged with lances rather than throwing javelins from a distance, and were all but invincible.
And then came the Romans! Their armies morphed from infantry with spears to infantry with javelins, shields, and knives/short swords designed for thrusting in close quarters.
The Roman conquest of Britain proceeded gradually, from 43 -80 AD. The Celts and Picts of the far north, armed with long swords, relied more on the ferocity of their charge than on defensive armor; they frequently fought naked but painted to make them look more
ferocious. The Roman cavalry was usually neither heavily armored nor very effective, used mostly to chase down defeated stragglers. However, in response to notable defeats at the hands of cataphracts (armored heavy cavalry) in Asia Minor (picture below left), the Roman Empire in its later years adopted this style of warfare, in which armored rider and
horse led full-gallop charges to break through infantry formations (above right). Note the emerging appearance of the armor of Medieval times.
With the fall of Rome came the Dark Ages, and for Britain that meant an influx of Saxons (Germany) and Vikings (Denmark, Norway, Sweden). Castles were needed! So were historians, but alas, they were not in vogue, simple survival being more important. I can only pull together bits and pieces from AD 400 to 1000. The Saxons usually fought as a “shield wall”, dense lines of spearmen carrying large shields, supported by light infantry and limited cavalry (who dismounted for battle). The raiding Vikings had shields, axe or sword, helmets and mail shirts. The picture to the left is a “star helmet”, Italian, 500 AD, named for the radiating straps of the framework. Introduced from Asia, it became a European standard for over those 600 years. Other helmets from that 600-year-period are shown below. The last helmet is in the Armory; it’s made of 4 iron plates covered with gilt copper, silver rivets, and originally had a silver band around the base.
I’m ignoring inter-Britain warfare between the clans of Scotland and the local kings of England, not to mention inter-clan warfare and inter-king warfare, and of course French skirmishes. Oh boy were castles needed! Then came the Normans, French descendants of Viking settlers in northern France. The Norman army that conquered the weary forces of England in 1066 relied on armored cavalry charging with the lance, followed by swords for the second phase of close combat. Soldiers wore mail armor, one-piece iron helmets, and carried kite-shaped shields. This type of mounted knight dominated the battlefields of
Europe for the next 4 centuries, and it is from this period on that the Leeds Armory starts to show its true gems, no longer relying on pictures from elsewhere. Interestingly, it includes armor from all the known world. I should point out that taking photos was tough! The lighting was often very dim, my autofocus would not work, and there were reflections from the glass cases. You must forgive the following poor performance.
We’ll start with a Mongolian helmet from the 1200’s, decorated in silver overlay of stylized Chinese lions and (Buddhist) priests. This type of helmet was used from the 800’s to the 1300’s in Asia. Notice that armor was art! If you’re going to die in battle, look spiffy! Or was it to make the ladies swoon? For me, seeing this armor gave a new perspective on warfare and the times.
The Far East was of course not a stranger to warfare; sadly, war seems to define humanity. This armor would be worn by a mounted Japanese samurai from about 1300 AD. Only a few of the originals survive – this is a valuable exact copy of an original in Japan, incorporating some parts from that time.
We move now to the more plentiful displays from the 1400’s and later. Let’s stay with non-England: the (real) armor below is from a Turkish heavy cavalryman from the late 1400’s. Mail and armor for man and horse are standard; the cavalryman carried a bow, sword, and sometimes a lance, the usual armaments of all medieval Islamic armies. The helmet on the right is also Turkish, decorated with calligraphy, in gold and silver.
Let’s not forget the weapons! The really old swords, often recovered from graves and bogs, are usually pretty rusted and corroded. This one is Chinese, from the Ming dynasty, about
1420, made for presentation to a Tibetan monastery (where it was kept in good shape).
The Mongol heavy cavalryman shown below wears lamellar armor, a standard from the
The late 1400’s (the time of King Richard III of Shakespeare fame) is a strength of this Armory – a time when knighthood flourished. Knights were hired guns (on horseback) of lower nobility, who were paid with titles and land grants. They formed the basis of most early medieval armies, along with the knights’ vassals (spearmen and cross-bow men) who were paid in land use (and pillage). The earlier Norman mail evolved to plate armor, with impressive craftsmanship combining technical effectiveness and elegance. National styles emerged in Europe, with Germany’s “Gothic” style (with ripple-like fluting reflecting current fashion) and Italy’s smooth rounded plates leading the way. The armory has a significant collection from this time period. Examples are shown below.
By the mid 1500’s, Japanese armor had evolved significantly from the crude iron plate of the 1300’s that was shown earlier. A sophisticated lamellar style of armor using iron plates that were lacquered black (picture on the right) emerged. Although there are some obvious similarities, this Japanese armor makes quite a contrast with the full body armor of Europe!
Below are shown weapons from various countries, from about 1560.
Some other examples of armor from the mid 1500’s are shown below.
This suit of armor is believed to have been dark blue and gold.
During the 15th and 16th century jousting reached a peak of popularity. These were extreme and lavish sporting events bringing competitors from far and wide, organized to show royal or noble power. Contestants, separated by a wall to prevent collisions, passed each other on the left side, so this side of their armor was more heavily reinforced. The armor was heavy but only worn for short periods. The jouster was locked in facing forward and the helmet was bolted to the breastplate to prevent the head from being forced back by a blow. Like regular armor, there was a German style and an Italian style. Examples are shown below.
The museum had quite a few exhibits from the 1600’s, many from other countries. The armor of India was clearly behind the times; as shown in the pictures below, the armor resembles that shown for the Turkish cavalryman 200 years earlier. The weaponry of the
Indian heavy cavalry, in addition to a cane shield, would have been diverse – combinations of the sword, composite bow, lance, mace, and saddle axe. The helmet (below), from
the early 1600’s, was still in use when captured in 1799. And the body armor, worn with shoulder straps, would make a Roman soldier cry. What India did have, was a cavalry – shock troops – of elephants. This is the only surviving elephant armor in a public collection, worldwide.
The armor of Japan and China were quite different in the 1600’s. The Japanese armor of 1613, shown below, has small lamellar plates covered in cloth.
The Chinese armor more closely resembles the clothes of the time and is similar to armor called “brigandine” in Europe. It consists of a jacket of heavy fabric with separate sleeves, covered with embroidered silk and lined with numerous small tinned iron plates fastened by gilt rivets. To this were added ornate shoulder guards and leg defenses. This type of armor became the most common type in China during the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912).
I would be remiss if I did not speak of the Chinese influence on warfare – principally via inventions of the crossbow and, of course, gunpowder. One of the great innovations in military technology was the crossbow, and in particular the cast bronze lock mechanism. Excavated examples of early forms date from the Han period of Chinese rule (200 BC – 200 AD) (!!). The crossbow continued to be an important weapon in China until the 1800’s. Alas, I only took pictures of this intriguing weapon, the repeating crossbow from China, from a later date, the 1800’s. The lever attached to the magazine top worked the crossbow by pump-action.
Gunpowder was a true revolution in warfare, but it took a while to become effective. The recipe for gunpowder dates back to 600 – 700 AD in China, although its adoption for military purposes came much later; 950 AD saw it being used in an exploding arrow and as a fire-lance, the immediate ancestor of the gun. The fire-lance was a bamboo tube mounted on the end of a long pole and filled with gunpowder so that when ignited, it spat out flame. Later versions added fragments of metal or porcelain or arrows. The metal-barrelled cannon also came from China, cast in bronze about 1288 and in iron in 1338 AD.
Cannon were originally mounted on four-legged benches; wheeled carriages were introduced between 1300-1350 AD. The “Silk gun”, above right, is bronze, bound with fiber and covered in silk. Light and portable, these are often seen mounted on four-legged benches in Ming dynasty battle scenes.
Next we’ll look at examples of armor and weapons from Persia, India, China and Japan during the 1700’s. Persian armor at this time still has simple hinged torso panels, 200 years after the development of fitted suit armor in Europe! The formidable-looking axe was designed to penetrate plate armor and mail.
Indian armor has changed considerably from what we saw in the 1600’s, as shown in the pictures below.
This type of armor was introduced to the Islamic world by the Mongols in the 1200’s. The first picture above demonstrates the combination of quilted cotton fabric, mail and plate. The remaining armors use multiple layers of cloth sewn tightly together and covered with a rich material, usually velvet, and decorated with patterns of small gilt nails, giving them the name “coat of a thousand nails”. Large steel plates are set at strategic places.
By the late 1700’s Indian armor had changed again, reverting to a style much like that of the 1600’s (below). By this time a large proportion of north Indian cavalry were armed with firearms such as matchlock muskets; perhaps the armor reverted in response?
In contrast, the armor of Japan and China changed little in the 1700’s. In Japan, after the Tokugawa shoguns imposed peace in the early 1600’s, the military class was only expected to maintain readiness. The armor shown below is from a middle-ranking samurai,
the armor based on the practical styles developed during the Japanese civil wars of the 1500’s. Note the similarity with the armor of 1613 shown earlier.
Similarly, there is little change in China’s lamellar armor, shown below. The first image shows armor for a cavalryman (1736-1795) consisting of a sleeveless vest of embroidered cotton lined with tinned iron plates, shoulder guards, a groin defense, and defense for the legs. Note the visible overlapping iron plates on the leg recalling earlier lamellar armor. The next image shows typical leather lamellar armor from western China, also from the 1700’s. The rawhide is heavily lacquered. Similar leather lamellae have been excavated in China from 500 AD (!), demonstrating the long period of use of this form of armor. A surviving photograph shows this coat still in use in the early 1900’s!
Finally (finally!) we end this study of weaponry with the early 1800’s. I find it amazing that this type of armor was still being used, although the examples in the Armory were from Persia and India. The Persian armor is similar to that of the 1700’s, as shown below.
The armor of India seems even more regressive, although the weapons are incredibly ornate.
One interesting weapon from India is this pistol shield from the mid 1800’s. The 4 pistols built into this shield were discharged two at a time by means of two triggers – after the muzzle covers were manually lifted. The accuracy was apparently poor, and best used with the shield touching or almost touching the opponent.
Wow! This post was a lot of hard work, extracting the evolution of weapons and armor from what’s available in the Royal Armory. If you are still reading this oh-so-long post, my hat is off to you! I did find the toil to be nevertheless interesting – hope you did too.
Next post – and last from Leeds – the Harewood mansion, a masterpiece of Georgian architecture, but even more, a mind-boggling view of aristocratic extravagance.