The Royal Armouries is home to many treasures, which can be explored in detail on their excellent collections database online. Meanwhile here’s our choice of weird and wonderful objects from the world of arms and armour
Italian gun carriage
This detail of a fury grasping a torch comes from an ornately decorated two-pounder gun carriage dating from 1773. Made of bronze, cast by Alberghetti in Italy, the ornate carriage features a thick trellis pattern of olive branches, various shields of arms, crescents, a helmet crested with an eagle, a Turkish trophy with an eagle holding a wreath and a portrait head in an oval frame.
The gun was taken by the French Army of Egypt in 1798 following their capture of Malta and was being transported to France on the frigate ‘La Sensible’ when the vessel was attacked and captured by the English Frigate ‘Seahorse’, Captained by E.J. Foote, who brought the booty back to England.
Chinese sword pommel
A detail of the pommel of a sword (jian), probably made in the court workshops of the Yongle Ming Emperor during the Chinese, Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century.
It is chiselled and fretted at the rear of the pommel with this monster mask (kirtimukha), surmounted by a silvered crescent and golden disc with human hands surrounded by flames.
Of undoubted imperial quality, the monster mask is known in Tibetan as ‘chibar’ (‘that which resembles nothing’), or ‘shi-dong’ (‘face of splendour’), in Sanskrit ‘kirtimukha’ (‘glory face’), and in Chinese ‘taotie’.
The armour of Charles I
Engraved and gilted this helmet is part of a full set of body armour made for Charles I that also comprises a gorget, breastplate, a pair of tassets, backplate, culet, cuisses, poleyns, greaves and sabatons, pauldrons, vambraces and a pair of gauntlets.
It is thought to have been made before the English Civil War and documentary evidence placing it in an inventory of Stuart armour dating to 1628 mentions “One guilte and graven old armor for the field complete”. After the Restoration of 1660 it served as the armour of Charles I in the Line of Kings display in the White Tower at the Tower of London.
Life-sized carved statues like this have been a constant feature for the Line of Kings armour displays at the White Tower for over 360 years.
This fine yellow bay stallion is thought to be one of a pair (the other now lost) carved by eighteenth century master wood carver Grinlin Gibbons (known as the Michelangelo of Wood) for the armours of Charles I and Charles II, this horse being the smaller – carved for Charles I. Later the horse was used to mount the armour of Edward V and appears in a Pugin print of the line of Kings dating to 1809. The original tail is missing but has been replaced by a fibreglass replica.
Vickers-Maxim Mark I machine gun (1900-1930)
Although American by birth, Hiram Maxim came to Britain to build and sell his new gun and was eventually knighted for his “services to the Empire” in 1901. Sheffield-based company Vickers worked to improve and lighten his centrefire automatic belt-fed gun and the result, produced in 1912, was this, perhaps the definitive Maxim gun.
The British Army’s primary heavy machine gun of World War I, the Vickers unleashed incalculable slaughter on the Western Front, as did it’s German counterpart, which was an adaptation of Hiram S. Maxim’s original 1884 Maxim gun. The Vickers remained in service with the British Army until March 1968.
Fourth century Italian helmet
This rare fourth century helmet, purchased in 1853, was said to have come from a tomb at Cumae near Naples. Made of bronze it is surmounted by a pair of engraved sheet bronze wings and a pair of spiral wire feather tubes which terminate in snake heads.
As well as the helmet, the armouries also cares for the accompanying belt, breastplate and back plate, thigh defences and greaves (leg armour) that were found alongside it.
Henry VIII’s armour
With a chest size of 54 inches and an external waist of 51, this huge suit of armour gives you a good idea of the physical presence of Henry VIII. It is one of several pieces of armour mentioned in the inventory drawn up in 1547 after Henry VIII’s death. The decoration is attributed to Giovanni de Maiano, a Florentine working in England for Henry’s court. The scene of tritons found on the grandguard and breastplate appears on a sketch by Hans Holbein in the Museum of Fine Arts in Basel so it is likely Holbein at least contributed to the design.
Heading axe and chopping block
Cut from the centre of an oak timber, this heavy rectangular block with deep segments, cut to accommodate the head and upper chest of the kneeling victim, has two parallel axe cuts on the narrow section on which the neck rested.
Tradition says it was used in the execution of the Jacobite Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, in 1747/ Lovat was one of the Highlanders defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1745 and the last man to be executed by beheading in England. Records show it may also have been used the previous year to behead another Scottish Nobleman from Culloden, William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock.
The beheading axe that rests against it is thought to have been used in the decapitation of the Earl of Essex in the Tower during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Boy’s armour (1610) known as the Jeffrey Hudson armour
This armour has been in the Armouries since at least the 18th century and possibly earlier, but there is some conjecture about its origin. It may be the small armour, which in the 18th century was labelled Richard, Duke of York and by 1830 Charles, Prince of Wales, but the descriptions are too vague for this to be certain.
A catalogue of 1853 suggests that it was made for a dwarf and in this connection Jeffrey Hudson, the dwarf of Queen Henrietta Maria may be suggested as a possible owner. Hudson, who entered the Queen’s service in about 1630, is described as being about 18 inches tall at this date though he later grew to a height of over three feet.
The Great Helm
Also called the pot helm or bucket helm, this great helm is the classic European helmet of the Crusades and, despite a claustrophobic and all-encompassing design, which limited hearing and vision on the battlefield, it persisted from the early thirteenth to the sixteenth century.
The centre of the domed crown-plate of this English example has been roughly pierced, presumably for the spike on which a funerary crest could be fixed.
The wooden head of Edward III
Another survivor from the Line of Kings, this bearded head has been identified as Edward III on the basis of an illustration of the figure made by the antiquarian, Frederick Grose. It was carved from a single block and painted in natural colours, possibly in the seventeenth century.
The carver would almost certainly have drawn their information about the appearances of their subjects from some of the many prints of the kings of England which were in circulation in the late 17th century, or from other artworks such as tomb effigies.
A classically elegant symbol of Ancient Greece, this Corinthian helmet (so called because of its origin in the Ancient city state of Corinth), is made from one piece of bronze with the skull following the shape of the head. Extended downwards at the rear with a slight sweep to form a neckguard and at the sides, the front leaves a narrow face opening which widens into openings for the eyes, with a nasal guard between.
Despite being an iconic shape that recurs on Ancient Greek pottery and coins, the design inhibited the wearer’s vision and hearing on the battlefield and it eventually gave way to more open designs like the Thracian and Chalcidian helmets, which persisted into the Roman period.
This jousting helmet originating from what is now Modern Germany dates to the fifteenth century and offers a glimpse into the strange designs that could be seen at the medieval tournaments flourishing in Europe from the 12th to the 16th century.
The visor opening on this helm – designed to give protection and just enough vision – is sometimes called the frogmouth and is sited at the top of an upward flare which would help protect the wearer from the wood splints of shattering jousting lances. The front and rear plates spread outwards over the back and chest and have iron charnels for securing the helm in position.
Belgian infantry helmet
Medieval in appearance, this Belgian infantry helmet was developed for the trenches of the First World War and was based on the French Dunand, which itself was based on a visored medieval sallet. It was designed by John MacIntosh and produced by Sankey Ltd of Wolverhampton who fitted the ballistic visor at the express request of Queen Elizabeth of Belgium to protect the eyes of her troops.
Take a closer look at the Royal Armouries collection online, including zoom functions, at collections.royalarmouries.org/
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