A Visit to Leeds Royal Armouries

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I'm not big on military history, but you've got to admit that the innovation and design quality involved in kitting out the fighters and hunters of the past was pretty amazing.

With this in mind, I decided to go out on a noble quest to the Royal Armouries in Leeds to see some of these innovations in action.

The first thing to know about the Royal Armouries is that it's free entry, which is always brilliant to see, and open 10am to 5pm. There's easy public parking not far away at Clarence Dock for about £10 for all day and the museum is situated on the dockside and walking distance from the town centre. Often it has live demonstrations and particular workshops and talks that you can attend, as well as exhibitions that - like most museums- mix the cyclical with the permanent: on my visit the special attraction was a display of some the treasures of the Staffordshire Horde. In my case we were a little too early to see the live tournament fights etc, but if you're visiting and especially if you're bringing kids along it might be worth aiming for after 11 or 12 and going for the weekend slots when everything is a little busier.

So what's in the museum?

The main displays on offer were War, Oriental, Hunting, Tournament, Self Defense and the Staffordshire Hoard. But it would be a crime to review the museum without talking about THAT entrance hall...
The museum is arranged vertically over a few floors and linking them all is a wide spiral staircase that surrounds a stunning display of historical arms and armour. War has always been a game of numbers and this is clearly shown in the sheer amount of items arranged in a grimly beautiful piece of gleaming art, perfectly regimented like the armies that bore the equipment.
Impressive, to say the least.

The level of attention to detail, pomp and circumstance follows through the whole museum: there really are some very important artifacts on display that belonged to very famous figures in history and the museum knows just how to present them so you can appreciate their full view. The tournament section is perhaps the most star-studded, displaying armour from Henry VIII to the Holy Roman Emperor, as well as the Armouries' famous mask that appears on their logos. But the War section does a fantastic job of showing a timeline of quality items from wars throughout the ages, and manages to inspire a little of the awe and fear people must have felt when facing down these warriors due to their fantastic model displays. One, for example, sees a full-sized pair of armoured soldiers facing off against soldiers with lances. Another, in the oriental section, shows the largest example of animal armour in the world - a 17thc almost fully complete set of war elephant armour. And you'd better believe that they've mounted it on a fully-scaled model of an Indian elephant, complete with rider. Intimidating stuff.

   The museum is set perfectly to help visitors appreciate the level of skill and craftsmanship involved from practical pieces to the decorative gifts that were given to great leaders. One element that I found fascinating was when they deconstructed armour or turned it inside out so that you could see the clever construction of an armoured jerkin, for example, or the intricate embroidery on the inside of a helmet. Image was everything in war, but the hidden details had real value to them too.

Does the Royal Armouries museum glorify war?

Miniature commoners caught in the fray.
It's impossible not to be struck with awe and an appreciation for the beauty in these instruments of protection and death, but does this mean that the museum glorifies war in a way that's distasteful? For my part I would say no. It's important to appreciate the beauty of these items and the skill of their use, both for their own sake and also to enable us to get into the minds of our ancestors and how they responded to them. Tournaments, chivalry, bravery and pomp were all huge parts of how mainstream masculinity was (and is) constructed, and how nationalism and many symbols of each country's culture are expressed. The important thing is that even in the rooms where the idealism and romance of war is most expressed by the exhibits, the curators are careful to include important details that impress upon you the reality of war. Those large imposing figures aren't just picture-bait, but put you in the position of someone facing them in person - looking up into that killing machine on horseback. The insides of the armour show the realities of living inside of them. And even in tiny details - such as the miniature representation of a great battle - they take the time to show common people fleeing in terror.

Finally the 'self defense' room, which pulls us into the modern age, acts as a sobering example of what war and violence means for us now. Here you can find testimonies of people affected by gun violence, different types of brutal common weapons throughout the twentieth century, and a display case swimming with examples of real weapons seized from every-day people by the police. Oddly, at the end of this exhibit there is also a display of the different swords from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, further emphasising the conflict between the fantasy and reality of violence and battles, even in the modern mindset today.
In the end I appreciate the blend of realities: the good and bad sides of these battles in our culture. And neither side is turned into melodrama.

So....should I visit?

Absolutely! Not only is it free, but it has some seriously important and valuable artifacts, all beautifully presented. Definitely worth your time.

When you visit, keep your eyes peeled for these...

I wonder if king Henry noticed...
  • The craftsman's mistake on the patterning Henry VIII's duelling armour and his rushed-job attempt to fix it. (We've all been there, man!)
  • A very cool demon's-mask for a horse in the oriental section.
  • An unsettlingly anatomically correct realisation of a lady boar's nether region on one of the models. (That's..uh...good attention to detail there, buddy.)
  • Armadillo-scaled armour in the oriental section
  • Tiny, tiny full-plate armour for children.
  • The biggest codpiece I've ever seen.
  • A completely adorable chinese dog/demon face on a sword hilt.
  • The most badass elephant & hunters vs tiger model you're ever likely to see.

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