Story & Photography by Kyle Shea
Located in northern England, the city of Leeds houses one of the largest collections of historical weapons. The Royal Armouries Museum holds hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating back centuries and even millennia. It was originally located in the Tower of London, but was moved in the 1990s to Leeds. It opened in 1996 and has become an essential part of the city. It is free to enter and is quite popular for both locals and tourists.
The ground level of the museum has a restaurant and a museum shop. The shop has a wide array of books, toys, magnets and other products. Also for sale are swords—both historical and fictional replicas. It has been a while since I ate at the restaurant; although I remember it being very good. There are actually a number of restaurants nearby, including a pizzeria, and across the canal is a famous Indian restaurant, “Mumtaz.”
To go to the next level, there are four elevators, though only one goes to the fifth floor. The amazing alternative is to walk up the stairs in the Hall of Steel. In the form of an octagon tower with the stairs on the outside wall, the hall contains over 2,000 museum pieces. Pistols, rifles, breastplates, helmets, bayonets, swords and spears decorate the inside. The hall only goes to the second and fourth floors, but there are stairs on those floors that allow you access to the others.
The first floor is not really meant for visitors. It contains a library with books dating back centuries on almost every military subject and an education center. You need special permission to go to the library, so it is best just to go to the next floor instead. The old MOD Pattern Room library is now inside the Royal Armouries library.
The second and third floors are the War and Tournament galleries. The War gallery contains artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age. There are a number of exhibits throughout the second floor, including ones about the Hundred Years War, the English Civil War, the Battle of Waterloo, the Battle of Culloden and the weapons of the American Revolution. The Waterloo exhibit includes a massive diorama on a table with thousands of toy soldiers lined up like the different armies at the real battle. There are also two theaters that talk about the Battles of Agincourt and Marston Moor.
One exhibit on the first floor of the War Gallery is about the Battle of Pavia, fought between King Francis the First and Charles the Fifth of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1525. The display shows a group of pikemen and gunners holding off a group of knights. Behind the display is a painting of the battle itself. Pavia was significant because Francis was captured, and a large number of French nobles were killed off.
The second level of the War Gallery features exhibits of the Great Rebellion of India in 1857, the American Civil War, the Crimean War and World War I. There are also two exhibits featuring machine guns. One is devoted to the Gatling gun and its descendants, including the M134 Minigun, the YAK-B and the revolving cannon. There is also an exhibit devoted to the wars in Africa, including the Zulu War. One of the best exhibits is the Observation Post, which is looks like a modern military center as seen in the Middle East.
Opposite the War Gallery is the Tournament Gallery. On display are large suits of armor that were worn at the medieval tournaments. This includes two sets of armor worn by Henry the VIII for the Field of Cloth of Gold, a tournament in France. There is also a special armor on display called the Lion Armor. It is covered with carvings of lions, and the head is shaped like one. There are also some old lances and horse armor on display.
The fourth and fifth floors feature the Oriental, Self-Defense and Hunting Galleries. The Oriental Gallery is my favorite. The displays include human and horse armor from Japan, Turkey, Mongolia, Africa, India and China. Weapons include a repeating crossbow, Chinese staff weapons, finely ornamented muskets and even a replica of a Terracotta soldier. There is a large section of the gallery devoted to Japan. The display includes a tea house built in the middle of the hall, large display cases filled with Japanese muskets, bows, spears, naginatas (Japanese halberds), and, of course, samurai swords. There are even two videos that play there, one for the traditional horseback archery of Japan and one on how a samurai sword is made.
Next to the Oriental Gallery is the Self-Defense Gallery. It contains the many weapons used by civilians around the world including cane swords and small pistols. There are also a few movie guns and swords on display, including swords from “The Lord of the Ring” franchise. Above the Self-Defense Gallery is the crossbow range. Here you can shoot a number of crossbow bolts for a few pounds. Also on this floor are a few displays containing weapons from Southeast Asia, Europe, Japan and India.
Across the way is the Hunting Gallery. Displayed here is hunting equipment from medieval times to modern day. One of the biggest displays is the Whaling section, which explains the now almost outlawed trade and how it worked. There is a large whaling canon here, as well as a video showing how it was done. Other artifacts include old hunting bows, crossbows, boar spears, shotguns and other hunting guns.
The museum houses a number of different amazing artifacts that include a sword that once belonged to Napoleon, a prototype of the Maxim Machine Gun—one of the four “Forerunners” made by Sir Hiram Maxim in the 1880s—a well-preserved Ming Dynasty sword and the previously mentioned whaling cannon. The two most famous artifacts at this museum are the Horned Helmet and the Elephant Armor. The Horned Helmet, or Maximilian’s mask, was a gift from the Emperor Maximilian to Henry the VIII. It is a strange looking helmet, with a human face, a pair of horns sticking out the side and what looks to be a pair of glasses covering the eyes. The Elephant Armor is in the Oriental Gallery and covers a large replica of an Indian elephant, with two armored riders sitting atop the beast.
Outside the museum, the city of Leeds is relatively safe. There is a large shopping area nearby on the other side of the river, as well as a train station that can take you to other cities and towns. The city of York is about 30 minutes away and has a wonderful shopping area and museums. You can actually go almost anywhere in England by train. If you are feeling adventurous, Scotland is two to three hours away by train.
The Royal Armouries Museum is worth the visit. It will probably take a few days to see everything there. To make things more fun, special events include employees showing some of the artifacts and explaining how they were used. There are also one-person shows where they dress up like the people of the time period and tell the stories of the battle or the conflict as if they were there. If you are in northern England, take your time and visit the Royal Armouries.
ROYAL ARMOURIES MUSEUM, LEEDS
- Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed December 24–26
- Free admission
- Armouries Drive Leeds United Kingdom LS10 1LT
- 0113 220 1999
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V24N3 (March 2020)