Part of a national chain of museums showcasing the violent and bloody histories of Great Britain as well as some of the finest implements of killing and not being killed in the world. The Royal Armouries. Straight off the bat I want to get the stereotypes out of the way. Yes I am a boy, yes I spent (and still spend) my pocket money on swords, Yes I have loved going to the royal armouries since before I can really remember. I still get foggy eyed at the sight of a Baker rifle, go weak at the knees for Flamberge Rapiers and get all giddy at kukri knives. I’m also something of a pseudo pacifist however frequently lamenting or actively protesting against war and violence. It’s a hypocrisy I’m happy to live with, but more on that later.
After a walk through Leeds city centre, which rarely fails to be uneventful, we arrived at the canal marina abutting the museum. The grandiose building it typical of many built at the same time and the impressive glass tower gives a foretaste of what is to come. Once inside a handy TARDIS console-esk mirror gives you a view up the “Hall of Steel”(pictured) without craning your neck. I like to stand in awe, neck bent back, to get the effect of entering a cathedral or other such magnificent building.
There is a comparison to be made here. Hall after hall of Armour, Swords, Guns, Rifles, Spears and other weapons. The entirety of weapon history is represented from stone axes to SA80s. That’s a lot to fit into one building though and some periods see considerably more representation that others. In light of that I set myself a challenge to find as much pre-conquest, 1066, stuff as I could.
Pre-Norman was confined almost exclusively to a small gallery off to one side of the main war gallery. There was a nice range: Greek helmets, bronze swords (pictured), a gladius to name but a few. We also struck lucky by catching no one but two living history lectures; one with King Arthur himself and all his pre-conquest equipment for us to play with.
The lectures, and perhaps more famous combat displays, are a real boon. To over use a cliché they really bring history to life. That’s more important here though. Some of the weapons and armour a truly works of art and engineering. Ask any fan of Katanas and they’ll explain the craftsmanship that goes into one of these killing sticks. The famous helmet that is the museum’s logo (pictured) is too fine an example of the armourer art to ever have been worn in battle or even a tournament.
It’s easy to forget what many of these were created, and in some cases used, for. Sabres used at the battle of Waterloo, c.43, 000 dead; rifles from Passchendaele, between 400,000 and 800,000 casualties. The reason there are weapons from throughout History is because people have been developing ways to kill each other since Cain and Abel. The live combat displays, though staged, give a glimpse of these weapons in action, and an idea of what he can do to the human body. Most people have not had the opportunity or desire to study this. Most people don’t see the skulls of those buried at Towton when they look at a pole axe.
It’s a question posed every November. When we ‘remember’ conflicts do we remember centuries of working class men and slaves brutalising each other with increasing efficiency? Or is it more neat ranks of brave patriots marching to pristine white stoned graves?
The armouries addresses all uses of these weapons be that War, Self Defence, Sport, Entertainment or Crime. It’s a difficult and touchy subject. For example in country with people whose ancestors fought on both sides of the Indian Mutiny/First war of Indian independence; there’s little neutral ground. I personally think the museum does an admirable job; especially in a society with a tendency to glorify its conflicts and combatants.
The sheer variety of displays is also impressive. Already mentioned are the walls and halls of steel, as well as the displays, but there’s also models (pictured), the odd bit of taxidermy, mannequins and films. For those who are interested there are days to be lost here and for those with a specific interest there is likely to something for you. If you’re not interested in weapons and warfare then there isn’t much unless you can appreciate some of the finer artistry.
This museum, perhaps more than any other, really depends on your mind set when you walk in. You definitely get out what you put it is not a passive visit. The information on some pieces can be sparse and, if you’re like me, debateable. For me though, it was, has been and will continue to be a museum I can visit again and again (and again and again and again). You can debate the morality or the effect on society of putting so much emphasis on this one part of our history. After all in the grand scheme of human existence battles take up a very small part of wars and wars make up a relatively small part of history. More kings of England died on or near the toilet than the battlefield. It’s a shame there’s no Royal Lavatories Museum really.
Taxidermy rating: 5/15
Toilet score: 4/5
Dead people: None
Overall Score: 8/10