Unfinished Business: A Visit to Leeds Royal Armouries Museum

By Neil Smith

While putting on my coat yesterday in preparation for my visit to the Leeds Royal Armouries Museum, I reflected on the 24 red, box-files of unfinished wargaming projects sitting in the corner of my office. Surely today I would find that piece of inspiration to get me over the hump with one of them. I was particularly keen to see the range of 15th Century armour as worn unpainted by my Perry’s Wars of the Roses figures. With that, I was off to Leeds.

The Royal Armouries Museum, one of three in England, resides in rather an austere building in Leeds’ redeveloped dockland. The entrance and long corridor flanked by the bistro and museum shop hardly engaged my attention either, though there were three interactive exhibits with a bren-gun, rifle, and machine-gun that did catch the eye – I tried the bren-gun and safe to say if I had been a soldier in WWII, we would all be speaking German. The first surprise, one of many, came at the end of the corridor in the Hall of Steel. This is the circular base of the stairs tower with a mirrored stand in the centre. When you look in the mirrors, however, they are angled so that the viewer sees up into the hollow tower where swords, pikes and muskets are displayed on the walls. From this point on the museum is a rush of well thought out ideas and some spectacular displays.

The museum is divided into 5 themed galleries; War, Tournament, Oriental, Hunting, and Self-defence. Without further ado, I was into the War displays on the second floor. The first sight that greets you is a Corinthian helmet flanked by displays of ancient armour and weapons that lead you into the main display area. Here you can follow the history of armour and weapons through a well spread out series of static display cases. If armour is your thing, particularly of the late mediaeval period, then this is a nirvana. I found all that I wanted and more for my early renaissance period, including some very attractive pavises, but just when I thought I’d seen all I wanted to see I walked into the Pavia exhibit, which is truly outstanding. In this open-room, the museum has all the required weapons and armour but also a fantastic life-size display of a group of pikemen engaging two mounted knights on massive warhorses. If that was all there was in this museum, I could have left quite happy, but there is so much more to see.

On into the 17th Century I went, through the English Civil War exhibit then a nod to Blenheim and the Jacobite Rebellion before arriving at Waterloo and Captain William Siborne’s famous diorama of that battle. Most of the exhibits have supporting artwork alongside weapons and uniforms, many displayed on well-posed manikins, and strategically placed video displays that enhance the learning experience. The War section on the 3rd floor brings the visitor into the modern age by way of Crimea, the Indian Mutiny (or Great Rebellion as signposted), the Zulu War complete with edited scenes from the classic movie in an accompanying display, World War I and on into a modern British Army outpost set in Afghanistan. Limitations of space in this review prevent me from describing the Tournament, Hunting, and Self-Defence halls, but they were well worth the visit and more than a few skirmish ideas came to mind while traversing them. The Oriental hall, on the other hand, was spellbinding. Here I found armour from all corners of Mughal India and a fascinating collection of Samurai armour, perhaps the only armour on display where you truly feel the presence of the warrior that once wore it. The hall also has a life-sized war-elephant and a fearsome collection of weapons that made me glad we had all the guns!

Needless to say, the Royal Armoury at Leeds is well worth the visit. I had a few quibbles about poor lighting and a sense that a few too many myths were being sustained. Also, I thought the emphasis was a bit too much on how to take down armoured knights with bows, gunpowder etc than on how immensely powerful those knights could be. But as a starting point for further study, it would be hard to beat a visit here. As for my motive in going, I was fully satisfied, but instead of finishing my unpainted Perrys, I came home and ordered some Samurai, because I am a wargamer, that is what we do, right?