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The Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, West Yorkshire

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A Visitor's Guide to Leeds
Cinemas | Kirkstall Abbey | The Royal Armouries

The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, despite opening in 1996, describes itself as Britain's oldest national museum and one of the oldest museums in the world. The museum has evolved out of the Tudor Royal Arsenal originally housed in the Tower of London.

Museum's Origins

The earliest records of the Royal Armouries collection, kept in several buildings in the Tower, date from the 15th Century. They were open to visitors who were not the tourists, families and historians who may visit the museum today. Instead, visiting dignitaries and ambassadors were shown the royal arsenal as a demonstration of Britain's military might. In the reign of Henry VIII many of the older, mediaeval collections were replaced in order to make room for more modern weapons.

In 1660, when Charles II returned from exile, the Tower was opened to the paying public for the first time. As well as gazing in wonder at the Crown Jewels, visitors could see the Line of Kings, the finest armours mounted on horseback1. The collection continued to grow, as war trophies were displayed in the Tower to celebrate Britain's military successes. Until 1855 the Board of Ordnance, an organisation dedicated to the design, testing and regulation of weapons, had their headquarters in the Tower, and so also added to the collection.

Bequests, gifts and purchasing of other rare material over the last 150 years has also ensured that the collection is the finest of its kind in the world. By the late 20th Century it was realised that the collection was far too large to be kept in the Tower, and two satellite sites were sought, one in the north and one in the south of England. It was decided to keep only the artefacts that related to the Tower in the Tower, and to split the rest of the collection appropriately. In the south of England Fort Nelson was leased from Hampshire County Council. This fort had been built following the invasion panic of 1859 and was completed in 1871. Opening as a museum in 1995, it houses the Royal Armouries' artillery collection as its size enables it to hold gun-firing displays.

In the north of England a new purpose-designed six-storey building was constructed in Leeds, adjacent to Clarence Docks on the River Aire. This holds the Royal Armouries' collection of smaller arms and armour, sub-divided into five categories:

  1. War
  2. Tournament
  3. Oriental
  4. Self-Defence
  5. Hunting

In 2004 an American branch of the Royal Armouries was opened within the Frazier International History Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.


The Royal Armouries was constructed in a newly-developed part of Leeds called Clarence Docks. This was widely prophesied as being Leeds' new, buzzing, up-and-coming quarter, but instead the area has largely stayed still, humming quietly to itself. Many of the businesses that opened in the area closed and house prices plummeted. Clarence Docks and the Royal Armouries would have been the second stop on the Leeds Supertram South line from the city centre loop2, however this highly anticipated project was cancelled, leaving Leeds as the largest city in Europe without a tram or underground network and Clarence Docks an out-of-the-way area to get to.

A neighbouring attraction of a mock German U-Boat converted out of a barge, known as the U-8047, had been moored outside the Royal Armouries. Sadly this was sold off in 2012 due to declining visitor numbers.

Nevertheless, the Royal Armouries is a pleasant 20-minute riverside walk away from Leeds Station and there are a few shops, cafes and restaurants actually open nearby (and many more brand new, shiny and pristine, empty retail units). To try to make up for the disappointment with the Clarence Docks regeneration project, Leeds City Council has tried to rename 'Clarence Docks' to 'New Docks' to make it sound newer, though no-one seems to have noticed.

National Cycle Route 67 passes the museum, as do Leeds' cycle routes M and CC, with bike racks provided. The museum is well signposted by road, appearing on brown tourism signs decorated with the museum's 'horned helmet' logo. These can be easily followed from the M1, M621, A64 and other roads. There is a multi-storey car park nearby which has a charge to park in; this is payable at the ticket machines when leaving. Various buses also serve the Clarence Docks area. There are also proposals to introduce a regular water taxi service to the area, although these have not yet been introduced at time of writing (2014).

Royal Armouries

A mixture of steel and glass, the Royal Armouries building is tall and well lit. The entrance on the ground floor is on the south of the building, with the large central atrium open to the windows above, dividing the rest of the building into east and west halves, although a bridge carries visitors between the halves on each level.

The building was designed by architect Derek Walker, took just over two years to complete at a cost of just over £42 million. The building is incredibly spacious, largely as part of the design which ensured that the ceiling heights could accommodate even the longest staff weapons3 in the collection when displayed vertically.

At the northern end of the building is the grand staircase that leads to each floor, as well as four lifts. One of the lifts, the red lift, is the only one that reaches the very top floor. The grand staircase, which accesses the Ground, Second and Fourth floors, spirals around an octagonal structure known as the Hall of Steel.

Hall of Steel

The Hall of Steel is the inside of the Royal Armouries' spiral staircase. The tower in which it is housed has a glass exterior, allowing those using the outer staircase a view of the surrounding docks, and a steel interior that is visible only through small, circular windows or from the bottom. The inside is open to the roof, and on the walls are over 3,000 items of 17th Century armour and 19th Century military equipment in the largest mass display of arms and armour in the world. The weapons' layout is inspired by the 17th Century decorative displays seen in the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle.

Ground and First Floor

The ground floor consists of the shop and Nelson Bistro and toilets on the west side, the Churchill Room, Royal Armouries Hall and Bury Theatre on the east side. These are used for corporate hospitality events, bookable through Royal Armouries International4. The First Floor, not accessible by the Hall of Steel staircase, contains the Wellington suite on the west side, with the library and Education Centre on the east. The library contains 40,000 books, pamphlets, journals and manuscripts on the history of arms and armour. The picture library has over 150,000 images.

1. War: Second & Third Floor (East)

The heart of the Armouries historical collection is the War gallery, which shows over two floors how weapons and armour have evolved from the ancient to the modern. In addition to the display cases, there are 20 films showing information on major wars and important developments over the last thousand years, with computers giving visitors the chance to re-enact famous battles, such as Pavia (1525), Isandlwana (1879) and the Great War (1914-18).

The visitor is funnelled through a display of ancient warfare, with Greek and Roman artefacts the oldest in the collection, before a vast display area opens up in front, with attractive arrangements and even a replica castle tower housing information on fortifications. If you try to move clockwise then displays are roughly chronological, beginning next to the Early War and central sections which covers the mediaeval period, complete with traditional suits of armour of knights mounted on horses and men-at-arms you would expect to see in an armouries museum. To the east of the room there is a diorama recreating the battle of Pavia, the first battle in which mounted knights were defeated by infantry armed with firearms. The south houses a large section dedicated to the Civil War (1642-9), including the armoury from Littlecote House, a vast Civil War collection that had been on public display, though in private hands, since the 17th Century and that the Royal Armouries acquired in 1985. Continuing clockwise will take you by displays on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, concentrating on Waterloo (1815) and Wellington's sword. Next to the stage, which is often used for talks, there is a staircase that takes you up to Floor Three. For lifts, head to the north of the building next to the Hall of Steel.

The Third Floor is a cross-shaped viewing gallery that provides views on the displays below. Start either at the staircase from Floor 2 or the entry from the lifts, continue clockwise. You will the pass displays on the Crimean (1853-6), American Civil War (1861-5), Zulu War (1879) as well as displays on the Gatling gun and other early machine guns. Displays on the Great War and Second World War, as well as a Peace gallery showing life after war, complete the tour of this section.

2. Tournament: Second & Third Floor (West)

The western halves of the Second and Third Floors are dedicated to the Armouries' Tournament collection; arms and armour made for sport and entertainment, not war. Tournament armour wasn't made only to keep the wearer safe from injury, it had numerous other functions. It had to comply with the various rules and regulations that dictated the exact form of the armour, depending on which of the many various forms of the three main tournament events5 that the armour was intended for. Perhaps most importantly of all, it was expected to show the power and wealth of the wearer as well as present him as the flower of the chivalric ideal.

Ornate, ostentatious works of art, these are more sophisticated than the other armour in the collection. Examples include armour worn by Europe's royalty, including the foot combat armour made for Elector Christian I of Saxony in 1591, as well as two sets of armour worn by Henry VIII in 1520, and his barding or horse armour, a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1510.

Another gift from Maximilian I to Henry VIII, given to commemorate their alliance and Henry's victory over the French at the Battle of the Spurs (1513) has been adopted as the symbol of the Royal Armouries. This is an exceptional helmet made by the Emperor's Master Craftsman, Konrad Seusenhofer, at Innsbruck. This helmet is designed to look gruesome and contains extreme detail, down to spectacles, chin stubble, baggy eyes, teeth, and a dripping nose and as well as horns. Curiously, when the museum opened this was originally displayed in the Self Defence area, but has a far more natural home in pride of place in the Tournament display.

The Tournament artefacts are displayed not only in glass cases, but also inside a replica tent that recreates the atmosphere of an area suddenly hosting a tournament. In the very centre is the Tournament Ring. This is used as a presentation and performance area, visible from the gallery on Floor Three.

3. Oriental: Fourth and Fifth Floor (Northeast)

Although unsurprisingly the bulk of the Royal Armouries' collection concentrates on European, especially British, weapons development, there is a substantial collection of Asian weaponry. This has built up since 1613, when King James I and VI were given two suits of armours by the Shogun of Japan Tokugawa Ieyasu. This category is subdivided into different sections:

  • Central Asia
  • Islam
  • India
  • China
  • Japan
  • Persia
  • Turkey
  • South East Asia

Although these different areas of the huge continent had developed widely different weapons and styles of fighting, one common unifying factor was the importance of mounted archers.

The largest section in the collection is dedicated to India, with the display dominated by the only example on public display of 16th Century elephant armour, the largest armour the Royal Armouries owns. Another splendid exhibit is the armour and helmet of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore 1782-996.

The collection includes a replica Chinese terracotta warrior and a sword given to a Tibetan monastery by a Ming dynasty Chinese Emperor. It also contains a fine collection of Japanese arms and armour, and has led to the museum being twinned with the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, which when built in 1623 became the resting place of the Shogun Emperor Tokugawa Ieyasu and continues to hold yabusame (horse archery) contests. A yabusame figure is part of the collection, next to a Fukutokuan Japanese Tea House, near the garden of peace and the Dojo, the Oriental gallery's presentation and performance area.

4. Self-Defence: Fourth and Fifth Floor (Southeast)

Before the introduction of the police force, civilians of all classes carried weapons to use when defending themselves against threats. A display shows various daggers and swords, pistols and knives used in self-defence. A section shows what the conscientious foreign traveller would carry when going abroad, another on weapons used by civilians in dangerous jobs, such as police, prisons, Customs and Excise and protecting Royal Mail coaches. There are examples of swords and pistols used in duelling and target shooting, as well as weapons as works of art.

5. Hunting: Fourth Floor (west)

The final section looks at weapons designed for hunting. Hunting has been an important part of mankind's battle for survival, from prehistoric hunter-gatherer times, through mediaeval hunting techniques to the present day. Hunting is not just about spears, bows and guns; the roles of animals in hunting, from falcons to dogs are also explored. One of the most notable displays is the full-size recreation of an elephant-borne tiger hunt.

Other exhibits including highly-decorated hunting guns, including the garniture7 of Empress Elizabeth of Russia (1709-62) made in 1752 as well as a recreated Victorian gun room. This section also has displays dedicated to shooting as a competitive sport, air rifles and different types of hunting, especially deer, bird and big-game.

Other Areas

There are other attractions. On the fifth floor, accessible by the red lift, there is a crossbow shooting range, for which an additional charge applies. Next to this is the Jesters play area, designed for children aged 0-10. Here for a small additional charge while under parental supervision, children can dress up in a range of clothing, partake in craft activities, play in a replica castle and relax and unwind after a hard day's looking around the galleries.

As with many museums, there are often temporary exhibitions that come and go, while items from the museum's own collection may be loaned for display elsewhere, so repeat visits are recommended. For example, in 2008 the museum hosted the excellent 'Arms & Armour from the Movies: the Wonderful World of Weta' exhibit in which the weapons seen in films such as The Last Samurai, King Kong (2005), Hellboy and the Narnia films were displayed. In early 2014, the swords made for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit could be seen. In times of large special displays, areas such as Jesters and/or the crossbow range may be closed.

Although there is a cafe, there is also an indoor dining area for those who wish to bring a packed lunch.


The Royal Armouries became free to visit as part of the Government's free admission to Britain's National Museums scheme. This was intended to make Britain's heritage accessible to everyone and boost Britain's tourist industry as a whole. It had the immediate effect of increasing annual visitor numbers to the Royal Armouries by 100,000. Visitors are encouraged to make a voluntary donation.

When the Royal Armouries opened it had an extensive outdoor area, including the Menagerie. Here were stables for the horses used in jousting, the birds used in the falconry displays as well as a team of hunting dogs. All could be seen up close as part of the visit. Another outdoor area was the Craft Court. Skilled craftsmen working in armoury-related trades, including gunsmiths, armourers and leather workers, were at work and able to demonstrate their craft while interpreters answered any visitors' questions about their activities.

Sadly since then the museum has suffered from government cutbacks and been forced to retract. These outdoor areas have now closed, leaving only the Tiltyard. This is where it holds jousting and other mounted martial demonstrations, but only on special occasions during the year when there is an additional charge. The museum now only holds interpretation talks and performances in their galleries' performance areas during special events, typically within school holidays, rather than daily as had originally been envisaged.

Further Places to Visit

If you are interested in similar neighbouring tourist attractions, why not read about Yorkshire's Castles?

1The 'horses' that the armour was displayed on were wooden frames, carved detail such as heads and legs were only done where the 'horse' was not covered by the armour.2After a stop adjacent to the former Tetley brewery.3Weapons mounted at the end of very long poles or staffs, such as pikes or halberds, principally used by infantry in order to keep mounted enemies away. Not weapons to be used against the Royal Armouries' members of staff.4A neighbouring part of the Royal Armouries International facilities is the New Dock Hall, a large £5m multi-purpose venue that was originally known as the Savile Hall on opening in 2007, but had to be rebranded in 2012 following the Jimmy Savile scandal.5The tourney, joust and foot combat had various subdivisions.6According to the famous historical fiction novels by Bernard Cornwell he was killed by Richard Sharpe.7Highly decorated gun set.

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