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Royal Armouries Museum

Weapons in society

Exploring the changing roles of arms and armour
26th September - 9:30 am - 6:30 pm

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This event explores the interrelation between arms and armour and wider social and political trends, with an interdisciplinary focus spanning both technology and culture. Confirmed papers range from Elizabethan armour to the ‘bouncing bomb’, and from the UK to ancient Greece and colonial Western Australia, with a keynote speech by Dr Timothy Bowman.

Taking place at the Royal Armouries, the conference will include both a tour of the galleries and the opportunity to handle selected artefacts from the national collection of arms and armour. There will also be a poster competition, to encourage junior researchers to share their research. Thanks to the generosity of the partners (the Royal Armouries, the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities, the Heritage Consortium, and Northern Bridge), bursaries are available to contribute towards travel expenses.

The conference is presented by the Royal Armouries, The Heritage Consortium, Northern Bridge Consortium and the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, with support for speakers provided by the Royal Historical Society.

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Registration is now open for the first ‘Weapons in Society’ conference.


Price: £5

To book tickets, for more information on bursaries or the poster competition, or for any other questions, contact the steering committee at


Gun cultures in Britain, Ireland and the British Empire since 1770
Speaker: Dr Timothy Bowman; Senior Lecturer in modern British military history, University of Kent

Technological advancement
Sponsor: The Heritage Consortium

Under the gun: Firearms in sixteenth-century Florence
Speaker: Victoria Bartels, University of Cambridge

Although the evolution of firearms has been diligently explored by military historians, our knowledge of how guns were used day-to-day in early modern European society remains somewhat limited. Using archival documents from the Medici ducal letters and the records of the Otto di Guardia e Balia, the magistracy responsible for handling criminal affairs in Cinquecento Florence, this paper explores firearm usage in sixteenth-century Medicean Tuscany. The practices, customs, and habits of using these weapons under the reigns of Dukes Cosimo I (1519-1574) and Francesco I (1541-1587) will be discussed, as well as the state’s legislative practices, the subsequent workarounds that inhabitants employed to circumvent these prohibitions, and the punitive sentences assigned to wrongdoers who carried guns outside the permissible size or in prohibited places without necessary authorizations. This study also investigates the method of obtaining arms’ licenses for firearms and explores the reasons given for needing such weapons in early modern Florentine society.

‘Tripe of the wildest description!’: Barnes Wallis, the ‘bouncing bomb’ & British memory
Speaker: Victoria Taylor, University of Hull/Sheffield Hallam University

Long after the legendary ‘Dambusters’ raid, Barnes Wallis and his ‘Bouncing Bomb’ remain seared into the British psyche. Branded as ‘tripe of the wildest description’ by Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Wallis’ unlikely invention enabled 617 Squadron to spectacularly breach Germany’s Möhne and Eder dams on 16/17 May 1943. From its depiction in political cartoons and advertisements, to annual flypasts over the Ladybower and Derwent dams that its early prototypes were tested on, an unrivalled British fondness has developed for Wallis’ weapon– codenamed ‘UPKEEP’ – since its declassification after the Second World War.

Nevertheless, there is a less appealing side to its story that is inconsistent with this glorified narrative. Wallis admitted in 1969 that ‘the most regrettable aspect of the raid’ was that many women and children were among the 1,294 civilians, foreign labourers and prisoners-of-war who drowned in the resulting floods. That the German authorities retrieved an intact UPKEEP mine– with potentially disastrous implications – receives little scrutiny, and Wallis’ post-war battle to patent his invention bucks the common misconception that his game-changing work was lavished with rewards.

Utilising wartime and post-war memoranda, newspapers, testimonies, and legal files, this paper seeks to determine how the ‘Bouncing Bomb’ became revered among the British public, and to navigate the entrenched mythology that surrounds this brilliant but deadly weapon. It also aims to raise broader questions as to how public perceptions of weaponry can vary from scientific admiration to overt celebration, and to consider the benefits and perils of how such weaponry is memorialised.

The plug bayonet: Myths and misinformation
Speaker: Mark Shearwood, University of Leeds

The plug bayonet’s image as a failed experiment and a dead end in technological advancement, rather than as a step change in military technology, is primarily due to the testimony of one-man, General Hugh Mackay following his defeat at the Battle of Killiekrankie. Current historiography does not reflect the fact that the plug bayonet was in active service for over 40 years, and its implementation transformed military tactics. This paper intends to offer an alternative hypothesis, that the plug bayonet enabled important advances in military tactics with the intention of placing the plug bayonet more clearly within the context of late seventeenth century military technology.

By using the data collected from the reference collection at the Royal Armouries in Leeds along with records from the Board of Ordnance, This Paper provides new insights into the relationship between the musket and the plug bayonet, helping to explain why this type of weapon was still being issued after the arrival of the socket bayonet. Utilising original research alongside a detailed examination of period training manuals, I will provide clarification regarding the timeframe for the adoption of the plug bayonet by the English army. As well as challenging current views about the plug bayonet, this paper will reveal its true significance both as a weapon but also within popular culture. This paper also highlights the importance of using Museum reference collections as an invaluable academic source, and the importance of collaboration between museums and universities.

Elites and weapons
Sponsor: White Rose College of Arts and Humanities

The role of weapons in the construction of a symbolic community: The case studies of Eretria and Archontiko in Ancient Greece
Speaker: Chris Giamakis, University of Sheffield

This paper will discuss the ways in which weapons and armour were used to establish elite identities in the so-called ‘warrior burials’ of Archaic Greece (800-500 BC). Past bibliography has claimed that the burial goods, including weapons, found within the graves were closely related to the identity of the deceased person during his/her lifetime. However, after a brief analysis of the underlining reasons behind the custom of bearing weapons and burying the dead accompanied by them in Ancient Greece, it will be argued that other reasons inherent to the arms themselves, such as the notion of masculinity or the so called ‘biography of objects’, were equally important. This theoretical framework will be then implemented upon two case studies, Eretria in central Greece and Archontiko in northern Greece. It will be proposed that these ‘warrior burials’ were an exclusive privilege of the local elites, as the existence of two distinct cemeteries, possibly one for the elites and one for the non-elites in both of these sites could suggest. By contrasting themselves with the ‘Other’, the elites succeeded in developing a sense of collectivity, through the use of various grave goods and especially weapons and armour in their burial rites. The role of the latter was catalytic in this development, thus constituting a key factor in our understanding of social complexity in Archaic Greece.

The Tournament horse
Speaker: Eleanor Wilkinson-Keys, University of Leeds/Pontefract Castle

Displays such as the tournament gallery at Royal Armouries, Leeds, draw the spectacle and power of aristocratic tournament from the pages of sources such as the Westminster Roll and the painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold into the present-day performance space of the museum. Museum galleries are interactive areas in which the creative ways of presenting objects on display, as on the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century tournament fields, provide dramatic visual interpretation and story-telling. Pieces such as the Burgundian Bard and Maximilian armour convey the strength, wealth and power of a knight on horseback.

This paper will demonstrate how surviving tournament equipment, horse armour, and their decorations illustrate the power of the tournament horse as a psychological weapon both on and off the tournament field. I will do this by analysing the symbolic use of decoration on horse armour and trappings, in material culture, literary and pictorial descriptions, and how they evoke and embody themes, characters and stories from contemporary myth and literature. Heraldry and symbolism, displayed on objects in the Royal Armouries collection, such as the Robert Dudley shaffron and the tail piece by Kunz Lochner, can be interpreted as intimidation and status tools to opponents and spectators. Additionally, iconography such as the Westminster Roll and illuminations from Froissart’s Chroniques employs allegory to reference the characteristics and feats of arms of contemporary heroes. The horse, therefore, in addition to its speed and strength, was dressed and armed to intimidate opponents and carry forth heroes.

Forging masculinities: Elizabethan armour and the performance of male identity
Speaker: Dr Sophie Littlewood, The Portland Collection, Welbeck Abbey

The awareness of individuality and the self was a rising concern during the Renaissance which reached a peak during the reign of Elizabeth I. Courtiers were constantly engaged in the act of self-creation, striving to demonstrate their good qualities and improve other abilities in an attempt to unify and arrange them all to gain maximum effect. This paper will examine the ways in which the Elizabethan tournament offered courtiers an exceptional opportunity to display individual expressions of identity in order to make themselves more noticeable to the royal gaze and acquire favour with the Queen. It will argue that it was the armour worn by these individuals during the tournament which offered an exclusive platform for both prescribed and individual forms of masculinity and identity to be performed. I will propose that armour and its accoutrements allowed the wearer to signify that they belonged to an elite societal group but also that through the decorative designs which often embellished armour, individuals could convey complex messages which were specific to themselves and their personal ambitions.

Collecting and depicting weapons
Sponsor: Northern Bridge Consortium

From Sudanese battlefield to Scottish ballroom: The place of imperial trophies in the late Victorian home
Speaker: Nicholas Badcott, SOAS, University of London

The walls of the ballroom at Blair Castle in Perthshire in Scotland are covered with weapons, armour and uniforms from Mahdist Sudan. Most of these ‘trophies’ were collected in 1898 by Lieutenant John Stewart-Murray, the Marquis of Tullibardine (later the 8th Duke of Atholl) while serving with British-Egyptian forces during the campaign to take back Sudan from the Mahdists under the Khalifa. There was nothing unusual about his behaviour. Senior and junior officers alike collected extensively during the Reconquest and earlier expeditions in Sudan, and, once back home, displayed their acquisitions, providing material evidence of martial and imperial achievements to those who encountered these social spaces.

Drawing on unpublished and published letters, diaries and memoirs, my paper will discuss the place of weapons and armour in the domestic environment of the Victorian army officer. With Lord Tullibardine’s extensive collection at Blair Castle as its main focus, it will seek to examine the part played by motivation, aesthetics and interpretation in the location and arrangement of military trophies. In doing so, it will raise important questions regarding masculinity, class and agency in British society during the height of empire.

Picturesque pikes and swinging swords: the depiction of weapons in history paintings of the English Civil War
Speaker: Sarah Betts, University of York

Sieges and battles, camps and marches, victories and defeats; the Victorian History Paintings of the English Civil War produced by artists like Ernest Crofts strove to capture the romance of the seventeenth-century conflict centuries after the events. Weapons abound, naturally, in these images of war, but how they were depicted and in what fashions was more complex.

Swords and muskets, pikes and cannons, were often captured in minute detail within these still and imagined images of war, appealing to the antiquarian urges of artists and audiences who were also avid collectors of military memorabilia from the Civil War and other conflicts. Yet they were also depicted in idealised artistic imaginings of the battles and sieges they dated from, where achieving the right ‘look’ of the period was sometimes more important than rendering the blood, smoke, and carnage these weapons would have inflicted in the field.

This paper will explore Civil War history paintings where the romantic and commercial appeal of these works as high-art for public display had to be balanced against the violent and bloody nature of the events depicted. Weapons here were rendered from utilitarian tools of killing into hallmarks of period authenticity, appropriate props that were part of the wider romantic set-dressing of the heroic and moving events portrayed.

‘A curious admixture’: The presence of glass and metal in a colonial collection of weapons from Western Australia
Speaker: Nicola Frogatt, Royal Holloway, University of London/British Museum

Weapons made by Aboriginal Australians blending Indigenous and non-Indigenous materials came to evoke disparate and politicised responses from European collectors over the nineteenth century. In this paper, I argue that these responses were heightened by the development of a racist theory that gave these items heightened symbolism. The ‘doomed race’ paradigm, which came to influence many devastating policies against Aboriginal Australian communities, portrayed their culture as intrinsically static and incapable of surviving colonisation. I will show how one contemporary collector implicitly challenged this paradigm, by instead interpreting these ‘blended’ weapons as evidence of an inherent cultural dynamism and ability to endure colonialism.

Edward Hardman, an Irish geologist who visited northern Western Australia in the 1880s, interpreted locally-produced weapons in ways that complicated European/Indigenous, modern/ancient, superior/inferior binaries. Some colonists read the use of ‘new’ materials like bottle-glass and iron as proof that traditional cultural forms were starting to disintegrate and be replaced by ‘civilised’ ones. In contrast, Hardman celebrated these creations as evidence of technological adaptability, but none the less ‘authentic’ for that. At the same time, some weapons formed from the material culture of colonial settlement made visible aspects of white society that he found disturbing.

Location booking for "Weapons in society" conference | 26th September 2019 | Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds