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Forgotten Battles

An illustrated tapestry showing famous figures throughout history

The Royal Armouries, in partnership with Leeds 2023, is proud to present this exhibition and object trail which showcases diverse voices and previously hidden stories. 

Forgotten Battles: Gender in the Armouries has been created by volunteers and researchers who identify under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. 

We are pleased to be able to showcase different perspectives in this thought-provoking exhibition and object trail which will be at the museum for visitors to enjoy from September 2023 to March 2024.

ballock dagger

Ballock dagger (X.225)

While monarchs attempted to control the carrying of some weapons in public by restricting them to knights and upper-class gentlemen, men of all class groups wore ballock daggers. However, this was not the same for women. Medieval women may have carried knives for everyday use, but they were not intended to be used as weapons. 

Women were expected to be homemakers and seen to be lesser than the men in their lives, so the act of wearing a dagger as a weapon was met with disapproval. There is an example of this in an account from 1348. A group of women who wore daggers from their belts during a tournament was reported as a scandal. 

Gladius and scabbard mount

Gladius and scabbard mounts (IX.5583)

Roman soldiers paid for their own equipment, making any decorations significant to their identity. 

The sword is inscribed on each side with the names of what were likely successive owners of the blade, C[aius], Valeri[us], Pri[mus] and C[aius] Raniu[s]. Three figures also decorate the scabbard mounts. Two of the figures are likely to be the winged goddess, Victory. On the locket plate she appears to be writing on a shield, which hangs from a palm tree, while on the chape she seems to be holding a palm leaf. Both Victory and the palm leaf were symbols of victory in the Greco-Roman period. The figure at the top of the scabbard mount is widely accepted to be Mars, the god of war. Some, however, believe that it could be Bellona, goddess of war. 

Brown Bess

Flintlock military musket - Long Land Service Pattern 1730 (1731) (XII.99)

The nickname Brown Bess refers to the Land Pattern series of muskets which were used throughout the world and is a term that has a unique history in the context of gender. 

The Long Land Pattern for example, became one of the main weapons used by Britain during the war of Austrian succession. Here it was used to fight for the right for women to inherit the Hapsburg throne. However, the Land Pattern series was also used during the colonisation of India, which saw the British create laws to eradicate the Hijra community, which forms part of what is now recognised as a third gender throughout India. As such, this weapon has a complicated relationship with gender, as its use has seen both positive and negative effects for different gendered groups. 

Tonlet Armour

Tonlet armour (II.7)

This Tonlet armour highlights how the monarchy was viewed in the 16th century. It was made to be used for only one occasion, the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament. The helmet, known as the bacinet, is etched with religious imagery of the Virgin Mary. This imagery references King Henry VIII's as a nurturer and defender of the nation's faith. In contrast, the image of Saint George and imagery from the Order of the Garter emphasise Henry's role as protector of Tudor England and France. 

Originally, the armour would have been highly decorative, with gold gilding, and heat treatment to colour it a bright peacock blue. Despite its intended short use, the elaborate decoration would have been important to show the wealth and power of the monarchy, rather than being seen as frivolous. 

SVT-40

SVT-40 rifle (PR.5269)

Propaganda from the USSR during the Second World War often featured women alongside men in combat roles. Women who used rifles like the SVT-40 rifles, such as Vera Stafinskaya were presented as role models to encourage women to get involved in the war effort, as "the defence of the fatherland is the sacred duty of every citizen of the USSR." The model of the rifle was named 'Sveta,' a mostly female name meaning 'light' or 'bright,' and was notoriously hard to master. 

Coincidentally, this rifle was made in 1941 at Tula, the same place as the Tula Garniture (one of the other trail objects) was made. 

Naginata

Naginata (XXVIL.219)

A notable use of the Naginata was during the battle of Aizu in 1860. A group of women, including the infamous Nakano Takeko and her sister Masako, formed an informal band of fighters who helped defend their land against the gun-wielding imperial army. 

To make fighting easier, the women cut their hair short and wore masculine clothing. This was probably a practical choice, rather than an attempt to appear as men. Their presence on the front lines of combat however, was met with resistance as their place on the battlefield could have been viewed as a sign of desperation. 

sikh helmet

Sikh helmet (XXVIA.138)

Despite Sikhism considering God genderless and the turban being a unisex sign of devotion , it has become more commonly associated with men. However, women also embody Sikh values and frequently display martial prowess. For example, in 1705 Mai Bhango Kaur rallied 40 Sikh deserters to fight and die to save Anandpur Sahib from the Mughals. She later joined the guard of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, in the uniform of the Akali Nihang (warrior order). 

tula garniture

Tula garniture (XII.1506, XIII.150, XIII.998, VI.356, VI.357)

There is an emphasis on the importance of location relating to the garniture. Empress Elizabeth of Russia seized power with the support of the Russian Military. While Russian society was very patriarchal, the throne had previously been held by Elizabeth's mother, Catherine I, and legal reforms were being introduced that gave women more freedoms. The changing role of women throughout the empire showed significant advancements toward increased rights. The garniture is mostly decorative as a display of wealth and power. Elizabeth had a passion for both hunting and art and the garniture is reflective of this. 

Chevaliere d'Eon's sword

Presentation sword (XI.2034 A)

This sword was commissioned by Chevalière d’Éon for her friend George Keate. 18th century presentation swords were typically highly ornamented smallswords. The Chevalière’s unconventional choice of presentation sword reflected her approach to life. It is likely she began presenting as female at the crossdressing Metamorphosis Balls held in the court of Empress Elizabeth I of Russia. In England she lived as a woman on her own terms. She continued her career in fencing despite its masculine associations and frequently won duels wearing restrictive dresses and corsets.<

Her high status may have helped her overcome gender norms by making her less vulnerable to social disapproval. However, as a high-profile figure she faced intense public scrutiny, including a trial to settle a bet over her sex in July 1777.

Rimfire Lever - Action Magazine Rifle
Rimfire Lever-Action Magazine Rifle (XII.1492)

Winchester model 1866

It is suggested that the Mino regiment who used this gun believed they were reborn to the King of Dahomey as men, rather than serving him as female soldiers. Therefore, they had a unique position in society that was neither strictly male or female. 

The rifle was a gift to the King of Asante, another West African kingdom where patriarchal gender roles were challenged. Asante followed a matrilineal system, and the Queen Mother was a powerful figure in the kingdom. Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of Ejisu, even led the War of the Golden Stool against the British in 1900.