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Armour fit for a king… or a slaver

October is Black History Month in the United Kingdom; a time for museums, and the public to reflect on and explore the history of people of colour.

It’s a time for us to look at histories not traditionally told. To challenge established ideas of what is considered historically important. Re-examine objects through a different lens to reveal hidden histories.

A black and white image shows a line of bound slaves being transported through a forest by a European slaver.

Transportation of slaves from “Lehrbuch der Weltgeschichte oder Die Geschichte der Menschheit”, by William Rednbacher, 1890.

Charles V and slavery

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain), was a man of wealth, style, piety, power and great importance. He was also responsible for one of the darkest periods of human history.

On the 18th of August 1518, aged only 18 years old and advised by courtiers and others, Charles signed a charter that arguably started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade on an enormous scale.

Before 1518, Spain like much of Europe, had laws regulating slavery, meaning relatively few African slaves were transported to the Americas. This charter gave permission to Lorenzo de Gorrevod to transport 4,000 African slaves purchased directly from the Cape Verde Islands to the Spanish American colonies in the New World. It also changed the broader laws regarding slavery and allowed Africans to be transported directly to the Americas. Previously they had to be taken via Spain itself. Over the following centuries, millions of Africans were transported against their will across the Atlantic in a brutal journey many did not survive.

Renaissance document

Charter granted by Emperor Charles V to Lorenzo de Gorrevod for permission to transport slaves, Spain, 18 August 1518. Courtesy of the Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla, Spain.

In the years after Charles signed the charter slavery from Africa expanded, and continued for centuries. After this period most slaves were bought from African rulers, whereas initially, slave raids by Europeans had been more common, and captives were often exchanged for weapons. The European slavers desire for human cargo saw these traded weapons used to increase conflict and suffering in Africa itself. Warfare and slave raids increased, as African rulers and European slavers scrambled to provide enough unfortunate people to supply the insatiable demand for slaves in the American colonies. Spain had an early monopoly on African slaves, but soon both English, French, German, and other Europeans began slaving, using the labour of transported Africans to fuel the rapid expansion of their own colonies.

Complex and contradictory?

Some aspects of this charter may seem strange and bizarre to our modern minds and Charles’ subsequent behaviour even contradictory:

These raise interesting questions:

The answers to these questions may challenge our perceptions and make us uncomfortable. It is often easier to demonise historical figures and distance ourselves from events rather than shine a light on them and consider their complexity.


Our collection contains many weapons and other objects designed to kill and maim. Some may even have actually killed someone or something. So it might seem strange that a pair of beautiful and innocuous-looking poleyns, or knee defences, designed for sport in the tournament, are linked to one of the worst stories of human suffering, but they are.

Armoured knee defences embossed with monsters and decorated with gold

Poleyns of Charles V, attributed to Desiderius Helmschmid, about 1538.

But how are these poleyns, that live in our Tournament Gallery, linked to the story of slavery?

The poleyns were made for the Charles V by the master armourer Desiderius Helmschmid. They are some of the most beautiful examples from the period and their ornate design reflect his great wealth.

An illustrated pair of leg armours

From a copy of the original made for FH Cripps-Day in 1922 (RAL 03528) The poleyns are illustrated in the inventario illuminado the pictorial record of Charles V’s armoury (1548)(Patriminio Nacional, Real Armería, Madrid, album N.18 A, pl. 32).

Originally in the Real Armería de Madrid (Royal Armoury of Madrid) of Charles V, until the early 19th century. Bought in 1842, they have remained in the Royal Armouries ever since.

Contested narratives

Objects like these raise interesting questions for museums. We display them prominently as stunning examples of Renaissance craftsmanship, but do we consider where the wealth and power came from to afford such splendour? That the man who owned them was responsible for human suffering on such a massive scale?

The stories behind much of our museum’s collection can be horrifying. They hint not only at histories of slavery, but also warfare, death and suffering. Many also may have a colonial past. Our museum makes great efforts to work with other institutions around the world gaining benefit from their expertise and perspective, but like many European museums, we are still adjusting how we understand and present our history in more accurate and inclusive terms.

The story of these poleyns is not just one of power, craftsmanship, beauty, and regal splendour. It’s also about the history of people who did not have the wealth and power to have objects like this made, and whose names will not appear in history books.

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