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Late medieval Europe

The Wars of the Roses were a series of bitter, bloody battles fought in England from 1455 – 1485. This thirty-year period of sporadic warfare and constant political intrigue between the House of Lancaster, the Red Rose, and the House of York, the White Rose, tore the kingdom apart.

Here we take a look at just a few of the remarkable objects in our collection dating from late medieval Europe.

The Painted Sallet, 1490 ( IV.12)

Painted sallet

The Sallet is dated from 1490 and is of German origin. It is incredibly rare for painted decoration to survive on helmets such as the Sallet, and the colour perhaps challenges traditional views of the medieval period as being full of dark colours and little decoration. The top of the helmet bears a flame design, while the lower part has a chequered pattern in red, white and green.  Painting was a cheap way to decorate armour in this period, however, only a few examples of painted armour are still in existence.

Brigandine, 1470 (III.1664)
Inside view of a brigandine

Brigandine ,1470. (III.1664)Dating from 1470 this Brigandine is of Italian origin and currently on display in the War Gallery at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Brigandine’s like this originated in the 14th century and were worn by the average soldier. They could be worn with arm defences of mail or plate, and a mail collar or standard or pizane.

Arming Sword, 1400-1499 (IX.1426)

Arming sword with grip missing

The hilt has a disc pommel, with raised bosses on each face, and with a circular recess at the centre of each boss. The prominent tang button is of truncated pyramid form. The grip is missing and the tang is plain. The down-curved cross has knob terminals, and the small ecusson is flanked by single engraved lines.

The straight two-edged blade, of diamond section, bears traces of the original etched and gilt foliage decoration at the forte. There is what may be a makers mark stamped on one face, but the whole is corroded. The sword is possibly a river find.

The sword was acquired by the Royal Armouries in 1975 and overall is very similar in form to the so-called ‘sword of Henry V’ in Westminster Abbey, London. There are at least six surviving examples of this form of sword, of which four have English find spots, including three associated with English church monuments.

Gothic Armour, 1471-1499 (II.3)

Man in composite silver armour, mounted on horse

The Gothic Armour dating from the late fifteenth century is currently on display on the cruciform in the War Gallery in Leeds. The armour is called ‘gothic’ presumably because it was thought reminiscent of medieval ‘Gothic’ architecture. This particular armour is of German origin, it is more symmetrical than other European armours. A popular form of helmet in Germany was the sallet, this could be made from one piece with the sight cut into the front face or with a broad open face, over which a visor could be fixed. Sallets were often worn with a chin-shaped defence, called a bevor, although the sallet provided great protection, the bevor proved unpopular and there are many accounts of men slain in battle for not wearing their bevor or temporarily lowering it to help them breath.

Mace, 1475 – 1500 (VIII.123)

Metal mace

In the 15th century, cruciform sword hilts were still in use but other hilts began to appear with further protection for the hand and fingers. Combinations of axe blade and hammer included the war hammer or axe, mainly for use on horseback. This had a sharp fluke on the reverse side from the hammer or axe, as did the Pollaxe for the foot soldier.

Iron Handgun, 1500 (XII.3748)

Tubular iron barrel handgun, with small flare at muzzle.

The iron barrel has a small touch-hole on top of the breech, to allow ignition by a match cord and has a flared muzzle. The hook beneath is forged in one with the barrel, as is the round section rod forming the tiller, which has an upswept end formed into a pear-shaped ring.

The gun was acquired by the Royal Armouries in 1974 and is stated to have been dredged up from either the River Rijn or Waal in the Netherlands.

Such all-iron handguns, with a long tail, were made in large numbers, particularly in the Low Countries. The hook beneath the barrel was placed over a wall or rest to absorb recoil. From the mid-15th century infantry armed with simple handguns became relatively common on the European battlefield and are recorded as being used in battles such as the second battle of St Albans (1461). Sometimes they were formed in units of their own, but hand gunners were more commonly combined with units of pikes. Fragments of two handguns and a bullet have been discovered at the site of the battle of Towton (1461). Although not recorded as being used at this latter battle this would seemingly indicate that firearms were more widely used than is generally understood at present.

‘Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe’ by Bob Woosnam-Savage is available to purchase online and in our museum shop.

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