On my first trip to the UK (October 2015) I was fortunate enough to visit the Leeds Armoury in Leeds, UK. I had a few days off between bow making workshops and I decided to take a day trip north to visit one of England's three royal armouries.
The trip started out a bit hectic, despite my best efforts to figure out the train times online to make the journey as smooth as possible. My first train from Birkenhead to Liverpool was stopped mid journey for mechanical issues. After a twenty minute wait we boarded a different train to complete the Journey into Liverpool. After running down the tunnels and up the escalator I arrived just in time to watch my train pull away from the platform. After an hour wait and a cup of coffee I was on the next express train heading north to Leeds. The train seemed to travel really fast so I asked the conductor just how fast we were going and I was suprised to hear that we were clipping along at 90 mph.
Once in Leeds I hopped in a taxi to the armoury to make up for lost time and I arrived in a few minutes. Once at the armoury I was instantly impressed by the size of of the building and the collections. One really cool thing about many of the UK museums is there is free admission. I thought that was a great way to get people out to enjoy the collections.
For my visit I was mostly interested in the medieval period and was hoping to get to see some authentic suits of plate armour as well as old archery equipment. I was certainly not dissappointed. The first room I walked into had a tremendous display of tournament armour and went through great detail in describing the different styles and uses of the armour. There were suits that were specific to jousting, being set up for carrying a lance and shield as well as heavily reinforced on the side of impact. I found this all so interesting.
Near the end of the first room there were two incredible suits of armour both of which belong to King Henry the 5th. The first was his tournament suit which was 100 percent enclosed. It was fully articulated and there was no place that a blade could be slid between any of the the joints. Wow! It turns out that the scientists from NASA studied this suit when they were dsigning the articulations on the space suit. If my memory serves me correct, the suit weighed about 90 pounds, which was about double to a standard suit of armour from that period.
I was very interested to see the development over time from wrought iron armour into the much thinner and stronger tempered steel. This was one of the major developments that eventually led to the decline of the longbow. The armoury had many examples of suits over time that showed this very important transition. It was also very interesting to see the styles of armour developed to glance off the arrows rather than taking their hit straight on, the most dramatic of these being the 'pig snout" helmets.
There was one suit of armour that has still stuck with me strongly and that is a special suit know as the lion suit. It was absolutley incredible. If I recall correctly it had 17 lions formed into the suit at all of the major articulations. The detail was incredible and amazing to think that it was fully functional as well. The informational signs said that they don't actually know who the suit was made for, but it shows up several times through history in different tapestries. The suit was gilded in gold and it would have been quite the sight to see the wearer strutting down the street looking much like a peacock! But the suit was definitely used in some combat as you can clearly see where a sword or other sharp object hit the wearer above the left eye.
On display were many cross bows spanning a few hundred years of development. It was fascinating to see the development of the cocking mechanisms and how complicated they became. It was also very impressive to see what incredible draw weights they were able to achieve. No wonder they could punch through even the best armour.
The collections also included an impressive display of true japanese katana swords with the "billowing clouds" profile along the cutting edge. These are amazing creations that required thousands of hours and centuries of trial and error to perfect. The collections also housed true authentic horn bows as well as a replica elephant in a full suit of combat armour!
At the time of my visit a good number of the archery related items were on loan to the Tower of London for the agincourt 600 display. But there were a few remaining authentic arrow heads on display.
There was one interactive display that grabbed my attention, it had cross sections of yew wood and described the properties of the heartwood and sapwood and how they are relevant to the english longbow. There was also a display where a yew bow had been but was missing. As I got towards the end of the tour there were several examples of self yew target bows built in the Victorian style, but I was suprised to see no true examples or recreations of the infamous "yew warbow".
Around three o'clock in the afternoon I attended an interactive presentation on medieval hand to hand combat. Basically it was two guys in full plate armour practicing a routine they would be performing in London in a few weeks. They described the armour they were wearing as well as the different weapons that each was using. They also went through their "fight scene" several times both in slow motion with explanations and again at full speed. It was amazing to see how tired and hot they were after only a few minutes of combat. I can only imagine that the warriors of the past must have been absolutely exhausted after hours of fighting in close fitting steel armour.
After the presentation I introduced myself to the performers and mentioned that I was a bowyer from Canada who specialized in yew longbows. They were very interested and immediately walked me over to the display with the yew wood description that I had seen earlier. They said that there had been a yew longbow as part of the display but it had been broken by a museum visitor and the museum might be interested in a nice yew warbow to fill its place. That made me think about a bow I was working on at home in the shop that would be a perfect fit. I thanked them for their time and gave them a business card and told them to check out the website.
A few days later I followed up with the museum and complemented them on the fine collection. I also mentioned the yew warbow I had on the go and how it could be a good fit. The museum took a while to get back to me, but when they did they were very interested in the bow as it turned out they were in the process of revamping the interactive display pods and were hoping to find a yew warbow. After a few emails back and forth and some photos of bow on the go it was confirmed that it was gonna head to Leeds to be on display!
It was a lovely piece of yew, 80 inches long with real tight grain and super sharp colours to the heartwood and sapwood. It had a few front to back wiggles along the length but nothing major. It was capped with black buffalo horn nocks. The only things not totally authentic about the bow were the wood being pacific yew instead of European yew and that the string grooves were cut along the back of the horn rather than on the side as we've seen on the Mary Rose bows. The bow was signed with a small RN burned into the side of the bow at the centre. This is known as the bowyers mark and is the where the old bows were signed by the bowyers. The museum asked if I would also be able to make a separate bow tip with the traditional side nock to be displayed alongside for comparison purposes. I thought that was a great idea.
Jump ahead one year, to October 2016.
I stopped in to the Leeds armoury again this year on my journey down from Scotland to Birkenhead to see my bow on display. It was right where I thought it was going to be and it was looking very sharp all polished and in its new home. I had to snap a few photos and it was pretty cool to watch other visitors looking at it and touching it. All in all, I felt pretty proud to have one of my bows on display.