The Medieval Review 17.06.09

Richardson, Thom. The Tower Armoury in the Fourteenth Century. Leeds: Trustees of the Royal Armouries, 2016. pp. xviii, 254. £40.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-94809-275-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

Ever since the dispute between Gustav Köhler and Rudolf Schneider in the late nineteenth century regarding the types of artillery that were available in the Middle Ages, specialists in the history of military technology have scrutinized narrative texts in an attempt to discern what these sources have to say about the wide range of weapons used during the medieval millennium. Complementing these studies of narrative texts have been extensive examinations of images of arms and armor in a wide range of media, including manuscript illustrations, carvings, and statuary. Taken together, these two broad categories of sources, the descriptive and the pictorial, have led to significant advances in scholarly understanding regarding the types, uses, and manufacture of arms and armor throughout the medieval period. This has been true despite the fact that authors and artists frequently suffered from a lack of information about the military equipment that they were portraying or otherwise followed literary and artistic conventions to the detriment of historical accuracy.

In the period since the end of the Second World War, material information developed by archaeologists also has played an increasingly important role in the study of arms and armor, often helping to resolve disputes among scholars that were due to the imprecision of other types of sources. However, changes in burial practices among Christians from the eighth century onwards led to the inclusion of far fewer weapons and pieces of armor in graves, and therefore to fewer specimens surviving for later periods. This substantial gap in the survival of armor and weapons increasingly is alleviated from the fourteenth century onwards.

One type of source that has not benefited , until very recently, from extensive scholarly attention, particularly with regard to England, has been administrative documents that record the purchase, production, and storage of arms and armor. These sources, because they deal with individual weapons, the purchase of specific supplies to be used by individual artificers, and accounts of the state of repair of actual arms and armor, are exceptionally important for our understanding of military technology. In particular, they offer a corrective to the often vague or inaccurate renderings of these same types of arms and armor by the authors of narrative sources and artists in periods for which there is a dearth of surviving equipment. For this reason, the detailed analysis of the accounts of the keepers privy wardrobe dealing with the Tower armory from the early fourteenth to the early fifteenth century by Thom Richardson, retired Deputy Master of the Tower Armouries, is an important and essential contribution to the study of late medieval arms and armor.

Richardson organizes his text in eleven chapters, the first of which is a history of the office of the keeper of the privy wardrobe, and the last in which he reiterates the main findings set out in the body of the text in chapters 2-9. These middle chapters consider the contents of the armory maintained in the Tower of London from c. 1315-c.1415. Richardson organizes these nine chapters according to the divisions within the reports rendered by the keepers of the privy wardrobe: armor, shields, equestrian equipment, longbows, springalds and crossbows, close combat weapons along with flags and banners, gunpowder weapons, military textiles and tents, and finally packing materials.

Each of the chapters follows the same general pattern, with a brief introduction highlighting the main trends identified by Richardson followed by translated excerpts from the privy wardrobe records that illuminate these trends. Richardson's discussion and the extracts from the keepers' records are accompanied by 30 full color plates and 38 black and white illustrations, most of which are keyed to particular weapons and armor. The overall effect is quite impressive as the reader can both read a description of the weapon and see what it looks like at the same time.

The nine chapters comprising the body of the book are of uneven length because of the variable quantities of materials and reporting about them in the records of the privy wardrobe. However, taken as a whole these records provide a considerable body of information about the military equipment produced, stored, and purchased by the keepers of the privy wardrobe. Richardson is able to demonstrate that several patterns emerge from the overall collection. He identifies three distinct phases in the military use of the Tower armory, the first of which ran from 1338-1360 and coincided with the mobilization of large armies for campaigns in the Low Countries and in France. During this period, Richardson argues, the Tower provided arms and equipment for men-at-arms, as well as very large quantities of bows and arrows. In the second period from 1361-1377, the Tower ceased to provide equipment to men-at-arms, but continued to provide somewhat reduced quantities of bows and arrows, as well as increasing quantities of armor for archers, mostly to those stationed at the royal fortress in Calais. In the final period, from 1378-1410, the Tower continued to provide significant quantities of bows and arrows, but also served as a storage and delivery point for very large quantities of these same weapons that were produced outside the Tower. This period also saw the significant increase in the production of gunpowder weapons.

The individual chapters also illuminate a number of questions that have been the focus of scholarly contention for many decades. In chapter 3, for example, Richardson shows that the Tower kept three different types of shields, the scutum, targe, and pavise, that last of which was a very large shield used for protecting the entire body from enemy missile fire. Most scholars have treated the pavise as unimportant during the period of the Hundred Years War. However, the very large numbers of these shields kept in the Tower and distributed for use on ships indicates that they actually were quite important. In a similar vein, Richardson's discussion of the production of longbows at the Tower demonstrates that the long-standing view that there were different types, sizes, and weights of bows is incorrect. All bows produced at the Tower were of uniform size, and the only differentiation was in whether they were painted or unpainted.

In one final example, in chapter 6, Richardson examines the problem of the types of crossbows that were produced in the Tower and particularly the mechanisms that were used for spanning them. He is able to show the production of a wide range of spanning devices, including the well-known goat's foot lever, as well as the less well-known windlasses and screw-winder, the last-named known in Latin as a viz or vices. He also sheds light on the long-standing question about the difference between the "one-foot" and "two-foot" crossbow. Richardson postulates that because ammunition for the latter also could be used by the torsion-powered engine called a springald, that the "two-foot" crossbow was a substantially larger version of the "one-foot" version.

The volume is equipped with a scholarly apparatus of notes, a bibliography sources and scholarly works, and an index. The text is rounded out with an appendix listing the keepers of the privy wardrobe (1323-1415), and a second appendix listing the documents produced by the privy wardrobe. Richardson also provides a useful glossary of terms.

This book will be essential for any scholar studying the arms, armor, and military administration of England during the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. The accessible text and multitude of high quality and well-executed images also will make this text accessible to a popular audience. The one criticism that might be levied against the text is that Richardson often permits the lengthy excerpts from the privy wardrobe's records to speak for themselves rather than providing additional contextualization himself. When Richardson does draw out conclusions from the records, as for example regarding the production of longbows, these are quite valuable. Perhaps in a later edition or companion volume Richardson might expand upon the commentary that he provides here.

Copyright (c) 2017 David Bachrach

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login