The excellent Royal Armouries Museum is Leeds’ top attraction. The museum houses an unsurpassed collection of arms and armour and also features demonstrations that include jousting tournaments.
As far as museums about armour are concerned, the Royal Armouries Museum is hard to beat; the problem is that armour is not exactly the most fascinating subject for a museum.
What to see at the Royal Armouries Museum
The museum has a collection of over 75,000 objects with 5,000 of them on permanent display in eight themed galleries and the museum’s tiltyard gives you the opportunity to see arms and armour from the Tudor-era in action.
The galleries include:
The Hunting Gallery
The Hunting Gallery tells the story of hunting from prehistory to the 20th century from basic spears to modern firearms. Highlights of the Hunting Gallery include:
- the “Tula garniture”, a set of 18th-century hunting weapons that belonged to Elizabeth of Russia;
- a 20th-century Norwegian whaling gun;
- and a four-bore Holland & Holland hunting rifle owned by Ewart Scott Grogan on his journey across Africa and the Royal Armouries Millennium Gun.
The Oriental Gallery
The Oriental Gallery has a focus on arms and armour from Asia. Exhibits include:
- a Syrian bronze bombard, which is the only surviving Mamluk hand cannon;
- a set of 16th-century elephant armour brought back from India by Lady Clive in 1801;
- and a 15th-century Ming dynasty sword from the workshop of the Yongle Ming Emperor.
The Self-Defence Gallery
The Self-Defence Gallery features weapons that have been designed for self-defence. These include:
- an anti-garotting pistol from Belgium,
- a 20th-century vampire killing kit,
- examples of guns used in James Bond films
- and the M-41 A Pulse Rifle used in the films Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992).
This gallery also includes a poignant exhibition about the effects that gun crime can have on a community.
The Swords of Middle Earth
The Swords of Middle Earth is a relatively small gallery that features artists’ proof copies of the prop weapons used in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films.
The Tournament Gallery
The Tournament Gallery is a large gallery housed over two floors of the museum that features armour used in Tudor-era tournaments including lion armour and armour used by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, Henry VIII and Sir Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Henry VIII’s armour and weapons on display include his foot combat armours, jousting lances and Henry VIII’s horned helmet.
It also features Tudor Power and Glory: The Field of Cloth of Gold, a new display that tells the story of one of the Tudor era’s most spectacular events.
The War Gallery
The War Gallery has exhibits of weapons and armour designed for wartime use dating from ancient Greece to the 20th century. Exhibits include:
- the Warwick shaffron, the oldest surviving European horse armour;
- the horse armour used by Waldemar VI, Duke of Anhalt-Zerbst;
- the Danzig gun;
- a longbow recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose;
- a prototype of the Maxim machine gun;
- a Thompson submachine gun, similar to those used by Chicago gangsters during prohibition, recovered from the Provisional IRA during the Troubles
- and a display about the Battle of Waterloo
The War Gallery also features Firefight: The Second World War, a new display that focuses on the weapons of the Second World War.
Peace: a Farewell to Arms?
Peace: a Farewell to Arms? is a smaller gallery within the War Gallery that was set up in partnership with the Peace Museum in nearby Bradford. The Peace exhibition examines the potential for a future without arms and looks at disarmament and the concept of détent. This gallery includes examples of body armour worn for protection against landmines.
Hall of Steel
The Hall of Steel is the museum’s centrepiece consisting of a large display of around 2700 pieces of military equipment from the 17th and 19th centuries.
In addition of the museum’s five floors of galleries, the Royal Armouries also features a 150m- (492 ft)-long tiltyard running alongside the River Aire. The tiltyard can seat up to 1200 people and is used for live displays including archery, falconry and jousting contests, particularly around Easter and during summer.
Visiting the Royal Armouries Museum
The Royal Armouries is designated as a UK National Museum, which means that entry is free like all other National Museums in the UK; however, there are charges for some temporary exhibitions and extra attractions.
The museum is located by the waterfront in Leeds Dock. It is a lovely 15-minute walk along the riverfront into the heart of the city centre.It is a relatively new purpose-built museum that is fully wheelchair-accessible, although space for wheelchairs and mobility scooters is limited in the tiltyard.
There are two cafes inside the Royal Armouries: the Nelson bistro on the ground floor and a coffee shop on the second floor. There is also a picnic area with vending machines on the fourth floor and the surrounding Leeds Dock area has plenty of other places to eat and drink.
It is a large museum with a lot to see, but armour is not a subject matter that a lot of people find interesting which makes it difficult to estimate how long to spend here, although most people spend between two and four hours at the museum and people with an interest in military history could spend all day here.