The Royal Armouries Museum, whose original home was in the Tower of London, can lay claim to being the oldest museum of arms and armour in the world. By the reign of Elizabeth I it had become one of the important sights of London where visitors could view the Royal menagerie and the vast holdings armours and weapons stored and displayed there.
Almost certainly, the first Oriental armour to be acquired was in 1614 when one of two Japanese armours presented to King James I (and VI of Scotland) by the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada was transferred to the Tower, the other being retained in the Royal Collection. Following the execution of King Charles I much of the Royal Collection was sold including the armour. It was described as ‘one Indian box with an Indian armour in it, a head peece, a vizard (mask), back and brest, two sleeves with gantletts, one placard for ye brest & one for ye back (the sode), two pieces for ye thighs & legs & three small brass plates (the crests)’. It was sold for the then princely sum of £10 to a Major Bass. Following the coronation of King Charles II, the armour was recovered and returned into the Royal Collection. The fate of the armour deposited in the Tower is also interesting. By 1660 its origins had been forgotten and it was described by the Yeomen Warders as the armour of ‘The Great Mogull’. By the 1970’s it had become very dilapidated, and was returned to Japan for re-furbishing. From the heraldry that is still visible, it is known that the armour originally belonged to the Takeda family and probably to Takeda Katsuyori who fought the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The second of these diplomatic gift armours, that has had no material restoration, remains in the Royal Collection and is now on loan to the Royal Armouries in Leeds.
In 1841 the third Japanese armour entered the collection by purchase from auction. Research has shown that this armour had been a diplomatic gift to King Philip II of Spain in 1585. It subsequently passed into the collection of the Duke of Infantado before being sold in London as the armour of ‘a moor of Granada’. It is now recognised as a rare example of a fighting armour of the late Muromachi period. Surprisingly no armours were acquired for the collection following the Meiji restoration when large quantities of Japanese arms and armours were entering the country. It was not until the mid 20th century that the three diplomatic gift armours were joined by armours acquired by gift, purchase and transfer from other museums.
Open daily 10am – 5pm
Last admission 4.30pm
Closed 24, 25 and 26 December
Admission is free
Royal Armouries Museum