Join us on Saturday 22 April to explore the history of women and armour at our Deadlier than the Mail: Women in Armour study day at the Tower of London, in collaboration with the Royal Armouries.
In the 1970s it was a man’s life in the arms and armour world, both in use and study. Recently graduated in 1977, I was fortunate to get a toe hold on the bottom rung of the curatorial ladder in the Department of Weapons and Antiquities at the National Maritime Museum. The weapons side of the Department was all female, and as my boss had a preference for the uniform collection. I was more than happy to cut my teeth on the swords ably assisted by a recently published catalogue. Promotion saw me briefly an antiquity (a flag lady) but my heart was pledged and I transferred to the Edged Weapons department of Tower of London Armouries.
Today, diversity is a vital consideration in museums and heritage attractions and the display of arms and armour remains a problematic area. Cultural diversity exists in the weapons and defensive equipment used in different areas of the world, but the fighters stubbornly remain predominantly male. There have been female warriors both mythical and real, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Joan of Arc successfully rallied French morale and fortunes against the 15th century English, only to be fatally condemned for unfeminine behaviour i.e wearing armour and going to war. Probably the most famous women warriors were the Amazons of classical mythology, while the African kingdom of Dahomey (modern day Republic of Benin) had a flourishing group of female warriors N’Nomiton (our mothers) from the 17th – late 19th centuries. Originating as a corps of elephant hunters, by the 1850s they constituted up to a third of the entire Dahomean army. Equipped with clubs, knives and Danish guns they graduated to Winchester rifles. Capitalising on their opponents’ discomfort in killing women, special units successfully targeted French Officers in the Franco-Dahomean wars (1890s). Eventually Western European technology and might triumphed and Dahomey became a French Protectorate. The N’Nomiton although praised for their courage and audacity were disbanded. Their last surviving member Nawi died in 1979 aged over 100.
Weapons are rarely gender specific. The only weapon that comes immediately to mind as particularly feminine is the Japanese ko-naginata – a curved single-edged blade mounted on a haft. However a longer, heavier version exists used by male samurai, foot-soldiers and warrior monks (o-naginata). Longbows used for hunting, sport and war were adapted to suit their user, so female bows survive – field archery was considered an appropriate sport for Victorian ladies – but the English laws regarding the training in and ownership of bows related only to the men in a household. Women gave their names to legendary swords and artillery pieces presumably as companions to the men using them. Generally, a woman’s role was supportive – it was the Lady of the Lake who presented King Arthur with Excalibur and reclaimed it – it is Lady Lutterell who hands her husband his helm as he mounts his horse. Arms and armour also provided useful surfaces for ladies to decorate – from blousy Brittannias and Victorys on etched and engraved on sword blades, to scantily clad classical goddesses and nymphs frolicking on any available surface.
Armour in portraiture was used to symbolise male status well after its working life on the battlefield had ended – and in the 17th century provided an excuse for well-born ladies in the guise of an armoured Minerva to flash the flesh. However, armour combining form and function as it does is perhaps the most masculine. A complete harness crafted to fit an individual provides a realistic record of the whole man but can be unforgiving. The surviving armours of Henry VIII as well as charting the skill of his Greenwich workshop show the changing shape of the man, from chunky sporting prince to ageing heavyweight, albeit with a shapely leg.
Keeper of Tower Armouries, Royal Armouries