(Royal Armouries, 2016) 254 pp. £40.00
Thom Richardson, who retired after a thirty-year career with the Royal Armouries which culminated in his service as Deputy Master, succeeds in writing a solidly academic book that appeals beyond academe. Doubtless one who devoted decades to fostering the public’s appreciation of historical heritage possesses the aptitude to make complex institutions understandable to a broad readership. Substantial archival research is showcased here. Richardson delves deeply into manuscripts connected to the privy wardrobe, culling out fascinating excerpts and quantifying data relatively inaccessible to the general public.
The tome’s structure is based upon categories of material culture. These artifacts are introduced through an opening chapter that outlines institutional procedures and parameters. In its previous incarnation, as part of a University of York doctoral dissertation, the first chapter appears to have focused on the privy wardrobe. For purposes of publication the chapter takes a broader view, now entitled “The Administration of the Tower Armoury”. Repurposing the chapter enhances the book’s usefulness. The general reader receives a clearly-written and well-conceived guide to the following chapters (on armor, shields, longbows, ordnance and a fascinating panoply of equipment). Artifacts are illustrated by thirty color plates, and thirty-eight black-and-white figures. Richardson’s quantitative analysis as presented in thirteen original tables adds yet another dimension convenient for students of arms and armor. Supplementary data is incorporated as lists, integrated within the author’s narrative. The anthropological sensibilities required for contextualization of material culture are subtly present.
Richardson’s conclusion then divides into a chronological tripartite the phases of development that have emerged in the previous chapters: 1338-1360, 1361-1377, and 1378-1410. What in the fourteenth century was essentially an ad hoc logistical response to the challenges of storage became by the fifteenth century a complex and rather monolithic “national” workshop that spawned a diversified arms industry in its shadow.
The book represents well the new literature of arms and armor. Richardson pays homage to researchers once dismissed by a previous generation as “mere antiquarians”. Simultaneously the author demonstrates full command of the kind of institutional history that has flourished, especially after 1945. This book is also germane to the “ways of war” historiography, as Richardson describes “the English system” (i.e. pp. 18-19). The popular topic of the English longbow, and indeed all manifestations of archery, are treated intelligently by one who has firsthand knowledge of the weaponry. Nor is the gunpowder debate neglected, as Richardson addresses firearms before and after 1350, and the accumulation of cannon in the Tower and elsewhere.
Archival researchers will also appreciate the appendix listing thirty-two Exchequer documents from the King’s Remembrancer classification (E 101, accounts various). Richardson has annotated briefly his citation of each document, listing condition of preservation as a primary criterion.
Thom Richardson has accomplished yet another unique service to the study of arms and armor. One hopes for further research from his pen now that he has retired from formal duties at the Tower.
Mark Charles Fissel