As the UK’s oldest museum, it’s no surprise that the Royal Armouries is home to an intriguing collection, with objects such as Henry VIII’s horned helmet and a near-complete set of Mughal elephant armour capturing the imagination of visitors. However, tucked behind the scenes is a very special object. The Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 (also known as the Tower Fechtbuch or the Walpurgis Fechtbuch, and often abbreviated to I.33), is the oldest known European martial arts manual, having been dated to the early 14th century. Yet, it’s not just the manual’s age that makes the book so special as, on the last surviving page, an unexpected figure appears with a sword and buckler in hand.
That figure is a woman called Walpurgis, but exactly who she is remains unclear. Is she Saint Walpurga, the 8th century missionary who travelled to Germany, where the manuscript originates from? Was she a real person, and if so, did she really wield a sword? Is she purely a work of fiction? We can never know for sure and the answers are lost to history.
But here at the Royal Armouries, we like to bring history to life. Walpurgis, and the other figures in the manuscript, recently left the pages of I.33 to deliver our partner schools outreach project: Mightier than the Sword.
Mightier than the Sword is a project aimed at fostering literacy and oracy confidence in local primary schools. Some elements of the project occurred in the classroom, and schools were provided with training, resources and visited by our storyteller in residence. At the museum, pupils got to meet Walpurgis, alongside the other figures depicted in the manuscript: a Priest and a Student. Although today the popular image of a priest is not one of violence, evidence indicates that secular clergy of the period did sometimes carry arms. Given one theory suggests I.33 was produced at a cathedral school, the character of the Priest was an apt figure to teach pupils about all about combat. Participants got to pick up their own sword and buckler and put the stances seen in I.33 into action.
The mystery surrounding Walpurgis’ identity gave us a character perfect for inspiring storytelling: a blank canvas for children to project their ideas on to. For the purposes of our workshop, she became a young woman keen to learn the art of combat, but held back by the societal norms of her time. Participants helped Walpurgis overcome her insecurities through language: using their words to create her world and install her with confidence. Words used in the session were turned into a poem about growing confidence, which gave Walpurgis the courage to demonstrate her sword and buckler skills. Since moving to Leeds in 1996, live combat has been a key attraction at the Royal Armouries, and witnessing this exclusive demonstration, of course, brought great excitement to the pupils.