The Royal Armouries

Elizabeth Penwill

The UK's oldest Museum

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.
The Royal Armouries
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The Royal Armouries
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As depicted in the manuscript, our Walpurgis fought not in armour or masculine clothing, but a dress, with her skirt tucked into her belt for practicality.

For many members of a modern audience - children included - there is something inspiring about seeing a woman fight without compromising femininity. While the workshop empathised that female sword fighters were an exception in Late Medieval Europe, not the norm, Walpurgis’ presence in the manuscript cannot be denied. Consequently, alongside installing literacy confidence, the workshop also tackled contemporary misogyny by challenging gender expectations still present in our modern world. The visit the museum was rounded off by the opportunity to come face to face with I.33. Pupils were granted permission to come into our library and see the manuscript in person. Explaining to anyone, school children or adults, the historical significance of I.33 is one thing, but there is something about allowing people the opportunity to see the object itself that holds a special mystique. Despite spending the morning learning to sword fight, building literacy confidence and witnessing live combat, many participants commented how seeing I.33 was their favourite part of the visit. This really speaks to the power of the manuscript, and why welcoming children into museums is so important. Currently, we are getting ready for Mightier than the Sword’s return in 2023. Our storyteller has been booked, school pupils are getting excited about their visit and Walpurgis’ dress is hanging in the dressing room, ready to inspire the next cohort. We can’t wait to run this project again and get to see I.33 come to life through the eyes of children.
Ancestry UK
The Royal Armouries

Elizabeth Penwill

Elizabeth Penwill works for the Royal Armouries
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