Monday, September 12, 2016

Tobias Capwell PhD. Arms and Armour Curator The Wallace Collection.

Photo courtesy of Tobias Capwell.

Today we have the privilege of speaking to Tobias Capwell PhD. Noted Author, historian, jouster, who has become one of the world's experts on English Arms and Armour, and is a Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection in London.-Thank you sir! 

As point of order for my readership and new readers to this blog, my interviews do not follow a script, nor are they mapped out in advance. I and my subjects set aside a portion of our day(s), and have a conversation. Thus what you see below is a natural progression of questions and answers. All my very best!

I first became aware of Tobias Capwell in 2002, when a friend who spoke of breaking lances with him at joust at the Royal Armoury in Leeds. 

The more we talked the more intrigued I became. I found it very fascinating an American had moved to the UK and was living a life exploring something which is as a rule outside of our (American) cultural history.There are very few castles in the United States. Those interested in this subject in North America must instead choose between museums and seasonal Renaissance/medieval fairs.

Our modern medieval world is actually a growing but still relatively small community, if you compare it to the world's population as a whole. It doesn't take long for a person who is endeavoring to make their mark, through hard work, and diligent research to become known. 

Recently we’ve seen more academic research taking on a practical element, with many researchers building armour, exploring fighting and riding techniques first-hand, and then reapplying the practical back onto traditional scholarly processes. Tobias Capwell was one of the first people in the field of medieval arms and armour do apply such an approach in a serious way. He has done the hard work, the heavy lifting as it were, in his effort to learn more about medieval and Renaissance arms and armour, and their use- their real use, what the truth of the subject is, rather than what it has been assumed to be.

Photo provided by Tobias Capwell

Recently I was able to Skype with Dr. Capwell (Toby to his friends);our conversation follows below.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his time, and efforts to answer my question.-Thank you sir.

MM: My first question is, how did you come to England and become associated with The Royal Armouries and the Institute for Medieval Studies?

TC: In 1995 I was offered a new post at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds and I joined them as a member of staff 1996-7. By the end of 1996 I had set my heart on becoming an arms and armour curator, so in the autumn of 1997 I went off to graduate school to start collecting some more useful academic qualifications. First an MA (Museum Studies) at the University of Manchester, then a another MA and then a PhD at the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds.

MM: What subject did you write your doctoral dissertation on?

TC: The title was The English Style: Armour Design in England, 1400-1500, which sums it up!

MM: Which explains a lot about the special time periods I have viewed in various online venues, (websites, and YouTube videos) where you have conducted presentations.

TC: Right; it seems I have become the ‘English Armour Guy’.

MM: During your time at the Royal Armouries did the museum help you with your research and or subsidize the armour you had commissioned?

TC: Yes and no. I certainly received a huge amount of support and encouragement in my studies from members of staff at the museum, and the resources of the RA library were invaluable. But in regard to all the armour I’ve had built and worn, I researched, commissioned and paid for it all myself, I've never been officially sponsored or anything.

MM: Wow! Having paid for my own harness I can appreciate the time and expense You have incurred.

TC: Yeah. It's been hurting. For years.

MM: My wife once told me I could buy a new set of pauldrons or I could eat.-I had to think about that decision for a bit...

TC: Most of my expensive activity occurred before I was married. But my wife has always been surprisingly tolerant.

MM: My experience has been a lot less formal than yours by a long shot. But I am curious about some of the surprising things I discovered when I made the transition from mail and leather defences to plate. ( I have a German Gothic harness.) 
It changed how I did everything. It informed me of my movements, and had a lot of pluses and minuses that I hadn’t anticipated. My question to you is, after having worn your plate, for both foot combats and mounted exercises, has it given you any insights into what a knight really could and couldn't do? And as a second part to this question, can you better understand what the medieval chroniclers were writing about after wearing your own armour?

Image courtesy of The Wallace Collection.

TC: That is a big question...Well the first thing that springs to mind is that I have come to realise how very different the wearer's physical experience can be in different styles of armour. Even ignoring really different types of armour like heavy jousting armours. Taking just field armours of the late fifteenth century for example. A typical German armour of c. 1475 feels and works very differently from an Italian armour of the same period. 

Tobias Capwell on horseback,
Image courtesy of Stephen Moss, (C) Photosm Photography.

Subtle differences in the precise weight and construction of particular elements can lead to really quite radical variations in the physical experience of wearing and fighting in the armour. That's led me to think a lot more about how particular armour designs had to be geared quite carefully according to the specific fighting context. Who are you fighting? How? What weapons will you be using? What are your enemies going to use on you? Are you fighting on foot or on horseback? On open plains in the summer time, or in the mountains in the winter? What personal staff support do you have? There are so many questions which influence what your armour should look like and how it should work.

All that means that different people living in different regions might have radically different armour needs and wants. And that's just the technical side. Then you have to consider the artistic, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of people in a particular area. That plays a big role too. Armour is an expressive and decorative art-form as well let's not forget, not just a functional, utilitarian thing- it’s a hollow, wearable sculpture at the same time as it’s an artificial protective exoskeleton for combat. So... I have started to refer to learning to 'operate' an armour, rather than just to wear it. As you say above, each armour has its own strengths and weaknesses. You need to get used to what you can do, and what you can't do.

MM: As an interjection, knights were very much the fashionistas of their day...

TC: Right! Often they were intensely fashion-conscious. And deeply concerned about their dignity and public image. 

MM: You can correct me on this, as I reserve the right to mangle the historical record, but one of the medieval popes admonished knights for their tournament displays, disdaining their ostentatious display etc.…

TC: They often get criticised for being too much concerned with new fashions... updating their armour and inventing new terms for new armour parts they’d invented for jousts and tournaments when really they should be fighting the infidel.... It's a great misconception that knights were ultra-conservative, behind the times, unable to stay relevant. I blame Cervantes for that. In reality they were always the first people to adopt new military tech, including personal firearms… but I am in danger of digressing.

Getting back to your question - asking for a specific example... I always found Philippe de Commines’ reference to Burgundian knights, after a long period of peace, not being able to properly couch their lances in battle. He says something like fewer than 1 in 10 could do it. Which seems weird at first, because initially you can read that and think- 'how hard can couching a lance be? You stick the thing under your arm and off you go right?
He says something like fewer than 1 in 10 could do it. When I started playing with lance-rests on horseback in the early 2000s, I immediately understood what he meant. Because you can read that and think- 'how hard can it be? You stick the thing under your arm and off you go right?

Well, not really. When I started playing with lance-rests on horseback in the early 2000s, I immediately felt I better understood what he meant. What I think Commines means by the proper couching of the lance is the correct and effective use of the lance-rest quite specifically. A lance-rest allows you to hit your opponent A LOT harder. You can transfer 300-400 joules on impact with your target as opposed to the 80-150 your opponent gets if you don’t have a rest. But a lance-rest is hard to use. You need to train with it, and get good at it. I can see that if the Burgundians hadn't been practising constantly, they wouldn't be good at it any more.

MM: Sounds like a definitive example of 'The harder you train in peacetime the less you bleed in combat.'

TC: Right.

Tobias Capwell-Harewood House-2012
(c) Stephen Moss Photosm.

MM: In regard to your research on English funeral effigies, which one is your favorite? ( As a side note: mine is Sir William Phelip, Lord Bardolf, of Dennington, Suffolk.)

TC: Wow yeah that's a hard question to answer... there are so many.

MM:Which is why I asked. The large number of surviving effigies testifies to the huge size of the knightly class which once existed in England and I know you have done a lot of research on this subject.

TC: Bardolf is my local effigy, ten minutes drive from my house. So I suppose I have a special fondness for that one too. But right now, working on my next book Armour of the English Knight 1450 - 1500, there are some great ones there too. They'll be a lot easier to look up when I publish the dratted book!

MM: When do you think you will have your manuscript ready for publication?

TC: I submit the manuscript in January, proofing and design runs through May, and the book comes out in the autumn of 2017. And I have to stick to that, because I have to deliver a major exhibition on costume armour of the German Renaissance in 2018, so there is no wiggle room in the schedule.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Moss (c) Photosm

MM: There often comes a time when a researcher comes across an interesting fact or rediscovers something which has sort of slipped through the cracks of history. What has been the one thing which has surprised you the most?

TC: Hmm... 

MM: Was it that the arms and armour represented on the funeral effigies you have studied could readily be reproduced as real, functional equipment?

TC: There were really no major surprises when it came to the effigies. I always sort of had an intuitive sense that they were lifelike, highly realistic, and therefore reliable. But I've grown to appreciate them in ways I might never could have expected. The more I learn about them the more extraordinary they show themselves to be, as an art-form and as a sort of spiritual tool...

Most recently it has been the actual surviving pieces of armour that have been surprising me. In the second book a bigger role is played by extant pieces of armour, mostly helmets preserved as funerary achievements in churches.

I found one the other day which is fitted with special 'anti-smash' studs or stops, mounted on the sides of the skull over temples, which prevent the visor from being knocked down too far by a powerful blow. That was a surprise. It’s the sort of thing you sit at home and think- 'now that would be a good idea', but you know of no evidence for it historically. And then pow, there it is.

MM:I think this is a good point to bring up an event in which you played an important part. You were one of the 'knights' who escorted King Richard III's remains to his reinterment in Leicester Cathedral. I would personally like to thank you and your fellow rider, Dominic Sewell, for your efforts. You brought a real sense of history and solemnity to the occasion. Were there any surreal moments for you during the ride?

TC: Yeah, the whole thing from beginning to end! And it was more than a little nerve-wracking. But I think we pulled it off. Nobody died.
MM: LoL-No one died. But what about any sense of weirdness or some hair-raising sense of history? Something like that must have passed through you at some point?

TC: Most the time I was too focused on what I was doing and what was going on immediately around me… I didn’t really have much of a chance to sit back and think about it... But there were a couple moments. When we stopped at Dadlington along the way we had a bit of time where we had to just stop and wait for a while, and in that break I realised what was going on. That was the shiver moment- I realised I'd been interested in this stuff and the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses since I was a little kid and now I'm doing this?! It was bonkers, the whole thing. And utterly awesome at the same time.

MM: Besides the Wars of the Roses, one of the subjects you are passionate about is Henry V and his campaigns in France. One of the interesting points you have raised relates to the English archers at the Battle of Agincourt, and how precisely they and their famous longbows were used on the battlefield. In several video presentations you have shown they used their weapons as a point offensive weapon- similar to a rifle, than say an area denial weapon- where a massive arrow storm just saturated large areas of the field. If it is possible, what do you think was the biggest contributing factor to the French defeat?

Tournament of the Phoenix, Tobias Capwell receiving a blow
from Dmitry Savchenko
Photo courtesy (c) J Camacho Photography.

TC:How to be brief on that one... Basically, Henry V had very strong force cohesion, motivation, high morale, and a very clear command structure. The French had none of those things, except perhaps the motivation. Henry V made the French fight on his terms, and the French allowed themselves to be pushed into fighting on their enemy's terms. That's a Sun Tzu 101 fail right there.

Then of course Henry made sure the field conditions and circumstances of the field of battle favoured him, and placed the French at a terrible disadvantage, working against them and nullifying their numerical superiority. Henry also had force diversity (lots of archers plus a good number of men-at-arms), so the different elements of his army could complement each other, benefitting from each other's strengths and compensating for each other's weaknesses.

The French, or at least the ones who did the fighting, were all men-at-arms. Some good advantages there, but no way to balance the weaknesses. And ultimately Henry had a good plan, and implemented it to the letter. He'd worked out the odds, and they were all in his favour. All that stuff about him being ‘up against the odds’ is just not true. The French had a plan, but Henry captured it days before and knew what they were up to. And the French were not able to implement their plan in any case. They tried, and echoes of the original French plan can be found in what actually happened on the day, but ultimately it didn't work out very well for them.

MM:I think that is one of the better assessments of what happened I have been privileged to hear in a long while, thank you for your answer. What does the future hold for Tobias Capwell? I have heard rumours you are working on the Funerary Achievement of Henry V… Or better put: What is it about his equipment or the collection of equipment purported to be his that you find fascinating?

TC: Well it’s a hugely important group of objects, and yet almost nothing has ever been written about them. Certainly nothing recent, and nothing that works out what they really are. I'm working as part of a research team on that, and I'm responsible for the helm and the saddle. The work will be published next year.

Tournament of the Phoenix
Photograph courtesy of  (c) J. Camacho Photography.

MM: I have read that The Wallace Collection will be putting together an exhibition and display of Asian arms and armour. Will this display showcase the major cultures of Asia, such as the Indian/Moghul period? Persian? Korean, Japanese and Chinese examples? Will there also be the odd piece from the Pacific Island groups? I am thinking of some of the examples I have seen of shark tooth- edged weapons.

TC: Well, yes and no. Yes, we have been working hard on the catalogue of Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Asian Arms and Armour since 2005. I’ve been in charge of the project since 2012. Along with the catalogue project we are planning major new print and online publications, and a complete refurbishment and redisplay of the Oriental Armoury at the Wallace Collection. This is a diverse collection, with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. We don’t have any Korean objects, sorry. Also there are very few Japanese and Chinese things. This collection is for the most part Indo-Persian, with a good amount of Balkan and otherwise Ottoman pieces. There are smaller groups of weapons made in Sri-Lanka, Bhutan, and Indonesia. But we don’t have any of those shark-tooth swords from Kiribati, apologies! 
MM: So there will be a tighter more narrower focus? 

TC: The focus is always led by the collection and its strengths. And those don’t change, since we are a closed collection- no acquisitions, no loans, no disposals allowed.

MM: I am also interested to know if the museum owns any examples of what I have heard described as "wootz" or "crucible steel?" Will the importance of this type of high-quality steel be touched upon?

TC: Yes, we have a large number of swords, daggers and even armour made out of ‘watered’ wootz, that is, crucible steel of the type which gives you a wavy pattern when you polish and lightly etch it with a mild acid. Many of our blades have been over-cleaned over the years, so it can be very hard to see the pattern on some of them, but others are still quite clear. We’ve done a lot of research on crucible steel and its use on weapons in India and Persia, and I’m sure that subject will play a role in just about anything we do with this part of the collection.

MM: Will you and the museum produce a video or digital offering of your upcoming display? I think this is an important strategy. You and I both know one of the most restricting issue museums face, is the lack of space. Large collections such as the Wallace must have warehouses full of amazing pieces they have no room to display.

TC: Certainly, we are steadily developing our digital elements at the museum. But the Wallace doesn’t really have a very large collection of arms and armour, at least not in comparison to the other great world collections. We’re actually quite small- around 3000 objects, as opposed to tens if not hundreds of thousands. So we have almost everything on display. 

MM: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is making so many of their pieces available on their websites, and on their Facebook page. That has been a real boon to those with financial restrictions and/or a lack of free time. I have heard that they are going to publish their photographic records. That would have a really positive effect on both the dissemination of knowledge and as a way of promoting the museum. Has there been a positive reaction to what the Met is doing? I know the Wallace has begun the process themselves. Will they continue to do so?

TC: We offer more and more of the collection online all the time. It just takes a lot of work and time. But it’s happening.

MM: Lastly what do you want your legacy as a historian to be?

TC: That’s not really up to me, and I don’t really think about it. I just try to work and to publish as thoroughly, consistently, quickly, and with as much attention to detail and quality as I can. Thanks for your interest in my work!

MM: I would like to again express my thanks to Dr. Tobias Capwell and the generous gift of his time today, and his willingness to answer a great number of questions which meandered all over the historical map. Thank you sir.

TC: It’s my pleasure!

(c) Richard Pearn.

Here are a selection of video links to Dr. Capwell's efforts:

Matt Easton from Scholagladatoria's YouTube channel-

From the Wallace Collection-'Agincourt: Myths and Misconceptions'-

The BBC documentary on the Greenwich Armoury-

A link to Tobias Capwell's published work 'Armour of the English Knight 1400 to 1450'-

Tobias Capwell on Olympic Jousting-

Video Link, with Dominic Sewell and Tobias Capwell concerning the viability of Richard III's martial ability-