Skip to main content

Creepiest objects at the Royal Armouries

Halloween is a time for reflection on the spiritual and the macabre, so we have uncovered some of the more ghoulish items in the our collection, including instruments of torture and punishment, relics of fearsome ancient folklore and macabre depictions of tales most horrid.

1. The Scavenger’s Daughter

Invented as an instrument of torture in the reign of Henry VIII by Sir Leonard Skeffington, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, the Scavenger’s Daughter was a ‘chief English sort of torture next after the rack’. By swinging the head down and forcing the knees up in a sitting position, the frame compressed the body until the ribs, breastbone and spine could be dislocated. The severe compression was said to have applied such pressure that ‘a quantity of blood [was] expelled from the mouth and nostrils’.

2. Executioner’s Mask

During the 19th century, this strange iron mask was exhibited in the Tower of London alongside the famed block and axe and described as an ‘executioner’s mask’. However, it is improbable that an executioner would have worn an iron mask and the item’s grotesque appearance makes it more likely part of an elaborate scold’s bridle. The mask is roughly made of three plates, with openings for eyes, nostrils and mouth.

3. The Danzig Handgun

This early German handgun dates from around 1350-1430 and is decorated with many faces. Firearms of this period are extremely rare and decorated examples even more so. Such a piece must have been commissioned by someone of considerable means. The depiction of a bearded face in relief is a feature of the High Gothic period and is also found, for example, on contemporary stoneware. It has been suggested that such faces stem from superstitious belief and serve a protective function (from the ‘Green Man‘ to the later Bellarmine jars used to create witch bottles). The only similar piece known to exist resides in the Swedish National Historical Museum and is known as the ‘Mörkö’ gun.

4. Vampire Killing Kit

The belief in real vampires is age-old and even persists to the present day. As recently as 2004, a Romanian family exhumed the body of a relative, cut out his heart with scythe and pitchfork, and burned it. This was a continuation of folklore that existed elsewhere in Eastern Europe for centuries.

The business of killing vampires was deadly serious, as evidenced by this vampire killing kit which was acquired by the museum in 2012. The kit includes a crucifix, stakes, a mallet, rosary, a prayer book, and a pistol along with a range of other items to ward off or kill vampires according to the appropriate methods. Historically, iron implements like knives, nails, skewers, ploughshares and scythes could be used to ‘stake’ the body or to remove the heart. Decapitation and/or dismemberment was another common method, but rarely was a specialist weapon used. Next to the simple wooden stake, the sexton’s or grave digger’s spade would have been the preferred vampire-slaying weapon. If these measures were insufficient, the heart would be removed and burned, and/or the entire corpse would be cremated. The vampire killing kit can be seen in the Hunting Gallery at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds

5. Engraving of The Princes in the Tower

Purchased from Old Church Galleries in 2002, this engraving depicts the murder of the princes in the tower. The disappearance of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury (12 and 9) in the summer of 1483, following the death of their father, King Edward IV of England, remains unsolved. It is widely speculated that they were murdered, with suspicion often falling on their uncle, King Richard III, who later took the throne.

6. The Gibbet

The gibbet was used for the public exhibition of the bodies of criminals and traitors after their execution. The intention was to instil fear in the public by making an example of wrongdoers. It is said that there were so many gibbets in London, there was hardly any street in which you could not hear one creaking as it swung. Anthony Wood recorded that on 15 March 1680 ‘Thomas Hovell that killed John White was hanged on a gallows against Balliol College gate: died very penitent and hanged there till two or three in the afternoon’.

7. Executioner’s sword engraved blade, 1674

Execution by sword was uncommon in England. Anne Boylen was the only famous prisoner at the Tower of London to die in this way because she requested it. It was, however, the normal form of decapitation on the continent. Many surviving execution swords are actually swords of justice carried before the judge to indicate his power of life and death. The details on this engraved sword, which dates from the 17th century and is of German origin, show an inscription of lines from a Lutheran hymn, which may be translated as: ‘I live and know not for how long; I die I know not when; I wander I know not whither; I wonder that I am so contented’.

8. Scold’s Bridle or Brank

Traditionally, these instruments were used to punish scolds or gossips. They were specifically used against women as a means of ridicule and humiliation in order to control their behaviour. The first (right) example, which dates from the 17th century, consists of a simple iron frame for the head, padlocked at the back, and with a serrated iron tongue for insertion into the mouth, making it both painful and effective. The second (left), more elaborate bridle with a bell is German, likely dating from the 17th century.

9. Block and Axe

The surviving block, which is made from the trunk of an oak and weighs 56.75 kg, has two concavities at the top to take the head and the upper chest of the victim, leaving their head exposed. It was used for the execution of Simon, Lord Lovat, in 1747 and it may well have been made especially for that occasion. Two cuts on the surface of the wood suggest that either the headsman had a trial cut or that the block had been used before. The accompanying axe dates from the 16th century. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the axe with which Anne Boleyn was executed – a sword was used on the occasion.

10.  Iron Torture Collar

This iron torture collar is believed to date from 16th century England. It is on display at the Tower of London. It is formed of two iron semi-circles, which lock together to form a collar. The spikes on the inside would have made for extremely uncomfortable wearing.

Related stories

Load more