Royal Armouries

Wooden Heads: an Introduction

Images

colour photo of a carved wooden head of Edward III

Carved wooden head of Edward III. English, about 1688-90 (XVII.41)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Edward III

    Carved wooden head of Edward III. English, about 1688-90 (XVII.41)

  • typed title page from a guidebook of the Tower of London

    An Historical Description of the Tower of London and its Curiosities, printed for Newberry and Carnan, London, 1768

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Henry VIII

    Carved wooden head of Henry VIII. English, about 1689-91 (XVII.1)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Charles I

    Carved wooden head of Charles I by Grinling Gibbons. English, 1686-7 (XVII.2)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Edward III

    Carved wooden head of Edward III. English, about 1688-90 (XVII.41)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Henry V

    Carved wooden head of Henry V. English, about 1688-91 (XVII.44)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Henry VI

    Carved wooden head of Henry VI. English, about 1688-91 (XVII.43)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Henry VII

    Carved wooden head of Henry VII. English, about 1689-91 (XVII.40)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of James I

    Carved wooden head of James I. English, about 1688-90 (XVII.47)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of William I

    Carved wooden head of William I. English, about 1688-90 (XVII.777)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of William III

    Carved wooden head of William III probably by Nicholas Alcock. English, 1702 (XVII.45)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of a Black Man

    Carved wooden head of a 'Black Man'. English, 18th century (XVII.55)

  • colour photo of a carved wooden head of Charles II

    Carved wooden head of Charles II by Grinling Gibbons. English, 1685-6 (XVII.3)

  • colour photo of the head of a wooden horse

    Head of a carved wooden horse from the Line of Kings. (XVII.7)

  • Photo of strips of different colours annotated to explain different paint layers

    Paint analysis of a carved wooden horse from the Line of Kings.( XVII.7)

  • Carved wooden head of a Black Man

    Carved wooden head of a 'Black Man'. English, 18th century (XVII.55)

Wooden Heads: an Introduction

Description

The carved wooden heads, several identifiable as representations of kings of England, were not intended as exhibits in their own right but as props to be used in the display of armour at the Tower of London. Many were intended for use in the Horse Armoury, where the heads formed parts of figures which ‘wore’ the armour on display, in an attempt to create a striking visitor attraction. It is only within the past few decades that the surviving heads have become objects of study for what they are .

The surviving heads, like the wooden horses, are of interest for several reasons, including that they are works of art, most unique in their details, and that documentation for the commissioning of at least eighteen heads between 1685 and 1690 applies to many of them. In addition, some of the heads are recognisable in historic images of the Line of Kings and other displays, or are mentioned in written accounts. Since 2012 there has been new research including the use of paint analysis, X-radiography and tree-ring dating (or dendrochronology) in order to shed extra light on these fascinating objects.

The identification of the heads is not without its problems for several reasons. First and foremost, the documentation that recorded the commissioning of eighteen wooden heads between 1685 and 1690 unfortunately only names the two kings that were carved in the workshop of Grinling Gibbons in 1685-86 – Charles I and II. Two heads in the collection (XVII.2 and 3) have been identified as representing these monarchs and attributed to Gibbons on this basis. However, it is possible that one or both these heads have been replaced since the 1680s. Scientific methods were used to test whether these heads could be later than the dates suggested by the documents.

The subjects of the remaining sixteen heads made between 1685 and 1690 in the workshops of William Emmett, William Morgan, John Nost I, Thomas Quellin and Marmaduke Townson are not recorded. However, the identities of the monarchs who were in the ‘Line of Kings’ established in the Horse Armoury by 1692 are known. These were William the Conqueror, Edward I, Edward III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and James I – twelve, in addition to Gibbons’ Charles I and II. This means that several heads other than those representing kings may have been produced, such as ‘John of Gaunt’ and possibly ‘Richard, Duke of York’.

The carvers would almost certainly have drawn their information about the appearances of their sunbjects from some of the many prints of the kings of England which were in circulation in the late 17th century, or from other artworks such as tomb effigies. Within the collection of heads it has proved possible to make positive identifications of several with distinctive faces, including Henry VIII and Edward III. In addition, provisional identifications include Henry V, Henry VI, James I and William the Conqueror. In 1702 it was recorded that ‘Alcock’, believed to be the carver Nicholas Alcock, supplied a wooden head carved with the face of William III, who had recently died. This carved head has also been identified from its similarity to portraits of the king.
As the heads are solid rather than hollow, they were not suitable for endoscopic examination and in most cases they were not considered suitable for X-raying. However paint analysis of those heads which have not been stripped back to bare wood has proved useful. In 2012 it revealed that many of the heads share very similar histories – having been repainted several times, but much less often than the wooden horses. It also indicated that the original paint schemes were generally lighter than their modern counterparts. Further paint analysis is taking place in 2013 and will be reported shortly.

Dendrochonological analysis produced tree ring sequences for several of the heads made of oak, but in most cases these sequences could not be matched to dated samples. However, one head unexpectedly produced a near-perfect match with some of the Eastern Baltic oak found in one of the wooden horses, indicating that they were made from timber from the same tree, which has a likely felling date of 1675-90. Interestingly, this head was not one that had been identified as one of the 17th century batch, being catalogued as 19th century, and its identity currently remains a mystery.

Related Objects

Paint Analysis and the Wooden Horses and Heads of the Line of Kings Click on the title link above to find out more.

Charles I (reigned 1625 – 1649) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1686 | Object number: XVII.2

Charles II (reigned 1660 - 1685) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1685 | Object number: XVII.3

Edward III (reigned 1327 – 1377) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1688 | Object number: XVII.41

Henry V (reigned 1413 – 1422) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Object number: XVII.44

Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1688 | Object number: XVII.40

Henry VIII in the Line of Kings Click on the title link above to find out more.

James I (reigned 1603 – 1625) Click on the title link above to find out more.

William III (reigned 1689 -1702) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1702 | Object number: XVII.45

William the Conqueror (reigned 1066 – 1087) Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1688 | Object number: XVII.777

Wooden Horses: an Introduction Click on the title link above to find out more.

Timber Analysis, Dendrochronology and the Wooden Horses, Heads and Hands Click on the title link above to find out more.

Head of a Black Man Click on the title link above to find out more.

Dates from 1700 | Object number: XVII.55

Themes Menu

Line of Kings