The strategic location and the symbolic importance of the Tower of London made it a natural centre for the storage of royal possessions during the medieval period. During the 13th and 14th centuries the Tower of London had become home to the Great Wardrobe which stored important items of royal property including jewels, plate, coins, and state documents as well as non-perishable goods like textiles, fur, tools, furniture and, crucially, arms and armour.
Ever since the Norman Conquest of 1066 royal castles and fortresses had long served as stores for weapons of war. During the course of the 13th century the Tower had become a centre for arms manufacture and storage. Contemporary documents of the late 13th and early 14th centuries show that the Tower of London was assuming a more industrial character. It was a simple and natural progression from manufacturing items on site to stock piling them for use in the king’s wars. By the 14th century the Tower’s function as a depot for weapons of war had become increasingly prominent and references are found to places such as ‘the house where the King’s spears are made’ and the ‘chambers where the crossbows and quarrels…are placed’.
During the first few decades of the 14th century these functions came under the supervision of the emerging Privy Wardrobe and its administrative head, the keeper. The Privy Wardrobe filled the void left after the Great Wardrobe had moved to more spacious premises outside the Tower at Baynard’s Castle, a process completed by the early 1360s.
Armour and weapons were stored in various locations within the Tower. St Thomas’s Tower, situated close to the residence of the Keeper of the Privy Wardrobe in the Wakefield Tower, had originally been constructed as royal apartments by Edward I but his grandson, Edward III ordered their conversion into stores, fitted out with shelves for armour and rails for hanging crossbows. It was not the only store though, and there is unequivocal evidence that weapons were routinely moved about the Tower and stored wherever there was adequate and available space.
The increasing independence of the Privy Wardrobe as an institution and the subsequent emergence of an embryonic Office of the Armoury and Ordnance served to confirm the Tower’s status as the leading royal arsenal in the country during much of the 14th and 15th centuries.
By the first decades of the 15th century the ordnance stores at the Tower were probably situated to the north of the White Tower. They might have been located there earlier although this is a matter of conjecture. The earliest known date confirming the existence of a designated building for ordnance occurs in 1399. By the latter part of the 15th century there are clear references to the ordnance store house’s location to the north of the Tower Green, where it remained throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The process by which the Armoury and Ordnance Office emerged as separate organisations is not entirely clear and is reflected in the apparent overlap in responsibilities of the kings’ officials appointed to maintain oversight of arms, armour, and ordnance. The Keeper of the Artillery in 1427, for example, was John Malpas who was also Keeper of the King’s Armour and other weapons within the Tower.
In time the Privy Wardrobe lost its supervision of arms, armour and artillery to separate officials responsible for the Armoury and Ordnance. This was not a straightforward, logical division. Both the Armoury and the Ordnance at the Tower had developed basic bureaucratic structures during the late 15th century. More often than not the Masters of the Armoury and Ordnance were respected senior royal officials with military experience and an understanding of warfare. The blurring of responsibilities evident in the 14th and 15th centuries remained until the later 17th century with the Offices of Armoury and Ordnance both storing all manner of military equipment.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
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