Royal Armouries

Wooden Horses: an Introduction

Images

4 horses from the line of kings before 2013

A section of the Line of Kings prior to 2013 redisplay.

  • 4 horses from the line of kings before 2013

    A section of the Line of Kings prior to 2013 redisplay.

  • 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 Edward III

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

  • 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)

Wooden Horses: an Introduction

Description

From the earliest reference to the use of wooden horses in displays at the Tower of London in 1652 to the present day, these life-sized carved statues seem to have been a constant feature for over 360 years. There is evidence that new horse statues have been bought, that decayed ones have been disposed of, and that displays featuring carved horses have been arranged at various parts of the site. The horses were not intended as exhibits in their own right but merely as props to be used in the display of armour. They were formerly ‘ridden’ by figures in armour, many of which had wooden heads that were carved, in some cases, to represent kings of England. It is only within the past few decades that the surviving horses have become objects of interest in their own right.

The surviving horses are of interest for several reasons, including that they are works of art, each unique in their details, and that documentation for the commissioning of nineteen carved horses between 1685 and 1690 applies to many of them. In addition, some of the horses are recognisable in historic images of the Line of Kings and other displays. Since 2012 there has been new research including the use of paint analysis, X-radiography, endoscopic investigation and tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, in order to shed extra light on these fascinating objects.
In the present re-display of the historic Line of Kings thirteen wooden horses have been used. Eleven [XVII.7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 30] of these are thought to date from the late 17th century while two [XVII.13 and 20] are probably from the 19th century.

It has proved surprisingly problematic to associate particular horses with the six carvers – Grinling Gibbons, William Emmett, William Morgan, John Nost I, Thomas Quellin and Marmaduke Townson – whose workshops were documented as supplying the nineteen commissioned between 1685 and 1690. However, recent research has confirmed that many of the eleven horses share similar histories in terms of their layers of paint, whereas some differ markedly in their materials and construction methods. Internal examination by use of an endoscope showed that many of these horses were made from large baulks of oak, whereas there are a small number which used different woods and/or construction methods.

One of the horses, XVII.17 was the subject of tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, and some of the samples were matched with a dateable tree-ring sequence for oak from the eastern Baltic region consistent with the tree having been felled within the period 1675-91. Two of the horses, XVII.8 and 14, were completely X-rayed, revealing distinctive differences in aspects of their construction and decoration, such as the way in which detailing like the carved manes was executed. The X-radiography also revealed that the horses have been subject to damage and repairs, unsurprisingly given the length of time and variety of places within the Tower in which they have been used. Nevertheless, they are remarkable survivors, unlike any other sculptures in wood from late 17th century England.

Related Objects

X-radiography and the Carved Wooden Horses, Heads and Hands Click on the title link above to find out more.

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

Wooden Heads: 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.

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Line of Kings