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History of the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London

The Royal Armouries began life as the main royal and national arsenal housed in the Tower of London. Indeed the Royal Armouries has occupied buildings within the Tower for making and storing arms, armour and military equipment for as long as the Tower itself has been in existence.

Early in the 19th century the nature and purpose of the museum began to change radically. Displays were gradually altered from exhibitions of curiosities to historically ‘accurate’ and logically organised displays designed to improve the visitor by illuminating the past.

Origins

The origins of the Armouries may be traced back to the working armoury of the medieval kings of England. The first recorded visitor to the Tower Armouries was in 1498, when entry was only by special permission. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the paying public was allowed in to marvel at new displays set up to celebrate the power and splendour of English monarchy.

The Armouries is one of the ancient institutions of the Tower of London, which have also included the Board of Ordnance, the Menagerie, the Royal Mint, the Jewel House, the Royal Observatory and the Tower Record Office. These institutions are the focus of a permanent exhibition in the White Tower – Powerhouse).

An important chapter in its development occurred in the early 15th century, with the emergence of the Office of Armoury as an offshoot of the Privy Wardrobe of the Tower. At this point it seems that the positions ‘Keeper of the King’s armour at the Tower of London’ (first mentioned in 1423) and the ‘Master of the Ordnance’ (first recorded in 1414) replaced the previous ‘Keeper of the Wardrobe’.

The offices of the Armoury and Ordnance were responsible for procuring and issuing a wide variety of military equipment. The Armoury concentrated on armour and edged weapons; the Ordnance concentrated on cannon, handguns and the more traditional bow and arrow. Developments in the art of war resulted in the Ordnance becoming the more important of the two organisations, and in 1670 the equipment and functions of the Office of Armoury passed to the Ordnance.

16th–17th centuries

By the end of the 16th century, some of the early visitors to the Tower began to record their impressions of the Armoury. Jacob Rathgar, secretary of Frederick, Duke of Wirtenburg, described what they were shown in 1592. Despite the presence of many fine pieces of artillery, Rathgar felt the collection did not compare with those in his native Germany for ‘they stand about in the greatest confusion and disorder’.

Paul Hentzner provided the first detailed description of the Armoury after a visit to London in 1598. He was shown many items belonging to Henry VIII, including a gilt suit of armour, and several historic cannon; among them two wooden pieces used to deceive the French at the siege of Boulogne in 1544.

The following year Joseph Platter, a Swiss traveller from Basle, visited the Tower and again paid attention to the personal armoury of Henry VIII, which he makes clear was located in the White Tower. Interestingly, reference is made to the cost of viewing the Armoury, with payments being made at four points in the building ‘to a servant appointed to receive the same’.

Rathgar’s complaint in 1592 about the disorderly appearance of the Armoury, repeated by the Duke of Stettin-Pomerania a decade later, suggests that little attention was paid to presentation in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

This situation was to change immediately after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when two permanent public displays were set up, known as the Line of Kings and the Spanish Armoury.

The former, as the name suggests, was a row of figures representing the kings of England. They appeared on life-sized wooden horses wearing what was said to be their personal armour. The line was first recorded in the Tower in an inventory dated October 1660, and it is possible that the display was assembled to mark Charles II’s visit to the Tower of London in August that year, after his many years in exile.

The Spanish Armoury was a collection of fearsome-looking weapons, displayed alongside a few instruments of torture, claimed to have been taken from the Spanish Armada in 1588. However, the historical basis for this association was quite unsound, with few, if any, of the objects having Spanish connections.

17th–19th centuries

Towards the end of the 17th century, the Office of Ordnance added two new armouries’ displays to the visitor attractions at the Tower. These were housed in one of the largest and most prestigious buildings ever to be seen at the Tower – the Grand Storehouse – that was built on the high ground immediately north of the White Tower.

The third, and most fantastic, display was installed on the first floor in 1696. Under the supervision of John Harris of Eaton, tens of thousands of small arms, and a mass of elaborate wooden carvings, were used to create such diverse installations as the ‘Witch of Endor’, the ‘Back Bones of a Whale’, a huge organ, and a seven-headed monster.

In the great Artillery Hall stood the great guns of the artillery train. As time went by, however, the room increasingly took on the appearance of a museum of military power, in which cannon and other trophies captured from battlefields around the world were brought here and displayed.

Also to be seen were items of curiosity and historic interest. Perhaps one of the most infamous was the Tower ‘Rack to extort Confession’. Last prepared for use in January 1673, the rack had presumably been decommissioned by June 1675, as it then appears in the first of several Ordnance inventories.

Throughout the 18th and into the early 19th century, the Ordnance continued to adjust and embellish its four armouries at the Tower. In 1825, the decision was taken to re-locate the Line of Kings into a new building against the south side of the White Tower.

The Horse Armoury was architecturally significant as it represented the first purpose-built museum gallery at the Tower. With the move, the notable antiquarian Dr Samuel Meyerick reorganised the exhibits along more scholarly and scientific lines.

Moreover, the Ordnance began to release funds allowing objects to be bought for the first time to expand the collection in specific and targeted, areas. Together with inaugural efforts at object conservation, the first decisive steps had been taken to transform the Tower armouries into a modern museum.

19th–21st centuries

In 1838 the cost of visiting the Tower Armouries was cut from 3 shillings to 1 shilling and lowered again the following year to 6d. The effect of these reductions was to see visitor numbers rise from 10,500 in 1837 to 80,000 in 1839.

On the evening of 30 October 1841 the Grand Storehouse was engulfed by a terrible fire destroying most of the displays within.

During 1855 the Office of Ordnance was dissolved by Act of Parliament and the armouries collections transferred the War Office.

The shortage of display space only began to be eased with the demolition of the Horse Armoury in 1882 and the transfer of much of the collection into the upper floors of the White Tower.

The presentation of these displays and the care and identification of the individual objects was greatly improved after the appointment of the first curator, Lord Dillon, as Keeper of the Armoury in 1895. Under the supervision of his successor, Charles ffoulkes, the displays expanded to occupy the remaining floors of the White Tower by 1916.

Before then responsibility of the Tower Armouries was passed to the Office of Works in 1904 and subsequently through its successors, the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and the Department of the Environment, until the passing of the National Heritage Act in 1983. Today the museum is funded by annual grant-in-aid from the Government.

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