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2011–present

In 2011, the decision was taken to re-display the ‘Line’ once again. In preparation for this, research was undertaken into both the key objects and the manuscript and printed accounts about them. For example, during 2012 the 17th century wooden horses and selected heads were examined using paint analysis. Some of the heads were submitted for tree ring analysis (dendrochronology) and the horses were examined internally using endoscopy and X-radiography. The War Office and Audit Office account at The National Archives were re-checked. The results showed that the carved horses and heads present interesting differences in materials, construction methods and paintwork. However, it has remained impossible so far to prove definite connections between particular horses or heads and individual carvers named in the 1680s accounts. In early 2013, new designs for the Line of Kings were approved and the 1998 exhibition finally closed after Easter ready for installation of the latest version of this long-running attraction.

Research and conservation

The latest Line of Kings display in 2013 is a blend of old and new. All the objects, from the wooden horses and royal heads to the arms and armour, have formed part of one or more of the previous Horse Armoury exhibitions stretching back to the 17th century. However, the latest representation of this famous attraction has been driven by many new factors, from recent research to conservation issues – just as its predecessors were concerned with propaganda and topicality initially, and later combining spectacle and scholarship.

Now, on a busy day, the display is often visited by more people than probably saw the Horse Armoury in a whole year in the 18th century. Not only does today’s exhibition need to cope with many visitors, but these visitors also navigate the gallery – unlike the guided tours of the past. Similarly, the objects and our attitudes to them have changed. Whereas the Line of Kings was conceived as a spectacular, open display with each wooden horse ‘ridden’ by a king in armour that, sadly, is no longer possible. Today, the Royal armours are exhibited inside showcases – and some of the horses can no longer support the weight of an armoured figure.

However, these differences were recognised as opportunities rather than problems – removing the responsibility of trying to recreate a display from the past and providing today’s curators and designers with the chance to produce something new. Unlike its immediate predecessor, today’s Line of Kings occupies the whole of the entrance floor of the White Tower and brings the carved heads and horses and the royal armours together – though mainly not as mounted figures.

From research into the history of former Horse Armoury displays, the Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces project team decided that the new exhibition should introduce present-day visitors to the idea that they are following in the footsteps of millions of others who have seen the Line of Kings at the Tower – the longest running visitor attraction in the world. Fortunately, some early visitors left written accounts of what they did and saw, and a few examples place today’s visitor as part of this never-ending procession.

A row of armours and horses in the Tower of London

The Line of Kings as it appears today.

An important aspect of today’s exhibition is that the wooden horses and royal heads are given equal billing with the arms and armour on show. This was not the case in the past when the carvings were regarded merely as props, commissioned to show off the royal armours to the greatest effect. As visitors, today follow the route they can see the horses from a variety of angles, some bearing figures, some wearing horse armour and others bare.

Part of the story of the Line which today’s display introduces is the change in approach to the objects. While a few armours have been correctly attributed to their owners since the 17th century, most have not. Today’s exhibition shows how scholarly study in the 19th century began to reinterpret objects that formerly had been imaginatively billed as the armours of ‘William the Conqueror’, ‘John of Gaunt’ or a present from ‘the Great Mogul’.

Throughout the gallery information panels and labels feature drawings, prints and photographs of previous versions of the Line. We hope that today’s visitors will picture and comment on their favourites using digital media – leaving a record for those who re-display the Line in the future to reflect its changing yet timeless character.

Previous – Line of Kings 1869–2011

Despite its great public appeal, the New Horse Armoury was causing the War Office, several problems. The building’s roof leaked badly, despite attempts to repair it in 1869, letting water pour onto the exhibits. Even more serious, the building had not been well-constructed in 1826 and was suffering subsidence. These faults, combined with the wish by some to free the White Tower of the this and other buildings added to it, led to another move for the ‘Line’.

In 1882-3 the wooden horses and their armoured riders were moved to a new location, for the first time inside the White Tower itself. They were installed on the top floor of the building in a large room then called the Council Chamber. This room’s shape and size were not suitable for arranging the figures in a long line, as before. However, the exhibits were still a great attraction for visitors and the chamber became known as the Horse Armoury.

Once it was empty, plans to demolish the New Horse Armoury were made. This would reveal the south side of the Norman White Tower, enhancing the feel of the whole site as a medieval castle.

The demolition of the New Horse Armoury building, which had housed the ‘Line of Kings’ from 1827 to 1882, was completed in about 1885. The display of armoured figures seated on carved wooden horses continued to be one of the site’s top attractions and it was now enjoyed by visitors on the top floor of the White Tower. This floor had large light wells at this time, allowing daylight into the rooms below, so the Horse Armoury was laid out around these features, which had distinctive railings made out of real swords and pistols. Not long after the Horse Armoury was installed in the Council Chamber, electric lighting was introduced to improve visitors’ experience of the exhibition.

The popularity of the new display is reflected in the variety of picture postcards, which from about 1900 onwards provide many different views. The Yeoman Warders no longer led groups of visitors around the Horse Armoury but they had the right to sell postcards of the Tower which many visitors bought as souvenirs, keeping them in albums. Other cards were sent by post to show friends or family the sights that they were missing.

ffoulkes stands beside a seated Dillon, both dressed for attending the royal court

Viscount Dillion and Charles ffoulkes in February 1913.

As well as continuing to develop as a very popular visitor attraction, the Tower Armouries was gradually emerging as the national centre for the scholarly study of arms and armour. After decades of unsuccessful attempts, a curator with academic knowledge of the subject was at last appointed in 1895. Viscount Dillon was the author of many books and articles and he set about carefully researching the collection, which had previously been in the care of the War Office Storekeeper and his assistants. The task was challenging as ‘a huge mass of rubbish and spurious armour were allowed even then to remain amongst the historic and genuine specimens. It is only since Lord Dillon undertook the great task, on which he is still engaged, of re-arranging and re-cataloguing the arms and armour in the White Tower, that it can be properly studied and appreciated’. Dillon retired from the curator’s post in 1913 and was replaced by another armour scholar, Charles ffoulkes. By the start of the First World War in 1914, almost the entire White Tower was filled with Armouries displays.

The White Tower

Inscribed with “OURS” Today”. April. 10. 1916. C.ff. by the curator Charles ffoulkes to mark the opening of the entire White Tower to the public as the ‘Armouries at the Tower of London’.

Combining popular visitor appeal with academic research into the history of arms and armour, the displays were improved and better catalogues and guidebooks published. The royal armours and the carved horses remained important attractions, sometimes arranged like a procession, sometimes in a row along the walls. Some were even moved to different rooms, depending on whether they were exhibited chronologically or by type. Occasionally it was necessary to dispose of one or two of the 17th-century wooden horses which had become rotten, adding modern replacements instead.

In the 1970s and 1980s restoration work on selected 17th-century horses provided opportunities for research into their materials and construction. This showed that they differ greatly internally and are rare survivals of carvings by leading craftsmen of their day. At the same time, research by Dr Alan Borg at The National Archives identified orders and invoices from their commissioning, as well as tracing early visitor accounts and printed guides. After many decades when the ‘Line of Kings’ was divided, interest grew in recreating a Horse Armoury in the White Tower.

Research into the history of the ‘Line of Kings’ using archives, historic photographs and surviving objects had revealed the unusual and fascinating story of a display at the Tower that had been attracting paying visitors since the seventeenth century. Following the establishment during the 1990s of two new Royal Armouries Museums, one at Fort Nelson, Hampshire for the artillery collection and the other in a purpose-built headquarters at Leeds, it was possible for the Armouries displays at the Tower to focus on the history of that site in particular. The conditions were therefore right for a re-display of all the galleries of the White Tower, including one representing the Horse Armoury or ‘Line of Kings’, giving an impression of how it had once looked.

A room full of armour

The Line of Kings on display in 1966.

This posed several problems that Dr Geoffrey Parnell, Christopher Gravett and their colleagues grappled with. One difficulty was that not all the objects that had previously formed the display in the Horse Armoury could be identified in the collection. In addition, some of the most important pieces of the surviving arms and armour were now displayed at the new Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds. For these and other reasons, it was therefore decided that ‘There is neither the space nor enough surviving horses to reconstruct the entire Line. Moreover, its composition changed during the centuries of display…The Line today [1998], therefore seeks to give a modern interpretation of this unusual exhibition’.

In addition, this re-interpretation of the ‘Line’ also faced a challenge because research into the history of arms and armour over the previous 200 years had revealed that in many cases previous assertions that the kings were shown wearing their actual armour were wildly incorrect. This would have made it very confusing for visitors if Elizabethan armour had once again been used on the figures of medieval kings. In the end, the mounted figures in armour were represented by only one figure, wearing a plain early 17th century Greenwich armour of the type known to have been used in the Line. However, research into the objects had added greatly to the picture established by Dr Alan Borg in the 1970s. The display has been seen by millions, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles.

Next – Line of Kings 2011–present

Previous – Line of Kings 1785–1869

The figure of George II, added as the seventeenth equestrian figure in the Line of Kings’ in 1768, was the last ever made for the display. The need for an exhibition illustrating the benefits of warrior kings had perhaps disappeared during the reign of George III. However, the Horse Armoury remained one of the great attractions for visitors to London. In 1786, Sophie von La Roche recorded in her diary seeing the royal figures on horseback, concluding ‘It is a fine sight, and looks very much more warlike than the modern uniform’.

At this time the study of the history of arms and armour was developing a better understanding of the changing techniques and styles over the centuries. The antiquarian Francis Grose published a pioneering study which illustrated many objects from the Tower Armouries. He also noted ‘many of the figures of our kings, shewn in the Tower of London, are the work of some of the best sculptors of the time in which they were set up’. However, the historical research served to highlight that the ‘Line’ was more fantasy and propaganda than fact.

The earliest known images of the Horse Armoury show the display at about this time. Although the architecture of the room in the New Storehouse is heavily distorted, they give an idea of the row of royal figures along the centre of the room, with groups of visitors led around behind the horses first and then shown the kings from George II to William the Conqueror.

Thomas Rowlandson’s views also show the mass displays of armour on the walls and ceiling, as well as a Yeoman Warder guiding a party of visitors. Rudolph Ackermann published an aquatint of the display by Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin in 1809 with William Combe’s description of the royal figures as ‘large as life and some of them appear in the suits which those sovereigns actually wore. This room presents a very striking spectacle’.

Coloured drawing of the Horse Amoury in 1809

Horse Armoury, Tower of London by Rowlandson and Pugin, 1809

By the 1820s opinions about the display were becoming increasingly divided. John Whitcomb Bayley wrote that the royal figures ‘are in fine armor, on horseback and have altogether a grand and most imposing effect’. Although Polish visitor Krystyn Lach-Szyrma was unimpressed, recording ‘there is little art in them and they look like horrible monsters, blank and in poor taste, not worth looking at unless by children or the rabble’.

However, the harshest critic was Britain’s leading authority on the history of armour, Dr Samuel Rush Meyrick, who complained about the displays at the Tower:

‘Notwithstanding the sneers of interested individuals, the Tower contains some very fine and unique specimens…I cannot help lamenting that, in this enlightened age, persons visiting curiosities intrinsically valuable, as these certainly are, should continue to be deceived by such false representations’.

Armour expert Dr Meyrick criticised the state of the displays at the Tower in his writings and volunteered to rearrange them. His offer was approved by the Board of Ordnance and the Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington. In 1826, Meyrick began his project which involved moving the Horse Armoury away from the dark and dingy New Storehouse.
A purpose-built New Horse Armoury had been constructed adjoining the south side of the White Tower. Meyrick was not involved in this building’s design, which he and others disliked. It was one of Britain’s earliest purpose-built museum buildings, with a colonnade of pointed arches running down its centre, in front of which the ‘kings’ on their horses stood. Visitors were guided in front of and behind these to view various standing figures in armour and the many helmets, breastplates and weapons on the walls and ceiling.

Meyrick’s aim was ‘to make this collection historically useful’ and he thus offered to ‘arrange the horse armoury in the Tower chronologically’ for the first time and ‘founded on the basis of truth’. In addition to converting the display from propaganda to education, Meyrick also improved the appearance of the ‘Line’ so that ‘Instead of one position as heretofore for the whole, though there are two and twenty figures on horseback and ten on foot, there are no two attitudes alike, no very easy matter to effect’. To achieve his aim of factually accuracy Meyrick changed the display from the monarchs-only approach of 1690-1826, creating a line in which kings were alongside princes and noblemen, just as they had been before 1688. He also added a figure of James II for the very first time – substituting for his brother Charles II.

Stereoscopic image of two mounted armours on the North side of the Horse Armoury, about 1870.

The New Horse Armoury in the 1870s

The new building and its exhibition were opened in 1827 and soon were described and pictured in books and magazines, like The Penny Magazine which featured more detailed images than previously. A wide range of publications spread the word that this was an attraction not to be missed: ‘Few who have not actually seen the Horse Armoury can appreciate its strikingly picturesque character; that is certainly a pleasure which even the most hurried visitor cannot be deprived of’. The destruction by fire of the Grand Storehouse and its displays in 1841 raised the Horse Armouries’ profile.

Good publicity combined with a reduction in Armouries admission charges in the late 1830s, from two shillings to six pence per person, increased visitor numbers rapidly. Now the attraction was not solely the preserve of the well-connected and wealthy. In fact, the displays became almost too popular and there were complaints that the guides led their groups of visitors around so quickly that they could not see the armour properly.

The first official guidebook to the Tower and Armouries was written by John Hewitt in 1841, followed by the Official Catalogue of the Arms and Armour. New acquisitions were made to improve the collection but keeping the display not only looking fresh but also in line with scholarship proved a struggle. By 1866 Baron de Ros wrote ‘it is beginning to require a fresh inspection and arrangement, similar to that made by the late Dr Meyrick’.

James Robinson Planché was a playwright, historian, and Herald at the College of Arms. In addition, he was an expert on arms and armour, leading him to suggest the appointment of a curator of the Armouries, without success. After arranging an armour exhibition at the South Kensington (now Victoria and Albert) Museum, Planché himself was invited by the War Office to re-arrange the New Horse Armoury and other displays in 1869. He accepted, aiming to enable ‘the general visitor to form, even at a rapid and passing glance, some idea of the progress of art and gradual change of fashion, from the 12th to the 18th century’. Planché improved the spectacle of the Line of equestrian figures while grouping the arms and armour chronologically. He also removed the large banners above the riders installed by Dr Meyrick in 1826–7, adding informative labels so visitors would not have to rely on the descriptions given by the Yeoman Warder guides.

Engravings in books and magazines remained an important medium for illustrating the displays, but from the late 1860s photographers were successfully taking pictures inside the New Horse Armoury. These photographs provide a more accurate record than many of the engravings, and comparing pictures taken at different dates shows that further small changes continued on a regular basis. Many stereo-photographs were sold to be viewed in 3-D through stereoscopes, as souvenirs to be collected in albums and as magic lantern slides for projecting. As this spread awareness of the displays, so at last admission to the armouries came within reach of the working classes. After much debate, the sixpence per person entry charge was removed in 1875 on certain ‘free days’. This allowed admission to the Horse Armoury to those who were willing to queue on a Monday or Saturday, however poor they were. It proved extremely popular and greatly increased the number of visitors who saw the displays.

Next – Line of Kings 1869–2011

Previous – Line of Kings 1685–1785

James II came to the throne following the death of his brother Charles II in February 1685, and at his hastily arranged coronation on 23 April the new king broke with the tradition of making a procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. However, the Tower featured in James’s plans in several other ways.

The officers of the Board of Ordnance wasted no time in ordering George Frankline to commission a carved wooden horse and a figure with its wooden head representing Charles II. The intention was to update the Horse Armoury so that the display featured not only the figure of Charles I – James II’s father – but also his brother. However, adding Charles II was to cause some unforeseen difficulties.

During June 1685, Frankline contacted Grinling Gibbons, one of the leading woodcarvers in England. Six months later Gibbons’ workshop had supplied the wooden horse and figure at a cost of £40. At eight times the cost of the horse made by Thomas Cass in 1669, it seems likely that Gibbons’ carvings outshone the existing ones. In 1686 the Board, placed another order with Gibbons’ workshop – this time for a horse and figure of Charles I.

A golden armour

The gilt armour of Charles I that has stood in the Line of Kings since the Restoration

The upgraded display featured eleven mounted figures by early 1688 but the decision to replace the Old Ordnance Storehouse with a new Grand Storehouse marked the end of this phase of the Horse Armoury. Thomas Cass moved the wooden horses into storage in the White Tower, but while the old storerooms were being demolished and work on the new Storehouse started there seems to have been a change of plan. The Board of Ordnance started commissioning new carved horses and figures, this time at £20 a piece, from five workshops, those of William Emmett, William Morgan, John Nost, Thomas Quellin, and Marmaduke Townson.

The plan was clearly for an expanded and improved Horse Armoury in a new location. Although the surviving documents do not explain this, there was an even more significant change that was made at this moment. Whereas the display previously featured not only kings but also noblemen and warriors, the carved faces of the new figures were made to produce a ‘Line of Kings’ exclusively.

However, although the contracts were issued in the summer of 1688 and the first carvings started arriving by the autumn, King James II’s reign was to be over before the year ended. On 5 November, Prince William of Orange, James II’s nephew and son-in-law, landed with an invasion force at Torbay – invited by leading Protestant politicians who feared James II’s pro-Catholic policies.

On 23 December, James II fled abroad, effectively abdicating in favour of his daughter and son-in-law, who were soon crowned Queen Mary II and King William III. Meanwhile, the Horse Armoury remained closed to visitors. To compensate George Frankline, who profited from the admission fees that visitors paid, the Board of Ordnance agreed to pay him the considerable sum of £70 per year. These payments continued until 1692 when a brand new and improved exhibition was open for business.

The Glorious Revolution

During 1689, as William III and Mary II were crowned joint monarchs, wooden horses and figures ordered the previous summer were delivered to the Tower by the carvers’ workshops of Emmett, Morgan, Nost, Quellin, and Townson. All was ready to open a new display, but not in the recently-built Grand Storehouse. The location for the ‘Line of Kings’ was the first floor of the New Storehouse (today called the New Armouries).

The exhibition deliberately focused on the monarchy, consisting of fourteen kings in a line from William the Conqueror to Charles II. This was almost certainly not by chance; kingship was a key issue, as James II had abandoned the throne and been replaced by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William. This time there were no princes or noblemen in the display as there were previously. In order to achieve this ‘Line of Kings’, the exhibition’s organisers had to deliberately ignore the known facts about certain armours, such as that of the Earl of Leicester, and assign them to a king instead.The earliest known account of the new display is an extraordinary one, following the earthquake which shook London on 8 September 1692.
In a letter of 24 September George Follett wrote of the tremors at the Tower ‘…there above stairs all the heroes and their horses are set forth in armour. Suffering such a shock it was great prowess in them to stand their ground…’
As its fame began to spread, the Horse Armoury display began to be featured in guidebooks for visitors to London. In 1693, Francois Colsoni wrote (in translation from the original French):

‘…Then you will be led to the upper area where you will be shown many Kings on Horseback and the Armour of both the Cavalry and Infantry which are kept there in good condition: you must also each give two sous on exit’.

Each visitor paid admission fees and was conducted around by a guide, either as a member of a small group or, at extra cost, individually. By 1699 the Horse Armoury featured in one of Ned Ward’s monthly humorous accounts of London life:

‘As we gently mov’d along and viewed the princely scarecrows, he told us to whom each suit of armour did belong originally, adding some memorandums out of history to every empty iron-side; some true, some false, supplying that with invention which he wanted in memory. …I could not forbear reflecting on some appearances before me, till I fancy’d myself sunk into Death’s subterranean territories where the just and the wicked, by the impartial Skeleton, are equally respected. From thence we pass’d by several princes’ armour, of which nothing was deliver’d but a bare name, till we had completed our round and came again to the door. This being the conclusion of this warlike opera, we paid our money and made our exit’.

William III died on 3 March 1702 and an armoured figure of this warrior king on horseback was quickly added to the Line.

When the figure of William III was added to the display in 1702 it increased the ‘Line of Kings’ to fifteen. The wooden head of William was carved by Nicholas Alcock and uniquely some of the original furnishings for his horse survive.

Carved wooden head of man with large nose

The wooden head of William III

The display continued to figure as an attraction to see in London guides such as Hatton’s ‘New View of London’, which makes clear that guides conducted visitors on tours of kings, from William III back in time to William the Conqueror, rather than giving an account of the history of arms and armour.

Visitors to the Tower came from many parts of Britain, from mainland Europe, and as far away as India and America. The high admission costs limited the number of visitors, however, and restricted them to the upper classes, unless they had a friend who could arrange free entry. In 1785, William Hutton, a successful businessman and enthusiastic local historian from Birmingham, recorded his poor opinions of the display: ‘In the horse armory … the royal regiment of kings, drawn up in battalia, and shown to strangers, fell short of expectation. They seemed bigger than life, which is an unpardonable error in the statuary’.

His disappointment was greater because as a young man in 1749 he had wanted to see the Tower but his ‘Derbyshire accent quickly brought the warders out of their lodge; who, on seeing the dust abound on my shoes wisely concluded that money could not abound in my pocket; and, with the voice of authority, ordered me back’.

Next – Line of Kings 1785–1869

Previous – Line of Kings 1547–1685

Having existed in one form or another for over 400 years, the Line of Kings is one of the world’s oldest exhibitions. Having been re-arranged countless times over the centuries at the whims of monarchs and curators, the latest display allows visitors to enjoy some of our most spectacular items. In this series of blog posts, we’ll bring you the story of how the Line of Kings has transformed from 1547 right through to the present day.

Long before the Line of Kings was first opened, the Tower of London was home to what was referred to as the Horse Armoury. Like the Line of Kings, the Horse Armoury displayed suits of armour posed upon wooden horses but its origins are still somewhat uncertain.

Before 1652 there are no known records of wooden horses as part of the Tower Armouries displays in either inventories or visitor accounts. However, on 25 March 1652, a young Dutch visitor called Lodewijck Huygens recorded in his journal that he had seen the displays in the Old Ordnance Storehouses while looking around the Tower.
Huygens wrote that their guide:

‘took us first to the armouries where armour, mostly new and tested, for 10,000 men was stored. After this, we entered a room where horse armour used in former times was stored on wooden horses with armed men on them. There were two suits of armour worn by Henry VII and two worn by Henry VIII themselves; they were not very costly though. Another remarkable suit of armour here belonged to John of Gaunt, a renowned warrior of a few hundred years ago, who had been more than a head taller than any person of our time…’

It is unlikely that there was a royal armour exhibition during the Commonwealth but many essential ingredients were present for what was to follow. So where had they come from and why? Although there is no conclusive proof that these horses had recently been brought to the Tower from Greenwich Palace, circumstantial evidence suggests that they may well have been transferred to the Tower as part of a re-organisation of the national armoury.

On 5 April 1650, George Payler, Surveyor of the Ordnance, had carried out an inventory and recorded that in the storehouse at the Armoury of Greenwich there were ‘Wooden horses with Statues of Men mounted on them, most of them armed with equipage for Horse’. In 1650-51, the Ordnance officers decided that Edward Annesley should move the old armour from Greenwich Palace to the Tower. It is possible that as part of this process the wooden horses were also brought to the Tower. However, an alternative explanation is that a set of new horses was made for the Tower and those at Greenwich were perhaps disposed of.

No documentary evidence is available to determine which explanation is correct. However, it is known that there had been wooden horses for mounting armour in the storerooms at Greenwich Palace since at least 1547 when the inventory of King Henry VIII’s goods recorded eight such objects. By 1629, there were twelve horses recorded in an inventory that was taken at Greenwich Palace. It is possible, therefore, that some if not all of the ten horses remaining at Greenwich in 1650 were quite old. If any were brought to the Tower and still survive it is possible that they could be identified by tree-ring dating (dendrochronology), if an opportunity to study any oak inside the horses should arise. However, as this would have to be carried out in a non-destructive way, it may be a long time before scientifically calculated dates can be obtained for the felling of the trees used in the manufacture of these remarkable horses.

The Restoration

A king with long dark hair sits on a throne in stately robes and holding the orb and mace of state

Charles II, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

On 29 May 1660, Charles II returned to London from exile and after the 11-year Interregnum, the monarchy was restored. Efforts quickly started to retrieve royal property which had been dispersed, including the arms and armour from the armouries. At the beginning of August, the King issued a commission at Whitehall for the audit of all arms, armour, and tools that were at the Tower, Greenwich and other royal sites.

On 4 August 1660, Charles II visited the Tower of London where he dined with Sir John Robinson, whom he had recently appointed Constable of the Tower. A fortnight later, William Legge, whom the King had re-appointed Master of the Armouries, was issued with £100 towards making an inventory of all the goods belonging to the Office of Armoury.
Legge appointed a team who recorded every item of arms and armour, producing a report entitled A View & Survey of all the Armour…remayneing at the Tower of London, Taken in the month of October 1660. This recorded that in the Lieutenant’s Hall stood ten wooden horses with statues of men on them, dressed in armour and named; Prince Henry, Henry VIII, Henry VII, Edward III, Charles I, Edward IV, Henry VI, Leicester, Brandon, and William the Conqueror.

This is the earliest evidence of all the figures comprising a Horse Armoury at the Tower but the inventory poses a problem. The location at which the items were seen is not thought to have had a high enough ceiling at this date to have accommodated figures on horseback. Could there have been an error in the inventory or is it possible that at this time the display was in pieces, not complete?

One thing that the list of figures makes very clear is that the content was at this point made up of a mixture of monarchs and noblemen – it was not yet a ‘Line of Kings’. Indeed, there is no evidence that the display actually had a name yet. However, by good fortune, one visitor who saw it while visiting the Tower less than twelve months later has left us a good description in his journal. On 15 August 1661, Willem Schellinks, a Dutch artist who had only arrived in London the previous day, took a guided tour of the Tower.

He describes seeing in the Long Storehouse:

‘…behind a rail the body armour of several Kings and their horses’ armour are lined up in a row, of very ancient and uncommon fashion, but all well looked after and kept polished. According to their keeper, there is the armour of Prince Henry, King Henry VIII, King Henry VII, Edward III, Charles I, Edward IV, Henry VI, the Duke of Gloucester, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and that of William the Conqueror’.

It appears that Schellinks mistakenly wrote Duke of Gloucester when he was shown the figure of the Earl of Leicester – in which case his list exactly matches the 1660 inventory.

A growing attraction

On 22 April 1661, Charles II left the Tower of London to make the traditional coronation procession to Westminster before being crowned king in the Abbey the following day. He was the last monarch to travel from the Tower through the streets of London as part of a lavish parade watched by thousands of his people.

The Tower of London had ceased to be used as a royal palace but still remained an important fortress and state prison, as well as home to government departments such as the Armouries, Ordnance, and Mint. However, over the next twenty-five years the Tower also increasingly developed as one of London’s must-see visitor attractions for those who could afford to pay for admission. The Tower’s principal attractions for visitors were the Royal Menagerie, Crown Jewels, and Tower Armouries.

During the 1660s, Samuel Pepys, who lived and worked nearby at the Navy Board, was a frequent Tower visitor on both business and pleasure, probably benefitting from free admission through his contacts. In 1666, General Patrick Gordon, who was visiting London, recorded in his diary that he spent ‘…in wages one pound thirteen shillings’, a very large sum at the time. Both saw the Tower Armouries, which were also visited by foreign visitors who could make comparisons with what they had seen abroad.

On 23 April 1669, Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany recorded: ‘The tower also contains the armoury, in which various sorts of arms are preserved, but they are neither very numerous nor very valuable; among these are some of Henry VIII; of the Duke of Lancaster and of the Earl of Suffolk’.

Rather more impressed was French mapmaker and traveller, Albert Jouvin de Rochefort, who wrote of his visit in 1672 ‘Our conductor showed us…some (armour) which had been worn by the different kings of England during their wars; they were all gilded and engraved in the utmost perfection.’

Throughout Charles II’s reign the Horse Armoury, as it was called by 1675, seems to have been an important part of the Tower displays of arms and armour. However, it appears to have undergone only minor improvements, such as the carving of a new wooden horse by carpenter Thomas Cass in 1669 and repainting of the horses in 1682-3 by Valentine Bayley.

Inventories were taken, listing the ten equestrian figures until it seems that some changes started to be made in 1681 when one wooden horse and two suits of armour were sent to Windsor Castle. However, much greater changes to the Horse Armoury rapidly followed the death of King Charles II on 6 February 1685 and the succession of his brother as James II.

Next – Line of Kings 1685–1785

Rear view of Henry VIII's 1540 armour

Henry isn’t hiding.

Despite reports in the press, Henry VIII’s 1540 garnitureidentified as Britain’s most valuable hidden treasure – far from hiding away has been flaunting himself happily about the Tower of London for the past three and half centuries.

Part of the Horse Armoury, the Tower of London’s oldest display, Henry has been a mainstay of the monarchs posing for the general public. Unfortunately, there are only written descriptions of the exhibit for the 17th and 18th centuries when it was at its most raunchy.  The Stuarts and Georgians had no problems with displaying the armour in its entirety – codpiece and all. There are even suggestions that the Yeoman Warder guides rigged up a device to make a greater spectacle of the latter.

By the 19th century illustrations of the display and its various armours become more commonplace.

Parallel perspective view of the Horse Armoury Tower taken from the centre of the room

This illustration of the line of monarchs parading in the Horse Armoury from 1830, shows the display after Sir Samuel Meyrick’s reorganisation of 1826 in its purpose built gallery attached to the south front of the White Tower. At number 4, Henry’s armour is not really distinguishable from the others.  His previous medieval companions who had been kitted out from store and therefore sported largely 16th-century and later armour, had been culled by Meyrick in the interests of authenticity.

Henry VIII on horseback on cover of The Penny Magazine

The Penny Magazine of 1840 sports a jovial Henry, visor raised to show his 17th-century sculpted wooden head clearly atop the 1540 harness. He has acquired a horse – perhaps to spare delicate Victorian sensibilities the embarrassment of the codpiece?

Eight years later, Henry shows signs of succumbing to the good life.

Drawing of Line of Kings at it was depicted in the Illustrated London News

The 1848 Illustrated London News has a markedly rotund Henry, mace in hand.  A similarly broad John Bull figure stands in the foreground.

In photographs of the 1870s Henry rides a grey horse and has donned a sword belt. Unfortunately the belt girdles his waist with difficulty, looking suspiciously like a recycled old school tie pressed into service.

With the demolition of the New Horse Armoury building in 1882, the displays and Henry moved into the White Tower colonising the top floor.

Black and white archive image of armour displayed inside Armoury Hall

The Tower of London – Armoury Hall in Council Chamber

This postcard shows the display in about the 1890s – early 1900s and Henry can be seen clearly to the right. His horse seems to have lost its glowing paleness and may even have moved towards the dun.

But perhaps it’s just the overall tone, as the Wrench postcard shows it even more clearly pre 1906 glowing white again.

Postcard showing armour in tower of London Horse Armoury

After the First World War, Henry moved back to a central display line riding a new horse.

Henry VIII's armour mounted on a horse

Henry acquired his final horse, with distinctive curling lip, in 1951.

Henry VIII's armour mounted on a horse with armour

In the 1980s, Henry parted company with his horse, regained his codpiece and was joined by a modern American Footballer, to compare and contrast sporting armours. The face is the same as the one illustrated in The Penny Magazine, but seems to have acquired a resigned air.

Armour of Henry VIII displayed beside an American football armour

Underneath it all he remains the figure we have known and loved for so long – with underpinnings revealed

Internal frame of Henry VIII's armour mount

Face on photograph of an armour of Henry VIII

A very merry and public monarch indeed.

Read more stories from our Line of Kings series.

Our conservator Ellie Rowley-Conwy tells us about cleaning our “Toiras” armours and her part in building a wall of armour.

conservator standing next to a row of Toiras breastplates and backplates

Ellie Rowley-Conwy

To some, it might seem that cleaning 113 pieces of seemingly identical plate armour would be repetitive or even, dare I say it, boring.

Perhaps this makes me sound odd but nothing could be further from the truth. Although superficially similar, each artefact offers its own challenges, details and insights.

Indeed, it is only by working with so many pieces that the unique nature of each piece stands out. Many objects in our collection are inscribed with the word “Toiras”, referring to the Marquis de Toiras who famously withstood the three-month siege of La Rochelle in 1627, and is the provenence for all of them.

Toiras steel armour for body

Breastplate, Toiras series (1620-1628). France. III.262.

Subtle differences can include the manufacturer marks that are often found on the inside; the size of the pieces giving information about the soldiers involved in the conflict; and the dents and damage present on the pieces which tells us about the objects’ working life.

Often the breastplates and backplates have been coated in a lacquer to protect them from handling and the environment. This can work well for a few years but, if left on for too long, it will yellow and become increasingly difficult to remove.

The first stage in the conservation process is to clean this off, using cotton swabs and an appropriate solvent that will remove the lacquer without damaging the underlying metal. Under the lacquer layer there can be remnants of thick wax, which was used in the past to help protect metal. This also has to be removed using a further solvent.

Any corrosion present on the object is cleaned off using, a specific abrasive material with an appropriate lubricant to prevent any scratching of the metal. The object is then coated with a protective conservation grade wax.

The result of all this hard work will be a very striking, full wall of breastplates and backplates, forming the backdrop for the Line of Kings.

Toiras series armours are on display in the Line of Kings in the White Tower at the Tower of London, and in the Hall of Steel at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.