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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

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