The origins of the Horse Armoury at the Tower of London are fascinating, but 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.