Royal Armouries

Office of the Ordnance

Whereas the organisation of the Armoury is more easily understood the development of the Office of Ordnance is less certain. It has often suggested that the Office of Ordnance came into being following the appointment of Nicholas Merbury as a Master of the King’s Ordnance in 1414. Merbury’s patent of appointment, however, did not appoint him to the principal position in an established organisation. His office should instead be seen within the context of Henry V’s wars in France. Amongst the temporary appointments normally made for military campaigns of this period were masters of artillery trains known as masters of ordnance.

Designated keepers of artillery within the Tower were being appointed from about 1406. However, it was not until the mid 15th century, that a Master of the Ordnance emerged as a clearly-defined official in his own right with direct oversight of the ordnance at the Tower with the appointment of one of Edward IV’s leading household servants, Thomas Vaughan. While the Tower did not have a monopoly on the purchase and supply of arms, armour, and other weapons of war it did become the principal depot upon which other royal officials and military commanders could call upon. Ordnance stored elsewhere across the country did not automatically fall within his jurisdiction though and there are numerous instances of keepers of ordnance at other royal strongholds.

The Tudor Period

Under the Tudors the Tower maintained its role as a store for military equipment. Henry VII’s first appointee was Sir Richard Guildford who combined both the Offices of Ordnance and Armoury until 1494. The Offices of Master of the Armoury and Ordnance were only held by the same official on one further occasion when Sir Richard Southwell combined both offices from 1554-60. Henry VII (1485-1509) renewed ordnance stores at the Tower at the end of the 15th century. The 1495 survey of stores at the Tower taken shortly after Sir Robert Clifford became Master of the Ordnance, demonstrated the poor state of ordnance ten years into the new reign. However, a more thorough and far-reaching overhaul of Ordnance at the Tower was undertaken by his son, Henry VIII, who brought in foreign expertise to improve the overall quality of English manufacture. The Office of the Armoury moved to Greenwich after the royal workshops were established there by Henry VIII which left the Office of Ordnance free to grow within the Tower. Although an Armoury store was re-established at the Tower in 1570 the quality of armour maintained there came in for considerable criticism during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign (1509-47) the Office of Ordnance was provided with a designated level of staffing under the overall authority of the Master of Ordnance. Day-to-day responsibility fell upon the Lieutenant of Ordnance and his assistant, the Surveyor of Ordnance, a Clerk of Deliveries, and Storekeepers. By 1580 the Ordnance Office had grown significantly and now employed a salaried staff of seventeen besides more than a hundred gunners and ‘cannoneers’.

During the course of the 16th and 17th centuries the ordnance storehouses were improved. Under Edward VI (1547-1553) and Philip & Mary (1554-58) the old Henrician store house was replaced. Increasingly, however, the White Tower was also used as a store. By 1623 the White Tower was described as ‘ye battery and Storehouse for ye Magazen’; and by 1641 it was considered to belong to the Ordnance Office. One of the principal stores within the Tower was gunpowder. Although it was not manufactured onsite considerable quantities were kept within the Tower complex and in storage on Tower Wharf. Measures were taken to improve storage and avoid unnecessary accidents in 1594-95 and again 1604-5. Surviving evidence suggests that during the 1590s and the 1610s there was a significant expansion in space devoted to gunpowder and ordnance storage in the White Tower. The Office of Ordnance also maintained storehouses close by in the Minories, a former religious foundation dissolved during the Reformation coming into Crown hands during the reign of Elizabeth I. Successive Lieutenants of the Ordnance maintained a residence within the premises until it was sold in 1673 by Sir Thomas Chicheley, Master-General of the Ordnance.

The 17th Century

During the early 17th century the importance of the Office of Ordnance was recognised when its senior officers were restyled the Master-General and Lieutenant-General. Internal organisation remained largely untouched. The period of Charles I’s personal rule from 1629 ushered in a number of crucial developments in the organisation of the English military machine which affected the bureaucracy based at the Tower. The debâcle of the Ile de Rhé expedition of 1625 had raised serious concerns over internal organisation. Measures designed to improve the running of the Offices of Armoury and Ordnance were instituted in 1630. The introduction of the proofing of weapons was an attempt to ensure that the quality met acceptable standards. However, the effectiveness of this initiative can be questioned. Military necessity, particularly during the First Bishops’ War of 1638-39, meant that unproved weapons were still routinely accepted for service. Ordnance was regularly tested at the Artillery Gardens in Spittalfields, close to the Tower. The Office of Ordnance had also taken over the function of ordering armour rather than the Armoury which was increasingly regarded as an obsolete office. Furthermore, the Ordnance Office was involved in the surveying of military fortifications across the country and the state of their ordnance. Sir John Heydon and Thomas Coningsby, Lieutenant and Surveyor of the Ordnance respectively, were both involved in the commission of fortifications during the mid-to-late 1630s. The Office of King’s Engineer, however, was not absorbed into the structure of the Office of Ordnance until the later 17th century.

Civil War and Commonwealth

The Civil Wars and Commonwealth from 1642-1660 ushered in a period of upheaval for the Tower. As Parliament now controlled the Office of Ordnance the Royalists established their own parallel body at their headquarters in Oxford. Parliament had quickly come to appreciate the importance of a good store of gunpowder and artillery. In 1644 it was ordered that all the gunpowder anywhere in London should be moved into the Tower. The structure of the Ordnance Office, however, was left largely untouched until the end of conflict in 1649. The duties of the Master of the Ordnance were then placed into the hands of a Committee of the Council. Negligent officials were dismissed and a new official, the Comptroller of Ordnance appeared, presumably to maintain greater Parliamentary oversight. In 1650 orders were given for extra space at the Tower to be converted to store powder waiting to be proofed. The long building running from the Wardrobe Tower to the Broad Arrow Tower and the eastern annexe of the White Tower seem to have been adapted for this purpose. During the 1650s Parliament sought increasingly to extend its control over the machinery of the Office of Ordnance. This was made clear in 1654 when the Protectorate issued new orders for the guidance of Ordnance officials.

Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History