There have always been arms and armour at the Tower. William the Conqueror’s castle, which was begun in 1066, would have contained a garrison of soldiers, and weapons are first documented in the reign of King John (1199-1216). By the reign of Edward III (1327-77), the Tower had become an arsenal to supply the English army and navy.
The Office of Ordnance emerged soon after 1400 and continued to provide weapons and equipment for British armed forces until the mid-19th century. Alongside the working arsenal, a museum began to take shape in the Tudor period. When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 he removed the medieval arms and armour and replaced them with up-to-date material. After his death, the contents of armouries from other palaces, including some of Henry’s own equipment, came to the Tower. In the 17th Century, during the English Civil Wars, a number of other royal armours were brought to the Tower from Greenwich Palace.
The Tower Armouries received their first recorded visitor in 1489, though at first it was only important visitors that were admitted 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.
These new displays included the Spanish Armoury, which contained instruments of torture and punishment and other items erroneously said to have been captured from the Spanish Armada. Another attraction was the Line of Kings, which consisted of mounted armoured figures representing English monarchs and backed by displays of arms and armour. The wooden horses and heads of the kings were carved by some of the leading craftsmen of the day.
From 1696, the Grand Storehouse, which was newly completed on the north side of the Tower in 1692, housed two other exhibitions. On the first floor, large numbers of the weapons in store were used to create the Small Armoury. The eye-catching patterns of weapons hung on the walls and columns reflected British military might. Similarly, numerous cannon captured by or used by British armed forces were shown in the Artillery Room on the ground floor.
Increasing scholarship in the early 19th century resulted not only in the redesign of the Line of Kings and Spanish Armoury but also the purchase of objects to augment the collections. In 1841, however, most of the material in the Grand Storehouse was unfortunately destroyed in a great fire.
After the demise of the Board of Ordnance in 1855 the Armouries passed to the War Office, and Ordnance buildings were pulled down as the Tower was restored to its ‘medieval’ appearance. In 1904, the Armouries was transferred to the care of the Office of Works. Between the world wars it became a national museum, and in 1985 Her Majesty consented that it should be named the Royal Armouries.
In 1996 a large part of the collection transferred to a new museum site in Leeds, Yorkshire; the galleries within the Tower being redesigned to tell the story of the Armouries in the Tower, the oldest museum in England.
The last cast-iron British smoothbore cannon – the 68 pounders – were the same calibre (8 inches) as the heaviest guns of King Henry VIII three hundred years earlier. Their performance was probably not very different either!