The Horse Armoury at the Tower of London

Not long after its construction in the Middle Ages, the Tower of London became the principal official manufactory of armour for the Kings of England, and their trusty steeds. The armourers there continued to produce armour for several centuries. When the English Kings, and their horses, left off wearing armour, the armouries in the Tower of London became first storage, and then display areas for all of that magnificent royal armour. Thus, the armour collection held and displayed in the Tower of London makes it the very first museum in Britain. When the Regency began, that museum was already more than 150 years old, and was still open to the public. It continues as a museum even to this day. One of the most popular armouries in the Tower of London during the Regency was the Horse Armoury, including its stately "Line of Kings."

The Horse Armoury and the Line of Kings during the Regency . . .

The royal Office of the Armoury gradually grew out of the much larger organization known as the King’s Privy Wardrobe, which had initially overseen armour production at the Tower. In 1423, the first Master of the King’s Armour was appointed to manage the royal armoury office, which was still based in the White Tower. This office was responsible for overseeing the manufacture of armour and edged weapons for the English monarch and his armies. The Office of the Armoury worked in concert with the Office of Ordnance, which was responsible for the production of firearms and was also located in the White Tower. Though the headquarters for the Office of the Armoury was based in the Tower of London, in later centuries, there were also workshops and storehouses at Woolwich and Portsmouth, as well as at some of the royal palaces. The most important of those royal palace locations was the Greenwich Armoury, established in Greenwich Palace by Henry VIII. It was there that most of the highly ornamented ceremonial royal armour of the sixteenth century was produced and stored.

During the reign of Henry VIII, at Greenwich Palace, life-size figures of eight of the most prominent English Kings were set up to display the ornate armour which had been made for those kings over the centuries. Those life-size figures where seated atop life-sized wooden horses, many of whom were also bedecked with the armour which had been made for the kings’ warhorses. Though this display was not open to the public, there were private tours given to a number of important dignitaries throughout the reigns of the subsequent Tudor monarchs. The Greenwich Armoury continued to supply armour for the early Stuart kings, both James I and Charles I. After the capture and execution of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell, the Greenwich Armoury was closed. Remarkably, though Cromwell ordered the destruction of the royal jewels when he took power, for some reason, he spared the royal armour which was displayed at Greenwich Armoury.

Though the exact date is unknown, early in the 1650s, someone, perhaps Oliver Cromwell himself, ordered the royal armour, and the wooden figures on which it was displayed, moved from Greenwich to the Tower of London. What is certain is that in 1652, Lodewijk Huygens, a Dutch diplomat, wrote in a letter that he had seen several armed figures astride life-size wooden horses while on a visit to the Tower of London. Though he enjoyed the spectacle, he also noted that he had some doubts with regard to the accuracy of the dating of some of the armour he had seen on display.

In 1660, the son of Charles I was restored to the British throne as King Charles II. In that same year, the display of royal armour at the Tower of London was refurbished and expanded. Not only were new figures made to display the ornate armour, new life-size horses were carved on which to mount those armoured figures. Many of those new horses were carved by Grinling Gibbons, who was considered the finest wood carver in all England. Two new figures and horses were added to this display, to represent both Charles I and Charles II. This new display came to be known as the "Line of Kings" and was open to members of the public, upon payment of an admission fee.

In one form or another, the Line of Kings remained on display at the Tower of London through the remainder of the seventeenth century, the entire eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Since his flight from Britain was considered an abdication, James II was not included in the Line of Kings. However, the figure of William III was added to the Line in the 1680s. The figures of both George I and George II were added to the Line in the eighteenth century. In the end, it transpired that the figure of George II was the last to be added to the Line of Kings. With minor modifications and occasional relocation, the Line of Kings remained on display at the Tower of London right through the Regency period.

Throughout the decade of the Regency, the Line of Kings was on display in the building in the Tower complex known as the Horse Armoury. The figures on display in the Line during that time represented William the Conqueror, Edward I, Edward III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, James I, Charles I, Charles II, William III, George I and George II. Despite the attributions given to these figures at that time, there was some question about the accuracy of those attributions. Later scholars have verified that several of those suits of armour were made centuries after the lifetime of the king represented in the Line as wearing it. There were other suits of armour made for various other members of the royal family which were also on display in that same room. One set, made for a small boy, was attributed to the younger of the Princes which died in the Tower, Richard, Duke of York. In actual fact, that suit of armour was made for Prince Henry, the older brother of Charles I, who died as a young man and never became king.

On the east side of the Horse Armoury was another group of life-size figures,some also mounted on wooden horses, set up as if in attendance on the Line of Kings on the west side of the building. But the wooden horses this group of figures had a much more practical origin. These sturdy wooden horses had casters on their feet and had been made as teaching tools to help young men learn the skills needed to tilt when attending a jousting tournament. By the sway of his body, the young man would be able to move his wooden steed as needed to deliver a thrust, parry one from an opponent, recover from a thrust or unhorse his opponent. These horses were much simpler, plainer figures than those carved by Grinling Gibbons or his apprentices, but they were painted to look as realistic as possible and certainly added to the overall display in the Horse Armoury.

Another, more droll figure was on display in this room. This figure represented Will Somers, the famous jester at the court of Henry VIII. According to the Tower guidebook of the period, though Somers was an unattractive and slightly deformed man, he had a most beautiful wife. However, she regularly cuckolded him with other men, but he refused to believe it, until one day, when he finally put on his spectacles and saw for himself. It is in that situation that Somers was depicted in the display. Another item on display in the Horse Armoury during the Regency was a "collar of torment." According to the 1817 guidebook, this device was put on women who had scolded or cuckolded their husbands. However, the guidebook also notes that it seldom served the desired purpose, as many women who were made to wear it later took their revenge on their husbands.

Other pieces of armour were also on display in this gallery, including a number of iron caps, breastplates and chain mail which had actually been used in various battles over the centuries. That collection of ancient armour had been reorganized and consolidated in 1816, in order to make way for a large collection of French armour which had been captured on the battlefield at Waterloo. The French armour remained on display in the Horse Armoury at the Tower of London through the end of the Regency and into the early years of the reign of King George IV. In 1824, Dr. Samuel Rush Meyrick, a noted scholar of ancient armour published his book, A Critical Enquiry into Ancient Armour, in which he soundly criticized the date attributions of the armour in the Line of Kings. Two years later, a new gallery, called the New Horse Armoury, was built on the south side of the White Tower. In that new gallery, Dr. Meyrick installed a new Line of Kings, from which he removed several of the royal figures clad in incorrectly dated armour and replaced them with figures of noblemen wearing armour correct to the period in which they had lived.

Perhaps the most incongruous item on display in the Horse Armoury was a silk throwing machine. In the 1730s, a very determined Englishman, Sir Thomas Loombe, smuggled the plans for the machine out of Italy, at risk of his life if he had been caught. He wanted to establish a silk weaving industry in England, which he did when he built a copy of the machine in Derby in 1734. According to the Tower guidebook of the period, he was granted £14,000 by Parliament in compensation for the risks he had taken, and for one of the machines when he had constructed. That was the weaving machine which was on display in the Horse Armoury during the Regency.

The Horse Armoury was one of four armouries at the Tower of London which were open to the public during the Regency. The price of admission to see the four armouries was two shillings per person, and visitors would all be conducted through the armouries by a guide. No one was allowed to roam freely through those buildings during the Regency. The high cost of admission to the armouries was also a check which excluded those of the lower orders, who could not typically afford the price of admission. But for those who could afford it, a tour of the armouries, particularly the Horse Armoury, with its impressive Line of Kings, was a great treat for many people. Even more so when the French armour captured at Waterloo went on display there in 1816. Remarkably, the Line of Kings was refurbished and reinstalled at the Tower of London in 2013, and is still on display there now.

Dear Regency Authors, might an outing to the Tower of London, with a visit to the Horse Armoury, serve a purpose in one of your upcoming stories? Perhaps the heroine has taken her younger brothers to see the Line of Kings, but is unable to satisfy their curiosity when she is peppered with questions. The hero, standing nearby, begins answering the boys’s questions and thus makes the acquaintance of the grateful heroine. Or, might the heroine and her hero engage in a brisk discussion when they come to view the "collar of torment?" How might that play out? What other scenes of a Regency romance might be set in the Horse Armoury at the Tower of London?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to The Horse Armoury at the Tower of London

  1. a lot of possibilities here. Including a discussion about the child’s armour and whether Richard III did murder his nephews or not … a subject which can still cause brawls in pubs in parts of England to this day, or at least very heated exchanges. [personally I think Henry VII did it, because there was also the convenient poisoning of James IV of Scotland’s fiancée and her sisters leaving the way clear for Henry’s daughter to marry the Scots monarch. Richard III had had the princes declared illegitimate, he didn’t need them to be murdered.]

  2. Very nice plot bunnies, indeed. I will add the Horse Armoury to my List of Things to See & Do in Regency London. It will make a welcome change for characters that are so very familiar with Astley’s Amphitheatr, etc.
    A scene at the Horse Armoury should be romantic, I think. Some tales about deeds of honour and fair ladies to be rescued, all woven in a suggestive dialogue between hero and heroine and an accompanying clueless governess ….

  3. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   An Improved History and Description of the Tower of London | The Regency Redingote

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