Despite reports in the press, Henry VIII’s 1540 garniture – recently identified as one of Britain’s most valuable hidden museum treasures – far from hiding away has been flaunting himself happily about the Tower for the last three and half centuries.
As part of the Horse Armoury, the Tower’s oldest display, Henry has been a mainstay of the monarchs posing for the public. Unfortunately there are only written descriptions of the exhibit for the 17th and 18th centuries when it was at its most raunchy. The Stuarts and Georgians had no problems with displaying the armour in its entirety – codpiece and all. There are even suggestions that the Yeoman Warder guides rigged up a device to make a greater spectacle of the latter.
By the 19th century illustrations of the display and its various armours become more commonplace.
This illustration of the line of monarchs parading in the Horse Armoury from 1830, shows the display after Sir Samuel Meyrick’s reorganisation of 1826 in its purpose built gallery attached to the south front of the White Tower. At number 4, Henry’s armour is not really that distinguishable from the others. His previous medieval companions who had been kitted out from Store and therefore sported largely 16th C and later armour, had been culled by Meyrick in the interests of authenticity.
The Penny Magazine of 1840 sports a jovial Henry, visor raised to show his 17th century sculpted wooden head clearly atop the 1540 harness. He has acquired a horse – perhaps to spare delicate Victorian sensibilities the embarrassment of the codpiece?
Eight years later, Henry shows signs of succumbing to the good life.
The 1848 Illustrated London News has a markedly rotund Henry, mace in hand. A similarly broad John Bull figure stands in the foreground.
In photographs of the 1870s Henry rides a grey horse and has donned a sword belt. Unfortunately the belt girdles his waist with difficulty, looking suspiciously like a recycled old school tie pressed into service.
With the demolition of the New Horse Armoury building in 1882, the displays and Henry moved into the White Tower colonising the top floor.
This post card shows the display in about the 1890s – early 1900s and Henry can be seen clearly to the right. His horse seems to have lost its glowing paleness and may even have moved towards the dun.
But perhaps it’s just the overall tone, as the Wrench postcard shows it even more clearly pre 1906 glowing white again.
After the First World War, Henry moved back to a central display line riding a new horse.
Henry acquired his final horse, with distinctive curling lip, in 1951.
In the 1980s, Henry parted company with his horse, regained his codpiece and was joined by a modern American Footballer, to compare and contrast sporting armours. The face is the same as the one illustrated in The Penny Magazine, but seems to have acquired a resigned air.
Bridget Clifford, Keeper at the Tower and present custodian of the king’s suit. 7.09.2015.