Here be Dragons

Today (Monday, January 23) sees the coming of the Year of the Dragon, and any Chinese Dragon stopping off to visit London’s sights might care to look up some of his occidental relatives among the exhibits in the Royal Armouries’ galleries at the Tower of London.

Henry Tudor – On entering the White Tower, Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour (II.5; VI.1-5) sports dragons on both the man’s and horse’s harness. Unfortunately both are being vanquished by St George – the one on the breast plate by George on foot; the other on the chest of the horse armour appropriately enough by the saint mounted.

Engraving of St George and the dragon

Engraving of St. George slaying the dragon on the horse armour of Henry VIII

Agincourt – Hurrying onwards, the first floor contains a veritable flight of dragons. Perhaps the most obvious – and certainly the oldest – are squeezed onto inlaid decorative plaques on the saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon (VI.95). Those joining the order founded by King Sigismund of Hungary in 1408, were presented with a sword and saddle. Indeed this may be the saddle given to Henry V of Agincourt fame in 1416.

Decorated saddle

Saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon possibly presented to King Henry V

Charles I – Continuing the Royal association, the case opposite the Gothic dragons of the 15th century holds the tiny 17th century armour (II.126) possibly associated with Charles I as a child. A spitting dragon crouches on top of the helmet, its tail curling down to the back of the neck. If you look carefully, the helmet surface is scaled, and a fearsome monster frames the wearer’s face, with growling companions adorning the pauldrons or shoulder pieces. At only 95 cm tall, this is still something of mystery armour. 18th century visitors were told that it had belonged to Richard, Duke of York – brother of the uncrowned Edward V persuaded into the Tower for security in 1485 and never seen alive again. By the 19th century, the armour was more accurately dated but attributed to Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf to the court of Charles I.

Dragon in steel on top of helmet

Dragon perched on the helmet of the armour possibly belonging to Charles I

More dragons – Darting back in time, the World Treasures’ case contains a roaring dragon’s head (VI.319). Made by the German armourer Kunz Lochner in about 1550, it was designed as part of a crupper fitting along the horse’s back, with the tail flowing from between its jaws. Today the rest of the dragon rests in Poland.

Dragon shaped decoration for a horses tail

Part of a horse’s armour for protecting the tail

Passing around the end of the case, and along the side of the main case to the displays of the Great Collectors, another dragon lurks, clinging to the side of a German horse muzzle dated 1569 (VI.400) . The fashion for such things was short-lived from the end of the 16th to the early 17th century, but they remain popular among collectors and this example was bequeathed to the museum by Dr Richard Williams in 1974.

Horse muzzle

Pierced steel horse muzzle decorated with dragons

The beasties decorating the sides of the wheellock pistols (XII.1250/1) slightly further along may be related to the wider dragon family, but only distantly.

pistol with dragon decoration

Detail of decoration which may be a stylised form of dragon

Power House – However, the most impressive of the White Tower dragons welcomes visitors to the Power House display on the top floor – a fitting reward for toiling up so many twisty stairs. Its body is formed from elements of all the Tower institutions celebrated in the wider gallery – from weapons of the Ordnance to coins from the Mint and much else between – it greets you with a dragon-like roar if you pass by its far side.

Dragon constructed from arms, armour, maps, coins and guns.

Impressive – 4m high, 3.5m long with a wing span of 5m and weighing 1200 Kg!

New displays – Finally on the way out, lurking in the shadows under the staircase in the Basement but moving to a more prominent position in the coming redisplay of the area, are a pair of Burmese dragons. Fabulously moustached, they sit atop a bronze bell (XVIII.19) dated 1797 and presented in 1874 by the Constable of the Tower Field Marshal Sir William Gomm, previously Commander-in Chief of British forces in India from 1850 – 1855.

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

The new displays open at the beginning of April, and this pair provides a fitting celebration of the Year of the Dragon.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections South, Tower of London

Collections Up Close Special

With Royal Wedding celebrations in full swing this month we’re exploring armours which relate to one of the most influential marriages in British history. The Royal Armouries at the Tower of London is home to ornate armours which belonged to King Henry VIII and commemorate his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Henry was crowned and married Katherine in 1509 when he was 17 years old and she was 23. Katherine had previously been married to his elder brother, Prince Arthur who had died. However, Henry and Katherine’s union ended when after 24 years together Henry sought an annulment of their marriage in his quest for a male heir instigating one of the most turbulent periods in British history.

Henry VIII's armour and detail of tonlet decoration

Henry VIIIs armour and detail of tonlet decoration

The suit of armour is decorated with Katherine’s pomegranates and also has a border of intertwined letters H and K for Henry and Katherine. The armour also features scenes from the lives of the royal couple’s patron saints, St George and St Barbara.

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

This ornately engraved, gilded and embossed horse armour was a gift to Henry from Emperor Maximilian I, the ornamentation features both her badge, the pomegranate, and Henry’s Tudor Rose. The elaborately decorated suit of armour and this horse armour was partly imported from Flanders and some parts were probably made in Henry’s own armourer’s workshop at Greenwich in 1515.

The Tower of London also houses military uniform and polo kit belonging to Prince Charles, on display in the Power House exhibition in the White Tower.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Collections Up Close April

As the well-known Bond theme goes ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. Diamonds have a long history as treasured gemstones and are April’s birthstone. Diamonds are used as engraving tools as they have the highest resistance to scratching of any material known. Some of the Royal Armouries’ more ornate collection items are decorated with diamonds.

Most notably are two guns on display in the Treasures of the Royal Armouries in the White Tower’s 1st floor gallery at the Tower of London. The first is a pistol made in Germany in 1991, a SIG P226, which is decorated with white gold and blue enamel and an astonishing 1,517 diamonds.

SIG P226 decorated with diamonds

SIG P226 decorated with diamonds

The second is a six shot revolver made in American about 1992. It is a Smith & Wesson model 586 and decorated in red gold, red enamel and diamonds. Both guns were decorated by a London jeweller for their owners.

Smith & Wesson 586 decorated in red gold, red enamel and diamonds

Smith & Wesson 586 decorated in red gold, red enamel and diamonds

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Keeper of the Tower

Royal Armouries Head of Creative Programmes, Karen Whitting dreamed up the idea for a mighty dragon, inspired by the small figures of a dragon and a hydra in the scale model of the Grand Storehouse at the Tower of London. Working with the creative team at Haley Sharpe Design a concept drawing was produced which York-based Paragon Creative have brought wonderfully to life.

Building on the tradition of trophies of arms and armour created at the Tower of London from the late 17th century, this new dragon has been constructed using objects and materials that represent nine institutions which were housed in the Tower and took 500 hours to design, assemble and install.

From concept to construction

From concept to construction

The spectacular 4.5m tall dragon forms the centrepiece of the Royal Armouries’ permanent new exhibition at the White Tower – Power House. We felt that such a magnificent beast deserved a befitting name. Thanks to all those who entered the Royal Armouries and History™ competition, we are delighted to reveal the dragon will be called Keeper.

The mighty mythical beast is 3.5m long and comprises over 2,672 items – all representing the great organisations of state that took refuge behind the mighty Tower’s walls.

Keeper of the Tower

Keeper of the Tower

The dragon, weighing 1,200kg, comprises the following:

  • Ordnance Office – armour, swords, firearms and cannon to create the back legs and body, including 22 antique pistols, four swords, four rifles, two bronze cannon and 20 bayonets
  • Menagerie – a cage for the ribcage
  • Prison – 30m of chain to create the tail
  • The Royal Mint – 2,000 gold and silver coins, representing the dragon’s fire
  • The Observatory – 26 telescopes
  • The Records Office and Ordnance Survey – parchments and maps for wings
  • The Jewel House – 400 glass rubies, plus a replica King Henry VIII collar.

Other items include eight breastplates, six muskets, 15 poleaxes, 10 mail vests, four shields and bucklers and 50 replica trial plates.

Blogger: Beckie Senior, Communications Officer

The Washing of the Lions

Found amongst the Royal Armouries archives at The Tower of London this fragile scrap of paper is a ticket for perhaps one of the most unusual April Fool’s Day stunts in British history – The Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions.

Washing of the Lions Ticket

Washing of the Lions Ticket

The printed and wax sealed ticket admits Victorian visitors to the Tower via the White Gate, with strict instructions not give gratuities to any of the wardens on duty.

All in all, an entertaining spectacle appears to be promised – however all is not as it seems and the date of the event gives us a clue  – Monday, April The 1st, 1856.  We believe the ticket is part of an elaborate hoax – an elaborate April Fools’ joke.

As far as we know there wasn’t a Senior Warden by the name of Herbert de Grafsen, or an entrance to the Tower known as The White Gate, plus the Royal Menagerie within the Tower ceased to exist in 1835! What we don’t know is how successful the spoof was and how many gullible souls were taken in by it.

This fascinating story is featured in our new permanent exhibition Power House, which opens on Saturday 2 April 2011 at theTower of London.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant and Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections (South) & Tower History

Power House Installation: Week One

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Creative Programmes

Construction of the Power House exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London began last week. Preparing the gallery for the installation has involved ripping out the old displays, which in an old building can be problematic if unanticipated issues are found.

Often all the pre-planning and preparation done prior to installation can be overturned in an instant – with new solutions and decisions needed immediately. However, with the right project team these moments feel more exciting and a challenge to be solved rather than finding them to be insurmountable problems.

 

Squeezing into the Tower of London

Squeezing into the Tower of London

On day three of the build a clear blue sky greeted the delivery of the crane – an excellent situation as snow or high winds would have meant potential schedule delays. The crane lorry squeezed its way under the Tower’s historic archways and over bridges to take up residence, allowing the removal of the old exhibition material and lift in of new build items.

Craning items in and out

Carefully craning items in and out

By day four it was apparent that the existing showcases had originally been screwed very firmly to the floor and each supporting foot had to be located and unscrewed before they could be moved to their new positions. However, as move after move took place and with a van and 2 builders skips of old material left the site, it was clear that a new exhibition was beginning to take shape.

As the first week drew to a close not only had all the cases been repositioned, they had also received a complete internal fit-out and one of our new cases was also finished. Everything was ready for graphic installation – and then objects…

More images of the installation at the Tower of London can be found on our Flickr page.

The Naming of the Dragon

A fabulous “bejewelled” dragon – standing 3m high and specially commissioned by the Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces – will create a guaranteed “wow factor” as the centrepiece of the Power House exhibition at the Tower of London.

A modern trophy, the dragon is made up of components representing each of the great institutions of state associated with the Tower. The design is still being finalised but the majestic beast is likely to include:

Power House Dragon

Power House Dragon

  • Ordnance Office – armour, swords, firearms and cannon to create the back legs and body
  • Menagerie – a cage for the ribcage
  • Prison – chains to create the tail
  • The Royal Mint – coins to represent the dragon’s fire
  • The Observatory – telescopes for front legs
  • The Records Office and Ordnance Survey – parchments and maps for wings
  • The Jewel House – fake diamonds and rubies for the dragon’s eyes

This is your chance to make history – a prestigious dragon such as this deserves a befitting name. The Royal Armouries has teamed up with History™ for your opportunity to win an exclusive behind the scenes tour of the Tower of London and two tickets to the VIP private view of the Power House exhibition.

To enter please suggest a name for the dragon by emailing the Royal Armouries at competitions@armouries.org.uk. Please include your name and telephone number on the email. The competition closing date is Thursday 31 March 2011. Terms and Conditions are available on the History™ website.