The Line of Kings: 1685-1785

Having existed in one form or another for over 400 years, the Line of Kings is one of the world’s oldest exhibitions. Having been re-arranged countless times over the centuries at the whims of monarchs and curators, the latest display allows visitors to enjoy some of our most spectacular items. In this series of blog posts, we’ll bring you the story of how the Line of Kings has transformed from 1547 right through to the present day.

James II came to the throne following the death of his brother Charles II in February 1685, and at his hastily arranged coronation on 23 April the new king broke with the tradition of making a procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. However, the Tower featured in James’s plans in several other ways.

The officers of the Board of Ordnance wasted no time in ordering George Frankline to commission a carved wooden horse and a figure with its wooden head representing Charles II. The intention was to update the Horse Armoury so that the display featured not only the figure of Charles I – James II’s father – but also his brother. However, adding Charles II was to cause some unforeseen difficulties.

During June 1685, Frankline contacted Grinling Gibbons, one of the leading woodcarvers in England. Six months later Gibbons’ workshop had supplied the wooden horse and figure at a cost of £40. At eight times the cost of the horse made by Thomas Cass in 1669, it seems likely that Gibbons’ carvings outshone the existing ones. In 1686 the Board, placed another order with Gibbons’ workshop – this time for a horse and figure of Charles I.

The gilt armour of Charles I that has stood in the Line of Kings since the Restoration

The upgraded display featured eleven mounted figures by early 1688 but the decision to replace the Old Ordnance Storehouse with a new Grand Storehouse marked the end of this phase of the Horse Armoury. Thomas Cass moved the wooden horses into storage in the White Tower, but while the old storerooms were being demolished and work on the new Storehouse started there seems to have been a change of plan. The Board of Ordnance started commissioning new carved horses and figures, this time at £20 a piece, from five workshops, those of William Emmett, William Morgan, John Nost, Thomas Quellin, and Marmaduke Townson.

The plan was clearly for an expanded and improved Horse Armoury in a new location. Although the surviving documents do not explain this, there was an even more significant change that was made at this moment. Whereas the display previously featured not only kings but also noblemen and warriors, the carved faces of the new figures were made to produce a ‘Line of Kings’ exclusively.

However, although the contracts were issued in the summer of 1688 and the first carvings started arriving by the autumn, King James II’s reign was to be over before the year ended. On 5 November, Prince William of Orange, James II’s nephew and son-in-law, landed with an invasion force at Torbay – invited by leading Protestant politicians who feared James II’s pro-Catholic policies.

On 23 December, James II fled abroad, effectively abdicating in favour of his daughter and son-in-law, who were soon crowned Queen Mary II and King William III. Meanwhile, the Horse Armoury remained closed to visitors. To compensate George Frankline, who profited from the admission fees that visitors paid, the Board of Ordnance agreed to pay him the considerable sum of £70 per year. These payments continued until 1692 when a brand new and improved exhibition was open for business.

The Glorious Revolution

During 1689, as William III and Mary II were crowned joint monarchs, wooden horses and figures ordered the previous summer were delivered to the Tower by the carvers’ workshops of Emmett, Morgan, Nost, Quellin, and Townson. All was ready to open a new display, but not in the recently-built Grand Storehouse. The location for the ‘Line of Kings’ was the first floor of the New Storehouse (today called the New Armouries).

The exhibition deliberately focused on the monarchy, consisting of fourteen kings in a line from William the Conqueror to Charles II. This was almost certainly not by chance; kingship was a key issue, as James II had abandoned the throne and been replaced by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William. This time there were no princes or noblemen in the display as there were previously. In order to achieve this ‘Line of Kings’, the exhibition’s organisers had to deliberately ignore the known facts about certain armours, such as that of the Earl of Leicester, and assign them to a king instead.The earliest known account of the new display is an extraordinary one, following the earthquake which shook London on 8 September 1692.

In a letter of 24 September George Follett wrote of the tremors at the Tower ‘…there above stairs all the heroes and their horses are set forth in armour. Suffering such a shock it was great prowess in them to stand their ground…’

As its fame began to spread, the Horse Armoury display began to be featured in guidebooks for visitors to London. In 1693, Francois Colsoni wrote (in translation from the original French):

‘…Then you will be led to the upper area where you will be shown many Kings on Horseback and the Armour of both the Cavalry and Infantry which are kept there in good condition: you must also each give two sous on exit’.

Each visitor paid admission fees and was conducted around by a guide, either as a member of a small group or, at extra cost, individually.By 1699 the Horse Armoury featured in one of Ned Ward’s monthly humorous accounts of London life:

‘As we gently mov’d along and viewed the princely scarecrows, he told us to whom each suit of armour did belong originally, adding some memorandums out of history to every empty iron-side; some true, some false, supplying that with invention which he wanted in memory. …I could not forbear reflecting on some appearances before me, till I fancy’d myself sunk into Death’s subterranean territories where the just and the wicked, by the impartial Skeleton, are equally respected. From thence we pass’d by several princes’ armour, of which nothing was deliver’d but a bare name, till we had completed our round and came again to the door. This being the conclusion of this warlike opera, we paid our money and made our exit’.

William III died on 3 March 1702 and an armoured figure of this warrior king on horseback was quickly added to the Line.

When the figure of William III was added to the display in 1702 it increased the ‘Line of Kings’ to fifteen. The wooden head of William was carved by Nicholas Alcock and uniquely some of the original furnishings for his horse survive.

The Wooden Head of William III

The display continued to figure as an attraction to see in London guides such as Hatton’s ‘New View of London’, which makes clear that guides conducted visitors on tours of kings, from William III back in time to William the Conqueror, rather than giving an account of the history of arms and armour.

Visitors to the Tower came from many parts of Britain, from mainland Europe, and as far away as India and America. The high admission costs limited the number of visitors, however, and restricted them to the upper classes, unless they had a friend who could arrange free entry. In 1785, William Hutton, a successful businessman and enthusiastic local historian from Birmingham, recorded his poor opinions of the display: ‘In the horse armory … the royal regiment of kings, drawn up in battalia, and shown to strangers, fell short of expectation. They seemed bigger than life, which is an unpardonable error in the statuary’.

His disappointment was greater because as a young man in 1749 he had wanted to see the Tower but his ‘Derbyshire accent quickly brought the warders out of their lodge; who, on seeing the dust abound on my shoes wisely concluded that money could not abound in my pocket; and, with the voice of authority, ordered me back’.