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.
The figure of George II, added as the seventeenth equestrian figure in the Line of Kings’ in 1768, was the last ever made for the display. The need for an exhibition illustrating the benefits of warrior kings had perhaps disappeared during the reign of George III. However, the Horse Armoury remained one of the great attractions for visitors to London. In 1786, Sophie von La Roche recorded in her diary seeing the royal figures on horseback, concluding ‘It is a fine sight, and looks very much more warlike than the modern uniform’.
At this time the study of the history of arms and armour was developing a better understanding of the changing techniques and styles over the centuries. The antiquarian Francis Grose published a pioneering study which illustrated many objects from the Tower Armouries. He also noted ‘many of the figures of our kings, shewn in the Tower of London, are the work of some of the best sculptors of the time in which they were set up’. However, the historical research served to highlight that the ‘Line’ was more fantasy and propaganda than fact.
The earliest known images of the Horse Armoury show the display at about this time. Although the architecture of the room in the New Storehouse is heavily distorted, they give an idea of the row of royal figures along the centre of the room, with groups of visitors led around behind the horses first and then shown the kings from George II to William the Conqueror.
Thomas Rowlandson’s views also show the mass displays of armour on the walls and ceiling, as well as a Yeoman Warder guiding a party of visitors. Rudolph Ackermann published an aquatint of the display by Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin in 1809 with William Combe’s description of the royal figures as ‘large as life and some of them appear in the suits which those sovereigns actually wore. This room presents a very striking spectacle’.
By the 1820s opinions about the display were becoming increasingly divided. John Whitcomb Bayley wrote that the royal figures ‘are in fine armor, on horseback and have altogether a grand and most imposing effect’. Although Polish visitor Krystyn Lach-Szyrma was unimpressed, recording ‘there is little art in them and they look like horrible monsters, blank and in poor taste, not worth looking at unless by children or the rabble’.
However, the harshest critic was Britain’s leading authority on the history of armour, Dr Samuel Rush Meyrick, who complained about the displays at the Tower:
‘Notwithstanding the sneers of interested individuals, the Tower contains some very fine and unique specimens…I cannot help lamenting that, in this enlightened age, persons visiting curiosities intrinsically valuable, as these certainly are, should continue to be deceived by such false representations’.
Armour expert Dr Meyrick criticised the state of the displays at the Tower in his writings and volunteered to rearrange them. His offer was approved by the Board of Ordnance and the Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington. In 1826, Meyrick began his project which involved moving the Horse Armoury away from the dark and dingy New Storehouse.
A purpose-built New Horse Armoury had been constructed adjoining the south side of the White Tower. Meyrick was not involved in this building’s design, which he and others disliked. It was one of Britain’s earliest purpose-built museum buildings, with a colonnade of pointed arches running down its centre, in front of which the ‘kings’ on their horses stood. Visitors were guided in front of and behind these to view various standing figures in armour and the many helmets, breastplates and weapons on the walls and ceiling.
Meyrick’s aim was ‘to make this collection historically useful’ and he thus offered to ‘arrange the horse armoury in the Tower chronologically’ for the first time and ‘founded on the basis of truth’. In addition to converting the display from propaganda to education, Meyrick also improved the appearance of the ‘Line’ so that ‘Instead of one position as heretofore for the whole, though there are two and twenty figures on horseback and ten on foot, there are no two attitudes alike, no very easy matter to effect’. To achieve his aim of factually accuracy Meyrick changed the display from the monarchs-only approach of 1690-1826, creating a line in which kings were alongside princes and noblemen, just as they had been before 1688. He also added a figure of James II for the very first time – substituting for his brother Charles II.
The new building and its exhibition were opened in 1827 and soon were described and pictured in books and magazines, like The Penny Magazine which featured more detailed images than previously. A wide range of publications spread the word that this was an attraction not to be missed: ‘Few who have not actually seen the Horse Armoury can appreciate its strikingly picturesque character; that is certainly a pleasure which even the most hurried visitor cannot be deprived of’. The destruction by fire of the Grand Storehouse and its displays in 1841 raised the Horse Armouries’ profile.
Good publicity combined with a reduction in Armouries admission charges in the late 1830s, from two shillings to six pence per person, increased visitor numbers rapidly. Now the attraction was not solely the preserve of the well-connected and wealthy. In fact, the displays became almost too popular and there were complaints that the guides led their groups of visitors around so quickly that they could not see the armour properly.
The first official guidebook to the Tower and Armouries was written by John Hewitt in 1841, followed by the Official Catalogue of the Arms and Armour. New acquisitions were made to improve the collection but keeping the display not only looking fresh but also in line with scholarship proved a struggle. By 1866 Baron de Ros wrote ‘it is beginning to require a fresh inspection and arrangement, similar to that made by the late Dr Meyrick’.
James Robinson Planché was a playwright, historian, and Herald at the College of Arms. In addition, he was an expert on arms and armour, leading him to suggest the appointment of a curator of the Armouries, without success. After arranging an armour exhibition at the South Kensington (now Victoria and Albert) Museum, Planché himself was invited by the War Office to re-arrange the New Horse Armoury and other displays in 1869. He accepted, aiming to enable ‘the general visitor to form, even at a rapid and passing glance, some idea of the progress of art and gradual change of fashion, from the 12th to the 18th century’. Planché improved the spectacle of the Line of equestrian figures while grouping the arms and armour chronologically. He also removed the large banners above the riders installed by Dr Meyrick in 1826-7, adding informative labels so visitors would not have to rely on the descriptions given by the Yeoman Warder guides.
Engravings in books and magazines remained an important medium for illustrating the displays, but from the late 1860s photographers were successfully taking pictures inside the New Horse Armoury. These photographs provide a more accurate record than many of the engravings, and comparing pictures taken at different dates shows that further small changes continued on a regular basis. Many stereo-photographs were sold to be viewed in 3-D through stereoscopes, as souvenirs to be collected in albums and as magic lantern slides for projecting. As this spread awareness of the displays, so at last admission to the armouries came within reach of the working classes. After much debate, the sixpence per person entry charge was removed in 1875 on certain ‘free days’. This allowed admission to the Horse Armoury to those who were willing to queue on a Monday or Saturday, however poor they were. It proved extremely popular and greatly increased the number of visitors who saw the displays.