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 today’s post, we’ll continue the story of how the Line of Kings transformed between 1869 and 2011.
Despite its great public appeal, the New Horse Armoury was causing the War Office, several problems. The building’s roof leaked badly, despite attempts to repair it in 1869, letting water pour onto the exhibits. Even more serious, the building had not been well-constructed in 1826 and was suffering subsidence. These faults, combined with the wish by some to free the White Tower of the this and other buildings added to it, led to another move for the ‘Line’.
In 1882-3 the wooden horses and their armoured riders were moved to a new location, for the first time inside the White Tower itself. They were installed on the top floor of the building in a large room then called the Council Chamber. This room’s shape and size were not suitable for arranging the figures in a long line, as before. However, the exhibits were still a great attraction for visitors and the chamber became known as the Horse Armoury.
Once it was empty, plans to demolish the New Horse Armoury were made. This would reveal the south side of the Norman White Tower, enhancing the feel of the whole site as a medieval castle.
The demolition of the New Horse Armoury building, which had housed the ‘Line of Kings’ from 1827 to 1882, was completed in about 1885. The display of armoured figures seated on carved wooden horses continued to be one of the site’s top attractions and it was now enjoyed by visitors on the top floor of the White Tower. This floor had large light wells at this time, allowing daylight into the rooms below, so the Horse Armoury was laid out around these features, which had distinctive railings made out of real swords and pistols. Not long after the Horse Armoury was installed in the Council Chamber, electric lighting was introduced to improve visitors’ experience of the exhibition.
The popularity of the new display is reflected in the variety of picture postcards, which from about 1900 onwards provide many different views. The Yeoman Warders no longer led groups of visitors around the Horse Armoury but they had the right to sell postcards of the Tower which many visitors bought as souvenirs, keeping them in albums. Other cards were sent by post to show friends or family the sights that they were missing.
As well as continuing to develop as a very popular visitor attraction, the Tower Armouries was gradually emerging as the national centre for the scholarly study of arms and armour. After decades of unsuccessful attempts, a curator with academic knowledge of the subject was at last appointed in 1895. Viscount Dillon was the author of many books and articles and he set about carefully researching the collection, which had previously been in the care of the War Office Storekeeper and his assistants. The task was challenging as ‘a huge mass of rubbish and spurious armour were allowed even then to remain amongst the historic and genuine specimens. It is only since Lord Dillon undertook the great task, on which he is still engaged, of re-arranging and re-cataloguing the arms and armour in the White Tower, that it can be properly studied and appreciated’. Dillon retired from the curator’s post in 1913 and was replaced by another armour scholar, Charles ffoulkes. By the start of the First World War in 1914, almost the entire White Tower was filled with Armouries displays.
Combining popular visitor appeal with academic research into the history of arms and armour, the displays were improved and better catalogues and guidebooks published. The royal armours and the carved horses remained important attractions, sometimes arranged like a procession, sometimes in a row along the walls. Some were even moved to different rooms, depending on whether they were exhibited chronologically or by type. Occasionally it was necessary to dispose of one or two of the 17th-century wooden horses which had become rotten, adding modern replacements instead.
In the 1970s and 1980s restoration work on selected 17th-century horses provided opportunities for research into their materials and construction. This showed that they differ greatly internally and are rare survivals of carvings by leading craftsmen of their day. At the same time, research by Dr Alan Borg at The National Archives identified orders and invoices from their commissioning, as well as tracing early visitor accounts and printed guides. After many decades when the ‘Line of Kings’ was divided, interest grew in recreating a Horse Armoury in the White Tower.
Research into the history of the ‘Line of Kings’ using archives, historic photographs and surviving objects had revealed the unusual and fascinating story of a display at the Tower that had been attracting paying visitors since the seventeenth century. Following the establishment during the 1990s of two new Royal Armouries Museums, one at Fort Nelson, Hampshire for the artillery collection and the other in a purpose-built headquarters at Leeds, it was possible for the Armouries displays at the Tower to focus on the history of that site in particular. The conditions were therefore right for a re-display of all the galleries of the White Tower, including one representing the Horse Armoury or ‘Line of Kings’, giving an impression of how it had once looked.
This posed several problems that Dr Geoffrey Parnell, Christopher Gravett and their colleagues grappled with. One difficulty was that not all the objects that had previously formed the display in the Horse Armoury could be identified in the collection. In addition, some of the most important pieces of the surviving arms and armour were now displayed at the new Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds. For these and other reasons, it was therefore decided that ‘There is neither the space nor enough surviving horses to reconstruct the entire Line. Moreover, its composition changed during the centuries of display…The Line today , therefore seeks to give a modern interpretation of this unusual exhibition’.
In addition, this re-interpretation of the ‘Line’ also faced a challenge because research into the history of arms and armour over the previous 200 years had revealed that in many cases previous assertions that the kings were shown wearing their actual armour were wildly incorrect. This would have made it very confusing for visitors if Elizabethan armour had once again been used on the figures of medieval kings. In the end, the mounted figures in armour were represented by only one figure, wearing a plain early 17th century Greenwich armour of the type known to have been used in the Line. However, research into the objects had added greatly to the picture established by Dr Alan Borg in the 1970s. The display has been seen by millions, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles.