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 final blog post, we’ll resume tracing its development from 2011 to present day. Discover the line and its development over the centuries in our Line of Kings blog series.
In 2011, the decision was taken to re-display the ‘Line’ once again. In preparation for this, research was undertaken into both the key objects and the manuscript and printed accounts about them. For example, during 2012 the 17th century wooden horses and selected heads were examined using paint analysis. Some of the heads were submitted for tree ring analysis (dendrochronology) and the horses were examined internally using endoscopy and X-radiography. The War Office and Audit Office account at The National Archives were re-checked. The results showed that the carved horses and heads present interesting differences in materials, construction methods and paintwork. However, it has remained impossible so far to prove definite connections between particular horses or heads and individual carvers named in the 1680s accounts. In early 2013, new designs for the Line of Kings were approved and the 1998 exhibition finally closed after Easter ready for installation of the latest version of this long-running attraction.
The latest Line of Kings display in 2013 is a blend of old and new. All the objects, from the wooden horses and royal heads to the arms and armour, have formed part of one or more of the previous Horse Armoury exhibitions stretching back to the 17th century. However, the latest representation of this famous attraction has been driven by many new factors, from recent research to conservation issues – just as its predecessors were concerned with propaganda and topicality initially, and later combining spectacle and scholarship.
Now, on a busy day, the display is often visited by more people than probably saw the Horse Armoury in a whole year in the 18th century. Not only does today’s exhibition need to cope with many visitors, but these visitors also navigate the gallery – unlike the guided tours of the past. Similarly, the objects and our attitudes to them have changed. Whereas the Line of Kings was conceived as a spectacular, open display with each wooden horse ‘ridden’ by a king in armour that, sadly, is no longer possible. Today, the Royal armours are exhibited inside showcases – and some of the horses can no longer support the weight of an armoured figure.
However, these differences were recognised as opportunities rather than problems – removing the responsibility of trying to recreate a display from the past and providing today’s curators and designers with the chance to produce something new. Unlike its immediate predecessor, today’s Line of Kings occupies the whole of the entrance floor of the White Tower and brings the carved heads and horses and the royal armours together – though mainly not as mounted figures.
From research into the history of former Horse Armoury displays, the Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces project team decided that the new exhibition should introduce present-day visitors to the idea that they are following in the footsteps of millions of others who have seen the Line of Kings at the Tower – the longest running visitor attraction in the world. Fortunately, some early visitors left written accounts of what they did and saw, and a few examples place today’s visitor as part of this never-ending procession.
An important aspect of today’s exhibition is that the wooden horses and royal heads are given equal billing with the arms and armour on show. This was not the case in the past when the carvings were regarded merely as props, commissioned to show off the royal armours to the greatest effect. As visitors, today follow the route they can see the horses from a variety of angles, some bearing figures, some wearing horse armour and others bare.
Part of the story of the Line which today’s display introduces is the change in approach to the objects. While a few armours have been correctly attributed to their owners since the 17th century, most have not. Today’s exhibition shows how scholarly study in the 19th century began to reinterpret objects that formerly had been imaginatively billed as the armours of ‘William the Conqueror’, ‘John of Gaunt’ or a present from ‘the Great Mogul’.
Throughout the gallery information panels and labels feature drawings, prints and photographs of previous versions of the Line. We hope that today’s visitors will picture and comment on their favourites using digital media – leaving a record for those who re-display the Line in the future to reflect its changing yet timeless character.