For several centuries visitors came to the Tower not to look around the fortress, with its walls, towers gates and keep, but to see specific ‘curiosities’. Of these, some have now been moved elsewhere, including the Tower Menagerie and the Royal Mint. However, others, including the Horse Armoury, or Line of Kings, and the Crown Jewels, are still enjoyed by visitors today. The Tower of London has long been and remains one of Britain’s main sites for royal tourism.
It is known that small numbers of visitors were admitted to the Tower in the Tudor period (1485-1603) but in the Stuart period (1603-1714) the number of visitors increased considerably, especially after the Restoration in 1660 so that by the 1690s the Tower was being featured as a visitor attraction in guidebooks to London . This increase in visitors, and displays that were specially made for their entertainment, coincided with the period in which the Tower ceased to be used as a royal palace, although continuing to function as a state prison, arsenal, mint and record office. This growth of the Tower as a place for visitors is evident in the development of a set of admission charges for the various attractions, which were individually priced.
The Armouries displays made use of pieces of armour that were increasingly becoming obsolete in the late 17th century, so the development of the Horse Armoury, Spanish Armoury, Small Armoury and the Artillery Train exhibitions played an important part in the preservation of old items, which might otherwise have been sent for scrap. Visitors were small in number by comparison with today, in part because the admission charges were too expensive for all but the fairly wealthy.
However, the Tower’s attractions had a wide appeal amongst the upper classes. Many of the visitors were English, in some cases living only a few miles away in London or the surrounding country . Other visitors were from much further afield, travelling either from distant parts of the British isles or from mainland Europe . By the 18th century the Tower was occasionally visited by travellers from beyond Europe. These included Mirza Itesa Modeen from India, who visited the Tower and saw the Horse Armoury in 1765, and the African-American slave Phillis Wheatley in 1773, who visited courtesy of Granville Sharpe, an employee of the Board of Ordnance at the Tower, who was also active in the campaign to abolish slavery.
It is unclear how many visitors the Tower attracted each day, but visitors were not permitted to wander freely for security reasons and because much of the Tower was still a busy working site. Each individual or small group was accompanied throughout their journey by a Warder who led them to each of the various attractions that they wanted to see. This is made clear in many written accounts of visits and in visual representations of the early 19th century.
However, as early as 1688-92, the Deputy Storekeeper of the Ordnance was compensated when the temporary closure of the Horse Armoury, so that it could be re-located and upgraded, meant that he would be out of pocket while there were no admission fees to be taken. The compensation was calculated at £70 per year, a very considerable sum at this time. However, it is difficult to use this as a basis for calculating the number of Horse Armoury visitors as some wealthy people gave generous tips which far exceeded the official admission price.
It was not until the late 1830s when the number of visitors, and the range of their socio-economic backgrounds, changed significantly following a drastic reduction in charges. This was followed later by further changes, which included the introduction of some free admission days and the liberation of visitors from the compulsory guided tour. As detailed guidebooks to the Tower had been available since the mid 18th century, visitors were at last freed to look at the collection at their own pace. This coincided with many changes around the site, as the fortress was ‘re-medievalized’ and many of the working departments were removed or reduced, allowing the architecture as well as displays like the Horse Armoury to attract and fascinate visitors.
The Horse Armoury is remarkable as a display which has survived from the 17th century to the present, exhibiting royal and other arms and armour to which visitors have been admitted if they are willing and able to pay the admission fee. The exact content of the display, its location within the Tower and the format in which it was presented have changed many times. However, whether as pro-monarchy propaganda, popular entertainment or an educational exhibition of armour’s development, the Horse Armoury and its ‘Line of Kings’ has survived as a display created to attract visitors.