The strategic location and the symbolic importance of the Tower of London made it a natural centre for the storage of royal possessions during the medieval period. During the 13th and 14th centuries the Tower of London had become home to the Great Wardrobe which stored important items of royal property including jewels, plate, coins, and state documents as well as non-perishable goods like textiles, fur, tools, furniture and, crucially, arms and armour.
Ever since the Norman Conquest of 1066 royal castles and fortresses had long served as stores for weapons of war. During the course of the 13th century the Tower had become a centre for arms manufacture and storage. Contemporary documents of the late 13th and early 14th centuries show that the Tower of London was assuming a more industrial character. It was a simple and natural progression from manufacturing items on site to stock piling them for use in the king’s wars. By the 14th century the Tower’s function as a depot for weapons of war had become increasingly prominent and references are found to places such as ‘the house where the King’s spears are made’ and the ‘chambers where the crossbows and quarrels…are placed’.
During the first few decades of the 14th century these functions came under the supervision of the emerging Privy Wardrobe and its administrative head, the keeper. The Privy Wardrobe filled the void left after the Great Wardrobe had moved to more spacious premises outside the Tower at Baynard’s Castle, a process completed by the early 1360s.
Armour and weapons were stored in various locations within the Tower. St Thomas’s Tower, situated close to the residence of the Keeper of the Privy Wardrobe in the Wakefield Tower, had originally been constructed as royal apartments by Edward I but his grandson, Edward III ordered their conversion into stores, fitted out with shelves for armour and rails for hanging crossbows. It was not the only store though, and there is unequivocal evidence that weapons were routinely moved about the Tower and stored wherever there was adequate and available space.
The increasing independence of the Privy Wardrobe as an institution and the subsequent emergence of an embryonic Office of the Armoury and Ordnance served to confirm the Tower’s status as the leading royal arsenal in the country during much of the 14th and 15th centuries.
By the first decades of the 15th century the ordnance stores at the Tower were probably situated to the north of the White Tower. They might have been located there earlier although this is a matter of conjecture. The earliest known date confirming the existence of a designated building for ordnance occurs in 1399. By the latter part of the 15th century there are clear references to the ordnance store house’s location to the north of the Tower Green, where it remained throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The process by which the Armoury and Ordnance Office emerged as separate organisations is not entirely clear and is reflected in the apparent overlap in responsibilities of the kings’ officials appointed to maintain oversight of arms, armour, and ordnance. The Keeper of the Artillery in 1427, for example, was John Malpas who was also Keeper of the King’s Armour and other weapons within the Tower.
In time the Privy Wardrobe lost its supervision of arms, armour and artillery to separate officials responsible for the Armoury and Ordnance. This was not a straightforward, logical division. Both the Armoury and the Ordnance at the Tower had developed basic bureaucratic structures during the late 15th century. More often than not the Masters of the Armoury and Ordnance were respected senior royal officials with military experience and an understanding of warfare. The blurring of responsibilities evident in the 14th and 15th centuries remained until the later 17th century with the Offices of Armoury and Ordnance both storing all manner of military equipment.
Whereas the organisation of the Armoury is more easily understood the development of the Office of Ordnance is less certain. It has often suggested that the Office of Ordnance came into being following the appointment of Nicholas Merbury as a Master of the King’s Ordnance in 1414. Merbury’s patent of appointment, however, did not appoint him to the principal position in an established organisation. His office should instead be seen within the context of Henry V’s wars in France. Amongst the temporary appointments normally made for military campaigns of this period were masters of artillery trains known as masters of ordnance.
Designated keepers of artillery within the Tower were being appointed from about 1406. However, it was not until the mid 15th century, that a Master of the Ordnance emerged as a clearly-defined official in his own right with direct oversight of the ordnance at the Tower with the appointment of one of Edward IV’s leading household servants, Thomas Vaughan. While the Tower did not have a monopoly on the purchase and supply of arms, armour, and other weapons of war it did become the principal depot upon which other royal officials and military commanders could call upon. Ordnance stored elsewhere across the country did not automatically fall within his jurisdiction though and there are numerous instances of keepers of ordnance at other royal strongholds.
Under the Tudors the Tower maintained its role as a store for military equipment. Henry VII’s first appointee was Sir Richard Guildford who combined both the Offices of Ordnance and Armoury until 1494. The Offices of Master of the Armoury and Ordnance were only held by the same official on one further occasion when Sir Richard Southwell combined both offices from 1554-60. Henry VII (1485-1509) renewed ordnance stores at the Tower at the end of the 15th century. The 1495 survey of stores at the Tower taken shortly after Sir Robert Clifford became Master of the Ordnance, demonstrated the poor state of ordnance ten years into the new reign. However, a more thorough and far-reaching overhaul of Ordnance at the Tower was undertaken by his son, Henry VIII, who brought in foreign expertise to improve the overall quality of English manufacture. The Office of the Armoury moved to Greenwich after the royal workshops were established there by Henry VIII which left the Office of Ordnance free to grow within the Tower. Although an Armoury store was re-established at the Tower in 1570 the quality of armour maintained there came in for considerable criticism during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign (1509-47) the Office of Ordnance was provided with a designated level of staffing under the overall authority of the Master of Ordnance. Day-to-day responsibility fell upon the Lieutenant of Ordnance and his assistant, the Surveyor of Ordnance, a Clerk of Deliveries, and Storekeepers. By 1580 the Ordnance Office had grown significantly and now employed a salaried staff of seventeen besides more than a hundred gunners and ‘cannoneers’.
During the course of the 16th and 17th centuries the ordnance storehouses were improved. Under Edward VI (1547-1553) and Philip & Mary (1554-58) the old Henrician store house was replaced. Increasingly, however, the White Tower was also used as a store. By 1623 the White Tower was described as ‘ye battery and Storehouse for ye Magazen’; and by 1641 it was considered to belong to the Ordnance Office. One of the principal stores within the Tower was gunpowder. Although it was not manufactured onsite considerable quantities were kept within the Tower complex and in storage on Tower Wharf. Measures were taken to improve storage and avoid unnecessary accidents in 1594-95 and again 1604-5. Surviving evidence suggests that during the 1590s and the 1610s there was a significant expansion in space devoted to gunpowder and ordnance storage in the White Tower. The Office of Ordnance also maintained storehouses close by in the Minories, a former religious foundation dissolved during the Reformation coming into Crown hands during the reign of Elizabeth I. Successive Lieutenants of the Ordnance maintained a residence within the premises until it was sold in 1673 by Sir Thomas Chicheley, Master-General of the Ordnance.
During the early 17th century the importance of the Office of Ordnance was recognised when its senior officers were restyled the Master-General and Lieutenant-General. Internal organisation remained largely untouched. The period of Charles I’s personal rule from 1629 ushered in a number of crucial developments in the organisation of the English military machine which affected the bureaucracy based at the Tower. The debâcle of the Ile de Rhé expedition of 1625 had raised serious concerns over internal organisation. Measures designed to improve the running of the Offices of Armoury and Ordnance were instituted in 1630. The introduction of the proofing of weapons was an attempt to ensure that the quality met acceptable standards. However, the effectiveness of this initiative can be questioned. Military necessity, particularly during the First Bishops’ War of 1638-39, meant that unproved weapons were still routinely accepted for service. Ordnance was regularly tested at the Artillery Gardens in Spittalfields, close to the Tower. The Office of Ordnance had also taken over the function of ordering armour rather than the Armoury which was increasingly regarded as an obsolete office. Furthermore, the Ordnance Office was involved in the surveying of military fortifications across the country and the state of their ordnance. Sir John Heydon and Thomas Coningsby, Lieutenant and Surveyor of the Ordnance respectively, were both involved in the commission of fortifications during the mid-to-late 1630s. The Office of King’s Engineer, however, was not absorbed into the structure of the Office of Ordnance until the later 17th century.
The Civil Wars and Commonwealth from 1642-1660 ushered in a period of upheaval for the Tower. As Parliament now controlled the Office of Ordnance the Royalists established their own parallel body at their headquarters in Oxford. Parliament had quickly come to appreciate the importance of a good store of gunpowder and artillery. In 1644 it was ordered that all the gunpowder anywhere in London should be moved into the Tower. The structure of the Ordnance Office, however, was left largely untouched until the end of conflict in 1649. The duties of the Master of the Ordnance were then placed into the hands of a Committee of the Council. Negligent officials were dismissed and a new official, the Comptroller of Ordnance appeared, presumably to maintain greater Parliamentary oversight. In 1650 orders were given for extra space at the Tower to be converted to store powder waiting to be proofed. The long building running from the Wardrobe Tower to the Broad Arrow Tower and the eastern annexe of the White Tower seem to have been adapted for this purpose. During the 1650s Parliament sought increasingly to extend its control over the machinery of the Office of Ordnance. This was made clear in 1654 when the Protectorate issued new orders for the guidance of Ordnance officials.
Following the restoration of Charles II (1660-85) the pre-1642 administrative structure of the Office of Ordnance was restored. As early as 1661 the Privy Council sent a committee to inspect the magazine at the Tower. While the committee did not propose moving the powder magazine from the White Tower it did recommend the creation of a 6.2 (20 feet) wide buffer zone around the keep to reduce the risk of fire. The Tower Artillery was briefly located to the New Armouries building which was erected in 1663-64. Circumstances served to highlight the importance of the Office of Ordnance and the Tower during the mid 1660s. New orders for the governance of the Ordnance were issued in 1665. War against the Dutch, Charles II’s financial difficulties, and the Great Fire of London in 1666 prompted another thorough investigation into the Office of Ordnance in 1667. One of the first recommendations acted upon was the creation of the buffer zone around the Tower, a measure which up to that point had been delayed. In fact, the scope of the work was extended to include buildings around the White Tower. It was not until 1674 that this demolition work was completed. Refurbishment work in the Tower for gunpowder storage was also undertaken. Nevertheless, when part of the upper floor of the White Tower collapsed in 1691 sending 2,000 barrels crashing to the floor below the decision was finally taken to cease using the White Tower as a powder magazine.
The Board of Ordnance, established in 1671, had absorbed the functions and responsibilities of the Office of Armoury continued to dominate the Tower. A sign of its pre-eminence is clear from its growing establishment. One of the most significant achievements of this period was the instructions issued by Lord Dartmouth in July 1683. Although based on previous rules it codified existing practices which were then re-issued by monarchs up to George II (1727-60). The senior ranks within the Ordnance remained unchanged while the number of clerical personnel, storekeepers, artificers and labourers increased substantially. The White Tower, no longer home to large quantities of powder became the home to a different assortment of stores including small arms. Storage, assembly, and supply remained integral to the Ordnance’s activities at the Tower and new stores were built in the mid 1680s along the south, east, and west faces of the Tower. The prestige of the Ordnance is demonstrated clearly with the construction of the Grand Storehouse to the north of the White Tower between 1688 and 1692. Begun by James II (1685-88) it was completed under William and Mary (1689-1694).
The Board stopped meeting regularly at the Tower after 1714. The executive offices remained, however, controlling the Ordnance’s day-to-day functions. New offices were erected at Coldharbour in the 1790s after the original offices, built in the 1670s, burnt down in 1788. By this stage the organisational structure of the Board had become even more complicated. It had now developed two sides. The first, under the Lieutenant-General dealt with armaments and two Ordnance Corps of which the Master-General was commander-in-chief; the second, under the Surveyor-General purchased or manufactured munitions, was responsible for their custody, and supplied fortifications and garrisons. Nevertheless, the pressures on the traditional supply system of the Board of Ordnance created by the Napoleonic Wars led to the removal of the Board’s manufacturing activities to Enfield and Lewisham in the early 19th century. Reorganisation of the system of military supply was then discussed periodically for about 20 years. However, a report of 1828 actually considered the system to be perfectly adequate. Nevertheless, the Commission of Inquiry of 1833 was used to justify a measure of reorganisation. The net result was to severely undermine the Board’s ability to meet its responsibilities. The abolition of the offices of Lieutenant-General and Clerk of Deliveries weakened the Board’s technical, administrative, and financial foundations. This became apparent when the Board could adequately arm British forces during the Crimean campaign (1853-56). This resulted in its abolition in May 1855 and the absorption of its functions by the War Office.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
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