For several centuries visitors came to the Tower not so much to look around the fortress, and its walls, tower gates and keep, but to see specific ‘curiosities’. Of these, some have now been moved elsewhere, including the Tower Menagerie and the Royal Mint, yet others – including the Horse Armoury (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 only 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. By the 1690s the Tower was being featured as a visitor attraction in London guidebooks.
This increase in visitor numbers, alongside the creation of new 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 it continued to function as a state prison, arsenal, mint and record office). This transformation of the Tower, now seen as a place for visitors, is evident in the development of a set of individually priced admission charges for the various attractions.
The Armouries’ displays made use of pieces of armour that were increasingly becoming obsolete in the late 17th century, and therefore 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, partly because the admission charges were too expensive for all except the fairly wealthy.
The Tower’s attractions had a wide appeal among 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. Among these international visitors was Mirza Itesa Modeen from India, who visited the Tower and saw the Horse Armoury in 1765, and the African-American slave Phillis Wheatley, who visited in 1773 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 those visitors that did attend were not permitted to wander freely, for security reasons and also 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 and visual representations of visits in the early 19th century.
At around 1688-92, the Horse Armoury was temporarily closed so that it could be re-located and upgraded. The Deputy Storekeeper of the Ordnance had to be compensated during the temporary closure, as it 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 the 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 would not be until the late 1830s that the number of visitors, and the range of their socio-economic backgrounds, would change 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 free 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, such as the Horse Armoury, to attract and fascinate visitors.
The Horse Armoury is remarkable as a display in that it has survived from the 17th century to the present, always exhibiting royal and other arms and armour to a wide range of visitors. The exact content of the display, its location within the Tower, and the format in which it has been presented have changed many times. However, whether serving as pro-monarchy propaganda, popular entertainment or an educational exhibition of armour’s development, the Horse Armoury and its ‘Line of Kings’ it has survived as a display created to attract visitors.