Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces have joined forces to present ‘Fit for a King’, a stunning new permanent exhibition showcasing 500 years of Royal arms and armour. The Tower of London’s iconic White Tower will host the exhibition of Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian and Windsor arms and armour from this Easter, marking the 350th anniversary of King Charles II’s Restoration and the Tower of London opening to the visitors for the first time.
The journey through this fascinating Royal collection begins by exploring armour created for use on both the battle and sports fields and its design over the centuries. Armour’s later decline and eventual redundancy of armour is explained through containing many remarkable firearms.
Royal Armouries Master and Director General, Jonathon Riley commented, “The ‘Fit for a King’ exhibition offers the visitor for the first time an impressive 500 year chronological timeline of Royal arms and armour history from past to present. A chance to see the Henry VIII and Charles I’s spectacular armour - an opportunity not to be missed. ”
The exhibition begins with two contrasting 16th century armours created for King Henry VIII. His intricately decorated ‘silvered and engraved’ armour (c.1515) celebrates his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, adorned with the intertwined initials ‘H’ and ‘K’, plus foliage of Tudor roses and pomegranates of Aragon in celebration of the King’s marriage to his first wife Katherine of Aragon. This armour was possibly one of the first works produced in Henry’s newly-established workshops at Greenwich. The ‘silvered and engraved’ armour will be displayed alongside Henry’s much later field and tournament garniture armour (c.1540), probably made for one of the last tournaments organised by the monarch. The staggering size of the garniture reminds us of the King’s significant weight gain over the course of his reign. This makes it unlikely that he actually demonstrated his sporting prowess at the event for which it was commissioned.
Whilst Henry VIII’s armours were created in the Greenwich workshops built by the King, the exhibition will also showcase the skilled craftsmanship of other nation’s armour workshops. The truly exquisite, traditional Japanese armour (c.1610) gifted to King James I (James VI of Scotland) by Tokugawa Hidetada (whose father, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, was the first Tokugawa Shogun) is almost certainly the first Japanese armour ever to be seen in Britain.
No less spectacular is King Charles I’s gilt armour (c.1612), with its surface engraved and punched with foliage decoration and covered entirely in magnificent gold leaf. This Dutch armour, inherited by Charles on the death of his older brother Henry, Prince of Wales for whom it was made, is an example of a highly unusual gilt decoration, which probably was fused to the surface of the armour by the dangerous process of mercury-gilding.
Also joining the Royal line up of 500 years of armour are those created for much younger royals, including young Edward VI and Charles I as a prince, so they could ‘dress up’ as their heroic fathers and ancestors. King Edward VI’s light cavalry armour (c.1550) was crafted for the teenage King when aged just 13 years in the Greenwich workshops established by his father, Henry VIII. Young Prince Charles’s miniature horseman’s armour (c.1615), which later passed from Charles I to his eldest son, the future Charles II, is another beautiful and intricate work of art created in the Netherlands.
Charles Stuart (later Charles II) and James II owned English harquebusier (or light cavalry) armours which gradually replaced those of the more heavily armoured traditional cavalrymen (curassiers). The latter of these two armours (James II, 1686) coincides with the start of armour’s decline and growing use of guns. This development will be highlighted with a pair of fine quality pistols (c.1695), which were decorated in the latest French fashion and depicting the image of the King William III, for whom they were probably commissioned.
Finally, a collection of Hanoverian and Windsor swords starting with George I’s through to that of George VI and a collection of Modern Royal uniforms and garments completes the line-up of nearly five centuries of Royal arms and armour.