We take a closer look at the carved wooden kings’ heads you can find on the wonderful Royal Armouries online collections website
One of the oldest and most visited museum displays in the world, The Line of Kings in the White Tower of the Tower of London has many classic elements that make it the quintessential, old school museum experience: the drama diorama, the museum mannequin (both animal and human), glistening armour and of course the centuries old drama of Britain’s bloody royal history.
Although a ‘horse armoury’ at the tower featuring wooden horses and resplendently outfitted armoured kings is thought to date back to the 1540s, the Line of Kings as we know it today was first initiated by the Board of Ordnance to promote the Stuart Monarchy and its lineage in the late 1600s.
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According to the Royal Armouries blog no other than the great Grinling Gibbons was commissioned to create and carve a horse and figure of Charles II to hold his armour in June 1685. Six months later Gibbons’ workshop supplied the wooden horse and figure at a cost of £40.
The considerable sum was said to be eight times the cost of the horse made by the previous wood carver Thomas Cass in 1669, and given Gibbons’s reputation for fine craftsmanship another order was placed – this time for a horse and figure of Charles I.
With both of the Charles Stuarts suitably carved and adorned, the search for apposite wood carvers to update both kings and horses was widened, and in 1688 and the workshops of William Emmett, William Morgan, John Nost, Thomas Quellin, and Marmaduke Townson were all commissioned to produce horses and figures at the slightly more judicious price of £20 a pair.
Over the years the parade of figures has changed form according to the whims of kings and curators alike, but their collective display still offers a male (queens don’t get a look in) parade of pageantry with each of the monarchs resplendent, many of them still on horseback, in a chronology that stretches back to the middle ages.
Today it is thought to be one of the biggest collections of 17th-century wooden sculpture on display anywhere in the world. On the Royal Armouries website you can explore its component parts and take a detailed look at everything from the exquisite armour, the wooden horses and the captivating heads of England’s kings.
And it is the latter with their combination of artistry, patination and painted surface that arguably make for the most absorbing viewing.
The majority of them date to the late 1600s when the Line of Kings was revamped and many of them bear the scars of years bearing the weight of helms and armour which have left kingly brows worn and noses scarred.
The wooden head of William III, popularly known as William of Orange, is dated to 1702 – the year of the King’s death – but he also has a question mark over him despite his highly Williamesque prominent Roman nose and sunken cheeks. Records show he was carved by Nicholas Allcock who with Grinling Gibbons had worked on the wooden interior of Kensington Palace for the late king between 1689 and 1695. Allcock did quite a good job for his former paymaster.
We know that Gibbons’s own hand – or at least that of his workshop – was responsible for the 1686 carving of Charles II which is now sadly stripped of its painted surface down to the bare wood. Another similarly burnished and bare offering is the carved wooden head of Henry VI or VII? which confusingly has ‘WIII’ cut into the base.
Arguably one of the best heads in the collection is identified as Edward III on the basis of antiquarian Francis Grose’s illustration of the figure from his observations of the Line of Kings. Grose’s pioneering study, dating to 1786, illustrated many objects from the Tower Armouries and it still offers a useful source for untangling the long history of the line and who’s head is supposed to be who.
Carved from a single block and painted in natural colours, the high quality of Edward III’s head also suggests that it was one of those provided by John Nost and others in the 1680’s, and despite coming in at half the price it is arguably equal to the kingly carvings of the great Gibbons.
But of all the kings in the collection there’s one utterly unmistakable visage; that of Henry VIII, whose truncated fizzog may have been carved by the Stuarts, but still seems somehow infused with the terror of the Tudors.
For a full description of the history of the line of Kings, see these fascinating blogs on the Royal Armouries website: Line of Kings, 1547–1685; Line of Kings 1785–1869; Line of Kings, 1869–2011 and Line of Kings 2011–present.
Explore the collection of the Royal Armouries for yourself at collections.royalarmouries.org/