Skip to main content

Henry VIII at large

Despite reports in the press, Henry VIII’s 1540 garnitureidentified as Britain’s most valuable hidden treasure – far from hiding away has been flaunting himself happily about the Tower of London for the past three and half centuries.

Part of the Horse Armoury, the Tower of London’s oldest display, Henry has been a mainstay of the monarchs posing for the general public. Unfortunately, there are only written descriptions of the exhibit for the 17th and 18th centuries when it was at its most raunchy.  The Stuarts and Georgians had no problems with displaying the armour in its entirety – codpiece and all. There are even suggestions that the Yeoman Warder guides rigged up a device to make a greater spectacle of the latter.

By the 19th century illustrations of the display and its various armours become more commonplace.

Parallel perspective view of the Horse Armoury Tower taken from the centre of the room

This illustration of the line of monarchs parading in the Horse Armoury from 1830, shows the display after Sir Samuel Meyrick’s reorganisation of 1826 in its purpose built gallery attached to the south front of the White Tower. At number 4, Henry’s armour is not really distinguishable from the others.  His previous medieval companions who had been kitted out from store and therefore sported largely 16th-century and later armour, had been culled by Meyrick in the interests of authenticity.

Henry VIII on horseback on cover of The Penny Magazine

The Penny Magazine of 1840 sports a jovial Henry, visor raised to show his 17th-century sculpted wooden head clearly atop the 1540 harness. He has acquired a horse – perhaps to spare delicate Victorian sensibilities the embarrassment of the codpiece?

Eight years later, Henry shows signs of succumbing to the good life.

Drawing of Line of Kings at it was depicted in the Illustrated London News

The 1848 Illustrated London News has a markedly rotund Henry, mace in hand.  A similarly broad John Bull figure stands in the foreground.

In photographs of the 1870s Henry rides a grey horse and has donned a sword belt. Unfortunately the belt girdles his waist with difficulty, looking suspiciously like a recycled old school tie pressed into service.

With the demolition of the New Horse Armoury building in 1882, the displays and Henry moved into the White Tower colonising the top floor.

Black and white archive image of armour displayed inside Armoury Hall

The Tower of London – Armoury Hall in Council Chamber

This postcard shows the display in about the 1890s – early 1900s and Henry can be seen clearly to the right. His horse seems to have lost its glowing paleness and may even have moved towards the dun.

But perhaps it’s just the overall tone, as the Wrench postcard shows it even more clearly pre 1906 glowing white again.

Postcard showing armour in tower of London Horse Armoury

After the First World War, Henry moved back to a central display line riding a new horse.

Henry VIII's armour mounted on a horse

Henry acquired his final horse, with distinctive curling lip, in 1951.

Henry VIII's armour mounted on a horse with armour

In the 1980s, Henry parted company with his horse, regained his codpiece and was joined by a modern American Footballer, to compare and contrast sporting armours. The face is the same as the one illustrated in The Penny Magazine, but seems to have acquired a resigned air.

Armour of Henry VIII displayed beside an American football armour

Underneath it all he remains the figure we have known and loved for so long – with underpinnings revealed

Internal frame of Henry VIII's armour mount

Face on photograph of an armour of Henry VIII

A very merry and public monarch indeed.

Read more stories from our Line of Kings series.

Related stories

Load more