tower-of-londonA new “family friendly” permanent exhibition, Armoury in Action, opens today on the top floor of the White Tower at the Tower of London. The display, presented by Royal Armouries and Historic Royal Palaces, brings to life 1,000 years of history in a hands-on experience in which visitors can explore the weapons, skills and people from the Norman through to the Victorian eras. Featured are a master mason who explains the building of the White Tower – constructed on the orders of William the Conqueror, a medieval longbowman who explains the different types of arrows, a Civil War artillery captain who guides visitors through the process of firing a cannon, and a Victorian superintendent of firearms from the Ordnance Office who invites visitors to design their own musket. There’s also the chance to have a go at drawing back a medieval longbow, to dress King Henry VIII in his armour, to fire a half-sized Civil War cannon and sharpen sword skills against cabbages in an immersive interactive installation. The exhibition can be seen as part of a visit to the Tower. Meanwhile the Tower of London ice rink has opened once more in the fortress’ moat while, between 27th and 31st December, King Richard III and Queen Anne Neville are roaming the tower with their court as well as jesters and minstrels. Admission charges apply (ice-skating is separate to tower entry). For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/ or www.toweroflondonicerink.co.uk. PICTURE: HRP. 

Three iconic outfits worn by former PM Margaret Thatcher have gone on show in the fashion galleries at the V&A in South Kensington. The outfits, which were worn by Baroness Thatcher at significant moments in her public and private life, are among six outfits donated to the museum earlier this year by her children. The outfits include a distinctive blue wool Aquascutum suit she wore to the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 1987 and again to place her vote in the general election that year, a custom-designed brocade suit and taffeta opera cape with sweeping train designed by Marianne Abrahams for Aquascutum which she wore when delivering the keynote speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at London’s Guildhall in 1988, and a wool crepe suit in striking fuchsia-pink by Starzewski that she wore to the Women of Achievement reception at Buckingham Palace on 11th March, 2004. There’s also a black slub silk hat with feathers and velvet-flecked tulle designed by Deida Acero, London, that she wore to the funeral of her husband, Sir Denis Thatcher, in 2003. The display is free to visit. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk.

On Now: Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans. The first major exhibition of Belgian artist James Ensor’s work in the UK in 20 years, the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts Sackler Wing of Galleries off Piccadilly features some 70 paintings, drawings and prints by the modernist artist, who lived between 1860 and 1949, and is curated by contemporary Belgian artist Luc Tuymans. The display features three of his most important works – The Intrigue (1890), The Skate (1892) and Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat (1883). Runs until 29th January. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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This weekend marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (25th October, 1415) when King Henry V and his army of English archers overcame the larger French host in what is now northern France during the Hundred Years War.

To mark the occasion, the Royal Armouries have launched a new exhibition at the Tower of London, The Battle of Agincourt: 600th Anniversary Exhibition which tells the story of the battle and its aftermath as well as some of the myths which sprang up in its wake.

Below are some of the “treasures” presented in the exhibition in the White Tower which runs until 31st January. There will also be a programme of associated events running at the Tower from tomorrow until 1st November. For more, see www.royalarmouries.org/agincourt.

King Henry V played a key role in the battle, which came more than two-and-a-half months after he launched an invasion of Normandy. Until Agincourt, the campaign had not gone well – dysentery had taken a considerable toll on his men and his army had only taken one target – the port of Harfleur – when, after crossing the River Somme, the French heralds summoned him to the fight. It was on the morning of the battle – St Crispin’s Day, 25th October – that he gave a short speech to stiffen the resolve of his army which William Shakespeare subsequently embellished in his play Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”. This painting of the king is by unknown artist, oil on panel, late 16th or early 17th century. PICTURE: © National Portrait Gallery.

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Three scenes from a four metre by two metre model of the battlefield of Agincourt, supported by the Arms and Armour Heritage Trust and constructed by MM Dioramas and Perry Miniatures. The model features 4,000 detailed scale model figures – 2,600 French and 1,750 English, representative of the larger forces each brought the fight (the exhibition puts the number of English 8,500-9,000 and the French at 12,000 although we should note others have claimed the English were outnumbered by as much as three or four to one). In the model, which draws on recent research to accurately bring to life the arms, armour and heraldry of those involved, English archers – who played a critical role in the battle (in fact, the battle is seen as an exemplar of the use of archers in battle) – are shown positioned behind wooden stakes that King Henry V asked them each to carry for protection against the French cavalry, seen charging towards them. The battle, which started in late morning when the English archers provoked the French into attacking, was all over by early afternoon and while it’s not certain how many died, sources are agreed that the French losses were considerably higher than the English. Following the exhibition the model will be going on permanent display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. PICTURE © Royal Armouries.

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Lyle Bacinet, north Italian, late 14th century. Rare in terms of its quality, it would have been used mostly by mounted knights. By the late 14th century, men-at-arms would have worn complete plate armour. PICTURE © Royal Armouries.

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An arrowhead typical of the period. These would have been made in ‘sheaves’, bundles of 24 arrows which would have been worn on the archer’s waist. PICTURE © Royal Armouries.

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 An English ‘ballock dagger’, dating from the late 14th – early 15th centuries. A common weapon and characteristic shape of the period. Such weapons may have been carried by archers to finish off the wounded. PICTURE © Royal Armouries.

 

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Shakespeare’s retelling of events in Henry V has kept the story of the famous battle alive down the centuries. In a nod to the important role the Bard has played, the exhibition features a rare First Folio of Shakepeare’s plays as well as tabard (below) worn by Richard Burton in the title role of King Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1951. It was made of hessian and felt with simulated armour at the shoulders so it would appear to have been worn on the battlefield. PICTURE © Victoria and Albert Museum.

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Other 20th century artefacts related to Agincourt include a film poster for Henry V (1944), a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play which starred and was directed by Laurence Olivier. PICTURE: © ITV / REX.

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For more information on events surrounding the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, see www.agincourt600.com.

This week we’re starting a new series in honour of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in which we look back at the London of 1215. First up we take a look at the Tower of London which was a smaller version of the complex of buildings which today exists on the site.

By 1215, the Tower of London – the fortress first constructed on the orders of William the Conqueror – had already existed for more than 100 years, nestled into a corner of the city’s walls which had existed since Roman times.

Then, as now, the White Tower – initially itself known as the Tower of London, it was later dubbed the White Tower thanks to the whitewash used to cover the Kentish limestone to protect it from the weather (and for its visual impact) – stood at the heart of the complex. Unlike today’s building, it lacked the large windows which date from the early 18th century, and while the towers were believed to be capped with cones, the present cupolas date from the reign of King Henry VIII.

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While it had long been surrounded by a palisade and ditch, in 1189, King Richard I’s chancellor William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely, had begun to extend the castle’s defences while the king was on crusade (in fact, the first siege of the Tower took place in 1191 when the then Prince John did so in opposition to Longchamp’s  regime – it only lasted three days before Longchamp surrendered).

This extension, which was completed by King John following his accession to the throne in 1199, saw the size of the bailey around the White Tower doubled and a new curtain wall and towers – including the Bell Tower – built around its outer perimeter with a ditch below (the ruins of the Wardrobe Tower, just to the east of the White Tower show where the original Roman-era wall ran).

But it wasn’t until the reign of King John’s son, King Henry III, that the royal palace which now stands on the river side of the White Tower was constructed. Until that point – and at the time of the signing of the Magna Carta – the royal apartments remained within the White Tower itself, located on the upper floor.

Like those of the garrison commander known as the constable (located on the entrance level), the king’s apartments would have consisted of a hall and a large chamber, which may have been divided into smaller chambers with wooden partitions as well as a chapel (on the upper level this was the still existing Chapel of St John the Evangelist, although it would have then been more more richly decorated). Unlike the lower levels, the king’s level was of double height with a gallery (this level now has its own full floor).

The royal apartments had a variety of uses – as well as a residence and refuge for the king, they were also at times a place to keep high profile prisoners such as the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard, who was imprisoned on the orders of King Henry I (and who escaped from an upper window on a rope which had been smuggled in to him and fled to Normandy).

It is also worth noting that while King John apparently kept exotic animals at the Tower, it is his son, King Henry III who is usually credited with founding the Royal Menagerie there.

And it was his son, King Edward I, who expanded the Tower to its current size of  about 18 acres by rebuilding the western section of the inner ward and adding the outer ward.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest Tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Sunday to Monday; COST: £24.50 adults; £11 children under 15; £18.70 concessions; £60.70 for a family (discounts for online purchases/memberships); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.  

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London’s oldest museum is not the British Museum or any of the Kensington museums but is actually contained within one of the city’s iconic structures.

Located within the Tower of London, the Royal Armouries Museum takes the prize of being not only the city’s oldest museum but oldest museum in the whole of Britain.

It’s origins go back to medieval times when the tower housed the main royal arsenal and was a working armoury and, by the time of the Restoration, there was a permanent public display in the White Tower with the star attractions being the Spanish Armoury, a collection of weapons and torture instruments claimed to have been taken from the Spanish Armada of 1588, and the Line of Kings (see our earlier post on this here).

Other displays – including one focused on artillery and another on horses – were subsequently added in various buildings within the tower precincts including in the Grand Storehouse which, located to the north of the White Tower, destroyed by fire in 1841. Over the ensuing years, the displays were moved back into the White Tower.

As well as the revamped Line of Kings and the Power House exhibition looking at the people, institutions and history of the Tower, the current display includes a dragon made of more than 2,600 items of weaponry, following a long-standing tradition in the museum of creating displays out of masses of weapons.

As well as continuing its presence at the Tower of London, the museum is now also housed at Fort Nelson at Portsmouth – this opened in 1995 when it became home to the museum’s artillery collection – and in Leeds, which opened in 1996. There’s also some weapons on display in Louisville, Kentucky, in the US, under a  cooperative agreement with the Frazier International History Museum.

PICTURE: ‘Keeper’, the Dragon trophy – part of the Power House display in the Royal  Armouries Museum at the Tower of London. HRP newsteam.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest Tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Sunday to Monday; COST: £21.45 adults; £10.75 children under 15; £18.15 concessions; £57.20 for a family; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.  

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The Tower of London’s iconic exhibition, the Line of Kings, has had a makeover. Described as the “world’s longest running visitor attraction”, the Line of Kings features more than 500 objects including historic suits of armour – such as those worn by King Henry VIII, King Charles I and King James II – as well as life-sized wooden horses and individually carved king’s heads, many of which were made between 1685 and 1690. The exhibition was originally created following the Restoration in 1660 and was used as propaganda to promote the king’s rule (interestingly omitting queens and featuring only those deemed “good kings”). Rearranged and dispersed over the centuries, it’s been brought back together in the White Tower and reopened last month. Entry to the exhibition – a collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces and the Royal Armouries – is free as part of general admission to the Tower. For more, check out www.royalarmouries.org/line-of-kings. PICTURE: HRP/Newsteam

Four cameras mounted on top of St Paul’s Cathedral’s Golden Gallery have captured a 360 degree time lapse video of the capital. The video, which was shot in early July, captured 36 hours in the life of London and is the work of specialist photographer Henry Stuart who previously completed two projects from the Golden Gallery – a GigaPixel image of London and a Day Meets Night image. The latest project captured some 8,000 panoramic images. The time lapse video, which is set to Kyrie from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Missa in C major ‘Missa solemnis’ K337 being sung by the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, can be found at http://visualise.com/videos/london-360-time-lapse-from-st-pauls-cathedral.

• On Now: London Cycles. This free exhibition at the Museum of London looks at cycling in the capital with highlights including 10 large scale portraits by Ugo Gattoni, bikes including an 1880s “boneshaker”, a penny farthing, an 1930s Enfield cycle and a ‘Boris’ bike as well as head cam footage from riders including from the annual Tweed Run bike. The free display runs until 22nd September. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

• The annual Museums at Night event returns to London (and Britain) this weekend with hundreds of museums and galleries across the country opening their doors for special after hours events. Among those places in London taking part is the Churchill War Rooms, which is hosting a 1940s evening on Friday night, the London Canal Museum which is hosting”candle-lit tours, atmospheric lighting, and exhibits of art and film in dark places”, and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology which is hosting a double hill of Hammer films and a “Gothic Egypt” trail. Other institutions taking part include the Sir John Soane Museum, the National Gallery, the Bank of England Museum, and Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham.  For more information about what’s on see www.museumsatnight.org.uk

King William the Conqueror celebrated at the Tower of London this week following the completion of a £2 million, three year project to clean the White Tower. First built shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the tower had become blackened by pollution but has now been restored to its original color. For more information on visiting the Tower, see www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.

A foundation stone has reportedly been laid for a Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park. The memorial, which is due to be completed for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in 2012, will be constructed of Portland stone and will feature a nine foot tall statue of a bomber command aircrew. Bomber Command lost more than 55,000 airmen during World War II. The foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Gloucester. Supporters of the monument’s construction have included former Bee Gee Robin Gibb, Sir Michael Beetham, Marshal of the RAF, and  The Daily Telegraph newspaper which is running an appeal to help raise funds for the memorial.

The oldest intact building in London is generally believed to be the White Tower, which stands in the heart of the Tower of London.

Construction on the White Tower (which stands to the right in the picture) was started on the orders of William the Conqueror some time prior to 1070 and was completed by 1100. The newly appointed Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, was placed in charge of the project which used stone imported from Normandy (much of this was replaced in later centuries).

Built as a towering stronghold and fortress for the English kings, the walls of the tower at 15 feet (4.5 metres) thick and 90 feet (27 metres) high. It was later enclosed by a curtain wall and moat, taking the shape of the Tower of London as we now know it by about 1350.

The White Tower, also known as the Great Tower, has been the scene of many dramatic events in British history – from the deposition of Richard II in 1399 to the disappearance (and possible murder) or the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, around 1483 (two skeletons, which some believed to be theirs, were unearthed here in 1674).

The White Tower, which is now part of a World Heritage Site, contains the splendid 11th century Chapel of St John the Evangelist. While three of the turrets at the corners of the tower are square, the fourth – the north-east turret, is round and once contained the first royal observatory.

The onion-shaped domes and weathervanes on the turrets were added in the 1520s.

These days the tower contains an exhibition of royal armour – including that worn by King Henry VIII – as well as exhibits on the tower’s history.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest tube station is Tower Hill); WHEN: Tuesday to Saturday 9am to 4.30pm; Sunday to Monday 10pm to 4.30pm (closing times are 5.30pm between March and October); COST £18.70 an adult/£15.95 concessions/£10.45 a child (children under five free)/£51.70 for a family of two adults and up to six children; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/

PICTURE: Stephen Pond/Historic Royal Palaces