The Riding from the Tower
A Major Ceremonial Duty of the Henxmen

This page describes an important mediaeval ceremony of state, now long discontinued, in which the Henxmen of the Royal Household played a central part.

The ceremony of 'The Riding from the Tower' is little known today, but it used to be one of the grandest elements of the English coronation.  It was also one of the largest and most important state ceremonies in which the Henxmen routinely participated, and one in which they were very publicly visible.

The Riding from the Tower always took place on the day before the actual crowning.  Its purpose was for the new monarch to show themselves to the population, and to receive public approval before being crowned.  In it the monarch-to-be, surrounded by the full panoply of state, rode slowly in a great procession through the streets of London to Westminster (where the coronation would take place in the Abbey, on the following day). 

The route started at the Tower of London, and led through the streets of Cornhill, Cheapside (London's main market, and east-west thoroughfare), St Paul's, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street and the Strand, to Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster.  

The Riding from the Tower was part of every coronation ceremony (of monarchs and their spouses too) for nearly 300 years.  There is evidence of it taking place before the crownings of the following royalty: Edward I (1274), Edward II (1308), Edward III (1327), Richard II (1377), Henry IV (1399), Henry V (1413), Henry VI (1429), Edward IV (1461), Richard III (1483), Henry VII (1485), Henry VIII (1509), Edward VI (1547), Mary I (1553), and Elizabeth I (1559).    

James I (1603) was the first monarch to omit the ceremony of Riding from the Tower, because of the plague then rife in London, and Charles I (1625/6) travelled to his crowning by water for reasons of health and cost.  Charles II (1661) subsequently revived the practice, but this was to be the last occasion that the Riding from the Tower took place.

A selection of the many contemporary extracts regarding the Riding from the Tower is given below, to illustrate the typical arrangements and grandeur of the event.

1274:  A Grand Spectacle
The earliest Riding from the Tower for which evidence survives, took place on Saturday 18 August 1274: the day before the coronation of King Edward I (about 70 years before the creation of the Henxmen).  

This majestic occasion, planned months in advance, was a major leap in the development of the coronation as a royal spectacle for the public.  The event also established the procession's traditional route through Cheapside.  

The King was accompanied by a vast entourage of servants, officials, judges, peers of the realm, and the great officers of state.

The Mayor and citizens decorated the city 'without consideration of cost', in banners of silk and cloth of gold, and prepared 'multifarious inventions' (pageants and displays) to entertain the procession and the great crowds who gathered in the streets to cheer their new king.  

Many pageants and other entertainments were presented at stops along the way, the whole procession typically taking 4 hours to pass.

Illustration 1.  The Riding from the Tower passing the Westcheap Cross, London.  1546/47.  For picture details, see footnotes.

All of these aspects became traditional parts of the ceremony, and a chronicler of the time wrote that 'neither tongue nor pen' would suffice to describe the scene.  

c. 1375:  The Liber Regalis
The ancient and important manuscript known as the Liber Regalis (The Book of Royalty), kept in Westminster Abbey, is the key document setting out the fourth and most fully developed version of the mediaeval English coronation ceremony.  

This book was compiled in the 14th century, and was apparently introduced at the coronation of either Edward II (1308), or more likely circa 1375, for the coronation of Richard II's queen, Anne of Bohemia (1378).  The Liber Regalis provided the order of service for all English coronations from then to that of Elizabeth I in 1559, as well as forming the basis for all later coronations.  

It is also significant in providing the first clear written instruction that the Riding from the Tower should form part of every coronation procedure.  Although the Henxmen existed by this time (having been introduced in about 1345), the Liber Regalis is not sufficiently detailed to mention their involvement.  Here is its relevant statement in the original mediaeval Latin:      

'Rex autem precedenti die coronacionis sue. de turri londoniensi per mediam ciuitatem uersus palacium regium westmonasterii in cultu decentissimo equitabit. plebi occurrenti se offerens intuendum capite denudado.'

And here is a modern English translation:

'Now the king, on the day before his coronation, shall ride bareheaded from the Tower of London through the city to his royal palace at Westminster, in suitable apparel, offering himself to be seen by the people who meet him.'

1377:  Solemnly with Trumpets
A slightly more detailed account of an actual Riding from the Tower was recorded a few years later, in the minutes of a Court of Claims relating to the coronation of King Richard II in 1377.  Here is a translation from the mediaeval Latin:

'Now on Saint Swithun's day after breakfast there assembled the nobles, knights, and the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, and very many citizens of London, and other horsemen, in great number, suitably adorned, in an open space by the Tower of London; and when they had remained there for a short time, the lord king came out of his said Tower clothed in white, with a huge crowd of peers, nobles, knights surrounding him, and squires in his train, and moreover sergeants-at-arms of the armed men going before.  

And on assembling there they rode solemnly with trumpets and all other kinds of music through the public streets of London to the noble road called the Cheap to Fleet Street and so straight to the said royal palace of Westminster, and came to the great hall of the said palace.'

Then as now, the use of white clothing symbolised purity.  This colour repeatedly features in coronations down the centuries, sometimes reflected in the costumes of the Henxmen.

1399:  Six Thousand Horse
22 years later, prior to King Henry IV's coronation in 1399, the author and court historian Jean FROISSART (c.1337-c.1405) observed another Riding from the Tower:

'On Sunday the thirteenth of October, Henry left the Tower after dinner, on his return to Westminster.  He was bare-headed, and had round his neck the order of the King of France. 

The Prince of Wales, six Dukes, six Earls, and eighteen Barons, accompanied him, and there were, of Knights and other nobility, from eight to nine hundred horse.  The King was dressed in a jacket of the German fashion, of cloth of gold, mounted on a white courser, with a blue garter on his leg.  (.  .  .)

The streets of London were handsomely decorated with tapestries and rich hangings.  There were seven fountains in Cheapside, and other streets he passed through, which perpetually ran with red and white wines.  He was escorted by prodigious numbers of gentlemen, with their servants in liveries and badges; and the different Companies of London were led by their Wardens, clothed in the proper livery, and with banners of their trades.  The whole cavalcade amounted to six thousand horse'.

c. 1400:  In Noble & Fitting Array
The next description comes from another mediaeval Latin manuscript, known as the Forma et Moduswhich describes each section of the coronation ceremony in an orderly series of paragraphs.  The Forma et Modus was certainly written after 1385, and probably early in the fifteenth century.  The beginning of this document makes it clear that the Riding from the Tower formed the first part of any coronation:   

'The Form of the Coronation of the Kings and Queens of England.

First of all the prince that is new to be crowned appears before the day of his coronation in noble and fitting array, riding bareheaded from the Tower of London to the royal palace of Westminster, through the city of London.  The lords temporal and the commonalty of the said city, with the lords and others, are to ride with the king.'

c. 1485:  The Little Device
The document quaintly known as the Little Device is actually quite a long one, and it survives in several versions (amalgamated in the extracts below).  It is written in Middle English, and details the key people and the sequence of their roles throughout the coronation process.

The Little Device seems to have been produced originally for the coronation of Richard III (1483), and was then recycled for that of Henry VII (1485) - with the names of Richard and his courtiers scratched out, and replaced with those of Henry and his supporters.  There is also a similar Little Device for the coronation of Henry VIII, which is substantially the same.  The Henry VII version (1485) begins as follows:

'Here followeth vnder correction a litle devise of the coronacion of the most high and mightie christian Prince Henrie the vijth rightfull and indoubted Heire and king of the crowne of England and of Fraunce w their appurtenunces and by the hole assent of all the Lordes both Spirituell and Temporall, and also of all the commons of this Lande elect, chosen, and required the xxxth daye of October Anno Domini MCCCCiiij in London to be king of the same.  Also of the most noble Princes dame Elizabeth his wief Lawfull Queen of Englande and fraunce, etc., to be solempnized at Westminster.  (.  .  .)'

c.1485:  Seven Henchemen to Follow the King
The Little Device was the first document to set out a fully detailed procedure for the Riding from the Tower, and it specifically mentions the Henxmen.  Here is another extract:

'And sone thervpon the King at the saide towre arrayed in a doublet of Grene, or white clothe of golde satyn a long gowne of purple veluet furred wt Ermyns poudred open at the sidis and garneshed wt preciouse stonis in manner of a purcfill wt a riche Sarple and gartes to take his horse trapped wt a riche trapper, wt seven corsours following him, all trapped in riche and divers trappers and wt a spare corsour ladde in hande, trapped wt a trapper of the Kinges Armes and saddeled wt a saddle of estate couered wt a clothe of golde and all thother saddles couered wt Crymsen veluet, except the Kinges own saddle wch is couered wt like clothe of golde to the saddle of estate.

And seven henchemen clothed in dowbletts of Crymsen Satten, and in gownes of white clothe of golde to follow the King vpon seven corsours barehedded.

In this wise the king shall ride barehedded vnder a Canapie of clothe of golde bawdken wt foure staves gilte to be borne allwaye by foure noble knightes, thei to be chaunged at divers and many places aswell for that thei king maye be seruid of many noble persons to their great honor as for their ease that beare it, considering the long distaunce from the towre to westminster.  (.  .  .)'

The 7 Henxmen required here comprised a team of 6 Henxmen, plus 1 Master of Henxmen in charge of them.  The role of the Henxmen in adding to the splendour around the King is carefully detailed here, with instructions for rich and colour-coordinated costumes of crimson satin and white cloth of gold.

It is interesting that in this version of the Riding from the Tower, the Henxmen are to follow the King upon coursers (swift, strong horses, frequently used as warhorses and usually ridden by knights and men-at-arms), rather than to walk beside the King's horse. 

Richard III (for whose coronation the Little Device was probably first created) is known to have been an excellent horseman, so perhaps he felt no need for assistance in controlling his stallion.  He may also have preferred a more mobile bodyguard.  The use of coursers makes it clear that these Henxmen must have been strong, fully grown and experienced horsemen, capable of defending the King if the need arose.

c.1485:  There shall followe the Quene V Henchemen
The same Little Device also includes instructions for the Queen's procession, again including Henxmen:

'Sone after the king is passed out of the Towre, the Queene shall followe vpon qusshins of white damaske clothe of golde barehedded wearing a rownde circle of golde set wt pearles and pretious stones arayed in a kirtle of white damaske clothe of golde furred wt Myniuer pur garnisshed wt Amblettes of golde, Aboue that a Mantell wt a trayne of the same white damaske clothe of golde, furred wt Ermyns with a greit lase and ij botons and taxselles of white silke and gold at the brest above, sitting in a Lytter wt out any bayles or covering.  (.  .  .)

twoo great Corsours bearing the saide Lytter vpon two saddles couered wt white damaske clothe of golde garnished wt fring of white silke and golde Ryband of the same, twoo dorsers of ledder couered wt white damaske clothe of golde lyned wt white damaske of silke, twoo bridles, two crowpers, two collers, two paytrells, wt two trappers and other their apparell in white damaske of silke  (.  .  .)

There shall followe the Quene v henchemen, all clothed in dowblettes of crymsen Satten, and gownes of blewe veluet ryding in women saddles couered wt crymsen clothe of golde.  

next after them a palfrey wt a Saddle of estate couered wy crymesyn clothe of golde to be Ledd spare by the yoman of the Queenes horses.  After them three Cheires wt xij Ladies therin.  The first chaire couered wt Crymsen clothe of golde, the second wt veluet crymsen, the thirde wt crymsen damaske.  (.  .  .)'

The Little Device assumes that the Queen is to be crowned at the same time as the King (although in fact Henry VII's Queen Elizabeth of York was not crowned until 1487).  This plan for 2 teams of Henxmen participating simultaneously makes it clear that the Queen possessed her own Henxmen, separately from those of the King.  The total number is reduced to v. (5) for the Queen, to reflect her subsidiary status, but these were almost certainly structured in a similar way: a team of 4 Henxmen, with 1 Master of Henxmen in charge.

Just as for the King, the Henxmen are to ride immediately behind the Queen, rather than to walk beside her.  Travelling behind, rather than in front, enabled them to maintain close surveillance of the Queen and her surroundings as part of their duties as bodyguards.  The use of women's saddles (i.e. side saddles) for the Henxmen created some rather awkward symbolism, and must have felt very odd - and probably rather embarrassing - to the Henxmen involved.

1546/47:  A Rare Survivor
Only one contemporary picture survives of the Henxmen participating in a Riding from the Tower.  

The painting records the entire lengthy procession, from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster, which preceded the coronation of the Tudor boy king, Edward VI, on 19 February
 1546/47.  Details from a Victorian engraving of only the central part of this painting are illustrated here.

Here is a detailed description of the centre of the procession, illustrated opposite, by the antiquarian Sir Joseph AYLOFFE (1708-1781).  From front to rear:

- The Lord Protector, bare-headed, dressed in a gown of cloth of gold, and riding on a black horse, sumptuously caparisoned;

- the King in a gown of cloth of gold, wearing his hat and feather, mounted on a stately courser, richly caparisoned, and under a canopy of cloth of gold, supported by staves of gold, carried by as many knights on horseback; 

- on the King's right hand five henchmen on foot, bare headed, dressed in doublets of scarlet, yellow surcoats, and red stockings; 

- Sir Anthony Browne, master of the horse, mounted, and leading a horse of state, richly trapped  (.  .  .)

Illustration 2.  
Detail of the Henxmen, in the Riding from the Tower.  London.  1546/47.  For picture details, see footnotes.

The Henxmen are clearly shown.  They are the first in the whole procession to be visibly armed, and are all wearing rapier swords on their left hips.  This confirms their special permission to wear swords in the King's presence, in order to defend against any attack upon the King.

Some of the Henxmen are bearded, and some are clean shaven.  They are all bareheaded, and carry black caps in their hands.  The Henxmen are decked in expensive royal liveries: scarlet tunics, scarlet doublets with high collars, cloth of gold surcoats with puffed shoulders, and scarlet hose with black shoes.

It is noteworthy that of the hundreds of people depicted in the entire scene, including many highly placed nobles, only 7 are wearing cloth of gold: the Lord Protector Edward SEYMOUR, 1st Duke of Somerset (c.1500-1552); the King; and the 5 Henxmen. 

This is not by chance, but is the outcome of a rigid and extremely detailed dress code, enforced by a series of laws limiting the use of specific materials and colours to certain ranks and social classes.  As with Heralds, the close association of the Henxmen with their sovereign conferred the right to wear the monarch's own colours. This was a clear sign to all of their high status and royal protection.  An attack upon the Henxmen, who were protecting the monarch, would be treated as an attack upon the monarch himself.

Although the picture only shows 5 Henxmen, a sixth Henxman is probably hidden from view behind the Westcheap Cross, which partially obscures the procession.  The records of the Privy Council from later that year (02 May and 11 Dec 1547) indicate regular payments to 6 Henxmen, as well as a Master and Yeoman.  It is unclear whether the Master and Yeoman were one and the same person, or 2 separate people.  

Although the tradition of the Riding from the Tower maintained remarkable length and continuity, sometimes minor practical details were modified.  For instance, despite the direction in the Liber Regalis and succeeding documents that the king 'shall ride bareheaded' (presumably so that the public could clearly see their new monarch)King Edward VI is clearly wearing a hat during this event.  This was probably due to a concern for the 9-year old King's health and comfort in the cold weather, as Edward VI's Riding from the Tower was held on 19 February of that year.

In this Riding from the Tower, the Henxmen have reverted to walking close alongside the King, in order to better control his stallion and protect him - probably because Edward VI was then only 9 years old.  Sir Percival Bryant, their Master of Henxmen (not shown here), was on horseback next behind Sir Anthony Browne, to retain an overview of the Henxmen and to direct them as necessary.

Henxmen & the Ridings
The Henxmen were first formed under King Edward III, apparently to enhance the monarch's security and grandeur during all royal processions (not solely the Riding from the Tower).  

They existed from circa 1345, so their first Riding from the Tower was at the coronation of King Richard II in 1377.  In all, they appear to have participated in a total of 11 Ridings from the Tower, up to and including that of Queen Elizabeth I in 1559.  This latter, the penultimate Riding from the Tower to occur, was also the last to include Henxmen - as their post in the Royal Household was abolished during Elizabeth's reign in 1565.

It seems their primary ceremonial responsibility was to ensure the monarch's stallion remained under safe control, despite the noisy crowds, waving flags, and other distractions.  This explains the origin of their name, which is a compound of the Old English 'hengst' + 'man', meaning 'stallion man'.

This duty required the Henxmen to stay very close to the monarch, so only the most trustworthy candidates could be selected for this role.  This in turn meant the Henxmen were already screened for complete reliability, and they were already ideally located to be an inner ring of bodyguards.  This role was therefore a natural part of their duties from their very beginning.  

As royal processions were an opportunity for the monarch to impress, and the Henxmen were amongst those closest to the sovereign, they were given rich and impressive clothes to enhance the status of their employer on state occasions.  Much of our additional knowledge about the Henxmen comes from various expenses listed in the accounts of the Royal Household, detailing the cost of materials, decoration and equipment purchased for the use of the Henxmen in the course of their duties.

All of these aspects can be found in the descriptions - and in the contemporary picture - of the Henxmen's involvement in the Ridings from the Tower.  

But it is also revealing to consider what is not mentioned. 

As we have seen, during a Riding from the Tower the Henxmen are routinely described as being close to the King and Queen, and richly dressed.  However, during the coronation service in Westminster Abbey the next day, attended by invitation only, they are nowhere recorded at all.  They may well have attended then - in fact it seems quite probable - but the lists of named attendees focus on the great and good of the realm, not on the Henxmen.  This tells us something more about the Henxmen's role.

Contemporary documents confirm the impressive ceremonial presence of the Henxmen, and their continued employment by 12 monarchs over more than 2 centuries proves they were undoubtedly seen as useful.  But ultimately their post was that of servants: employees who protected and helped to deliver the power of the monarch.  Their post gave some delegated authority to act on the monarch's behalf in certain situations, but it bestowed no power base of its own - such as possessed by the great lords.  

So while the Henxmen played an important role in royal processions, their role was focused on their monarch; not based on their own personal power and status.  Some individual Henxmen were indeed appointed bearing that status already, and some would rise to that position after their service as Henxmen.  But those are other stories.

  • Anonymous.  1377.  Minutes of the Court of Claims.  Close Roll.  1 Richard II.  Membrane 45.  The National Archives.  Kew, London, England.
  • Anonymous.  Circa 1483.  The Little Device for the Coronation.  Egerton Manuscripts.  Folio 1.  Number 985.  British Museum.  London, England.
  • Sir Joseph AYLOFFE.  1775.  An Account of Some Ancient English Historical Paintings at Cowdray, in Sussex.  Archaeologia.  Volume 3.  Pages 239–272.
  • Leopold G. Wickham LEGG.  1901.  English Coronation Records.  Archibald Constable & Co.  Whitehall Gardens, Westminster, England.  Page 81.  Collection of Richard HINXMAN.
  • Marc MORRIS.  2009.  A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain.  Windmill Books.  London, England.  Pages 111-112.  Collection of Richard HINXMAN.
  • J. B. NICHOLS & Son.  1831.  London Pageants: I.  Accounts of Fifty-Five Royal Processions and Entertainments in the City of London, Chiefly Extracted from Contemporary Writers.  II.  A Bibliographical List of Lord Mayor's Pageants.  Printed for and by J. B. NICHOLS and Son.  25 Parliament-street, London, England.  Collection of Richard HINXMAN.
  • Roy STRONG.  2005.  Coronation: A History of Kingship and the British Monarchy.  London, England.  Page 133.  Collection of Richard HINXMAN.
This page also draws on content from a range of other original sources regarding the Henxmen, which for the sake of simplicity are not listed here.  However, these sources are gradually being published in detail on a companion website, Henxmen Sources.

Webpage version 2021.1.  First version 2015.
Webpage copyright © Richard HINXMAN, 2015.

1.  The Riding from the Tower on
19 Feb 1546/47, prior to the Coronation of Edward VI, passing the Westcheap Cross in London

2.  Detail of the Henxmen, in the Riding from the Tower.  London.  1546/47.

The same scene is depicted in both: the centre of the 4-hour procession, shown here passing the Eleanor Cross in Westcheap (now Cheapside), London, England.  Five of the six armed Henxmen can be seen just to the left of the Cross, walking beside the King (who is mounted on the white stallion, under the canopy). 

Original:  Detail from a monochrome copperplate engraving.  Unattributed.  Cheapside Cross (as it appeared in the Year 1547) With part of the procession of Edw. VI to his Coronation at Westminster.  Engraving published 01 Jan 1809 by William HERBERT (Lambeth) & Robert WILKINSON (58 Cornhill), London, England.

Also published in: 
Theatrum Ilustrata Graphic And Historic Memorials, Ancient Playhouses, Modern Theatres, Other Places Of Public Amusement In The Cities And Suburbs Of London & Westminster With Scenic And Incidental Ilustrations From The Time Of Shakspear To The Present Period.  Editor Robert WILKINSON.  First published 1825.  This engraving is from the second edition, 1834.  London,
England.  Collection of Richard HINXMAN.  Public domain.  See Terms of Use.

The 1809 engraving was copied from part of a much larger 1788 engraving, measuring 1333mm (4'1") x 578mm (2'3") by James BASIRE (1730-1802).  Illustration 1 above represents about 5% of the total area of the 1788 engraving.

The 1788 engraving was itself a copy of a 1785 watercolour painting by Samuel Hieronymous GRIMM (c.1733-1794).  Catalogue no. 114.  Society of Antiquaries.  Piccadilly, London, England.

The 1785 painting was a careful copy of an original 16th century mural (of the same size as the 1787-88 engraving) in the Dining Room of Cowdray Castle, Sussex, England.  The mural and part of Cowdray Castle was destroyed in an accidental fire on 24 Sep 1793.