Walking in to Treasures of the Royal Courts at the V&A you are confronted by a line-up of fearsome beasts. A bull, a gryphon, a ram and a salmon stand rampart, their heads thrown back and their chests puffed outwards in a posture of power. Their anthropomorphic stance seems to emphasize their strength – and their manhood, with the bull, gryphon and ram each sporting a prominent phallus. Over two metres high, they were carved from a single oak to commemorate the soldier Thomas, Lord Dacre, who fought alongside the would-be King Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Carved some time later, at the start of the 16th century, they show how certain expressions of power were a potent tool for maintaining social order far beyond the battlefield.

It seems that life at the Tudor courts was full of this kind of butch posturing – even in times of peace. Nearby we can see some of the armour worn at the court of Henry VIII, where the war-like pursuits of jousting and man-to-man combat emphasized the virility of male courtiers. Particularly fascinating is a suit of armour belonging to Henry VIII himself – made to measure, it offers an extraordinary insight into the physicality of the monarch in the last decade of his life. Obese, with a 52-inch waist and swollen gouty legs, he would nonetheless have cut an imposing figure encased in his battle-ready armour. Elsewhere a sketchbook of armour designs emphasizes the highly symbolic function of these reputedly protective garments, as the elaborate suits and jaunty poses captured recall the fashion plates of later eras.

There are less aggressive ways of expressing strength, and at the later courts of Elizabeth I and the Stuart Kings, culture and refinement came increasingly to symbolise power. From courtly performances of plays and allegorical masques, to exquisitely embroidered costumes and finely worked furniture, the manifestation of power becomes more subtle and diverse as the exhibition moves forward. Before foreign imports and mass production brought consumer goods to the middle and lower classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, even simple objects could be serious status symbols. On view here are some surprisingly quotidian items, like combs, gloves and shoehorns, all beautifully fashioned out of luxury materials. It is hard for us to imagine the status that owning such material goods could convey – whilst sports cars and designer clothes may still be marks of luxury, in our own materially rich culture few would consider the humble fork a status symbol. Here we can see the earliest surviving English fork, which amazingly dates from 1632–3, showing just how recently a now ubiquitous object was still considered a luxurious novelty. Before forks rose to popularity in Renaissance Europe, even the most refined courtiers and monarchs would have eaten with their hands.

A little more in keeping with our own idea of ostentatious wealth are the fabulous jewels on display. Jewellery was a favourite gift between courtiers and monarchs, and the collection here includes the exquisite Drake jewel, reputedly a gift from Elizabeth I to Sir Francis Drake. This extraordinary piece comprises a cameo cut with a black male and white female head in profile, in an elaborate enamelled gold setting, with further diamonds, rubies and pearls. The cameo lifts to reveal a portrait miniature of the Queen, resplendent in an enormous, lacy ruff. A great deal of so-called "Renaissance" jewels were faked in the 19th century, so it is wonderful to see a piece with an irrefutable provenance – the jewel was even included in a 1591 portrait of Sir Francis Drake, which is also on view in the exhibition.

Another dose of courtly bling comes from the exceptional collection of British and French silver and silver-gilt, borrowed from the Kremlin Armouries Museum. These pieces were mainly given as diplomatic gifts to successive Russian Tsars, although also included are pieces from Charles I's collection bought by Tsar Alexis following his execution. This haul of silver is a remarkable survival, as contemporary works in the British and French Armouries were melted down to fund the English Civil War and the courtly excesses of Louis XIV. Only through their role as diplomatic gifts have these pieces survived.

This trade and diplomatic relationship between Muscovy and the British courts is meant to be a theme running through the exhibition, but in truth it feels like somewhat of an afterthought. Whilst the role of diplomats is highlighted throughout, there is very little information about the ceremonies and material culture of the Russian court. Compared to the detail with which the Tudor and Stuart courts are discussed, the coverage that is there feels fairly superficial, particularly as the audience is much less likely to have prior knowledge of this historical milieu. It's a pity, as this exhibition could have been a fantastic opportunity to present a more global view of courtly culture. As it is, it offers fascinating insight into the vocabulary of power at the Tudor and Stuart courts.

Treasures of the Royal Courts, at V&A MuseumKitty Walsh reviews the Treasures of the Royal Courts at the V&A Museum, London.4