The Tower of London
A visit to London isn't complete without stopping off at the Tower of London. I recently accompanied some people who had said they wanted to “pop in” to the Tower, as part of a morning we spent together. We ended up spending the best part of four hours there.
The name itself is a little misleading, as the Tower of London actually comprises of 21 different towers, the most prominent being the White Tower, situated in the centre. The people I was with on our visit were surprised how big the Tower of London is. It has a village feel to it once you're inside, a fact heightened by the presence of the Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters) who live there with their families. Because of the sheer scale of the place, both in terms of its size and also the incredible history, it’d be impossible to condense the whole lot in to a short blog post, so I’ll just pick out a few bits and pieces.
Development of the Tower
It is important to remember that the Tower of London didn’t magically spring up, fully formed in the incarnation you can visit today. What you see today is the result of centuries of additions and also subtractions in the form of fires, bombing and alterations. The Tower of London began life during the reign of William the Conqueror (1066–87) and has constantly been tweaked and changed right up to the present day. Major additions took place in the 13th Century under Henry III (1216–72) and Edward I (1272–1307) which included pushing back the Thames, building St Thomas’s Tower, the Beauchamp Tower, the Bloody Tower, Wakefield Tower … and many of the other towers for that matter.
Prisoners and Execution
The Tower of London has always held in the public perception, the mantle of being at the centre of England’s blood soaked history; as a place of torture, execution and of course as a prison. It was initially built as a palace and fortress and in fact only ten people have actually been executed inside the Tower walls on the tranquil Tower Green. Two of them, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had the misfortune of being married to Henry VIII. In effect, it was a VIP execution site. Sculptor Brian Catling has marked the execution site with a memorial on which is written the names of the ten men and women condemned to death on Tower Green, in the centre of which rests a glass pillow. Non VIPs were executed on Tower Hill just to the north of the Tower.
Perhaps the most well known and intriguing story relates to the Bloody Tower (originally known as the Garden Tower) which actually gets its name from the disappearance and supposed murder of two young princes, Edward V and his younger brother Richard who after their father, Edward IV died in 1483 were taken under the wing of their uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. The two boys were declared illegitimate and their uncle was crowned King Richard III. The two young boys disappeared and rumours of murder not surprisingly spread quickly. Skeletons of two boys were found hidden beneath a staircase in the White Tower in the 17th century and are generally believed to be the two princes. Their bones were reburied in Westminster Abbey.
Some prisoners had it better than others. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) for instance spent almost 14 years as a prisoner in the Tower of London, but whilst he was there wrote a book, grew vegetables and was visited by his family. His son Carew was both conceived and born at the Tower whilst Raleigh was held prisoner.
The Lower Wakefield Tower will give you a brief insight in to the use of torture at the Tower. The main instruments used were the Scavenger’s Daughter, manacles and of course the Rack; the mere mention of which was often enough for prisoners to tell the authorities whatever it was they wished to hear.
As you wander around you’ll undoubtedly notice a number of men and one woman dressed in blue and red uniforms. These are Yeoman Warders, popularily known as ‘Beefeaters’. There are 35 in total and they have all completed at least 22 years military service and upon appointment, they must be within 40 and 55 years of age. Although they spend a great deal of time giving tours of the Tower, they’re officially the Sovereign’s bodyguards, and as such can be seen accompanying the Queen on state occasions. As previously mentioned, they all live inside the Tower with their partners and families and each night at exactly 9:53pm perform the ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ during which they formally lock the Tower. They’ve been doing it pretty much exactly the same since the 14th century.
Medieval monarchs had a habit of giving each other gifts of exotic animals, and as such they became housed in the Tower of London, known as the ‘Tower’s Menagerie’. The Tower in essence was a pre-cursor to a zoo with the public paying to see them, often with catastrophic consequences. In 1686, Mary Jenkinson died after thinking it a good idea to stroke one of the lions. Over the centuries, the Tower housed animals such as lions, bears, a wolf, eagles, an ostrich, monkeys, an alligator, an African elephant, polar bears and baboons … to name but a few. As you wander around you can see some great sculptures by artist Kendra Haste which allude to the Tower’s animal past. The Menagerie came to an end in the 1830s and some of the animals that remained, formed a new zoo in Regent’s Park which is still there today and known as ZSL London Zoo.
The White Tower
The imposing structure in the centre of the Tower complex is the White Tower, built in the 11th century as a fortress and amongst other things, a reminder to Londoners of the power and authority of their new Norman rulers. Although today, the White Tower is dwarfed by the likes of the Shard and other buildings close by in the City of London … it was, at the time of its completion the tallest building most people would have ever seen. Today the White Tower houses a collection from the Royal Armouries including armour worn by King Henry VIII. The entrance to the White Tower is via a wooden staircase. The main door is set well above ground level, which was for security purposes. The original staircase was temporary and could be dismantled in case of attack, thus making it much harder to gain entrance.
There are loads of other fascinating aspects to a visit to the Tower of London, not least the Crown Jewels, a massive collection of Royal bling housed in the Waterloo Barracks. You’ll notice during your visit, that the walls are festooned with centuries old pieces of graffiti from numerous prisoners left to fester within the Tower of London and a number of other exhibitions relating to different episodes in the Towers long and varied history. It can get pretty crowded at the Tower of London in the summer, but well worth a visit and don’t forget, if you’re in the area, you might want to pop in the nearby church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower or nip to St Katharine Docks just to the east, which you’ll probably do via the ominously named Dead Man’s Hole.
4/7/2022 02:20:08 pm
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