We walked up the steps from Tower Hill tube station. I gasped in delight as we emerged into the sunshine. There, right before us, walls rising out of the mists of history, was the Tower of London! This was the England I had dreamed of. We were about to cross the street and step straight back in time!
When William the Conqueror began assembling the White Tower in the 1070s, he intended to impress the boisterous Londoners with his authority. Future monarchs contributed towers, curtain walls, moats, furnishings and whatever else was required for safety and comfort. What was the Tower used for? Some kings sought out the Tower for protection against angry barons and rebellious mobs. The Tower contained The Royal Mint, the Office of Ordnance and a menagerie (a forerunner of a zoo), which housed, among other unusual occupants, a bear, lions, monkeys, a hyena and an alligator! Of course, the most gruesome and well known use of the Tower was as an execution site, including that of two of the ill fated wives of Henry VIII.
After going through security – and when you think of it security is what the Tower has been all about for centuries – we explored The Bloody Tower. This tower is set up with a display board portraying the mystery of two young princes, who were thought to have come to an untimely death at the orders of King Richard III, their treacherous uncle.
What probably intrigued me most, though, in The Bloody Tower, was Sir Walter Raleigh’s study, complete with a desk, chair, writing materials, fireplace and a large, framed picture on the wall. I wonder what he thought about, as he walked the Tower grounds and sat at his desk, writing The History of the World? Perhaps he dreamed of far off places, because in between imprisonments, Sir Raleigh went on several sea voyages. The second led to his execution by James 1st.
The Crown Jewels, in The Waterloo Barracks, beckoned to us. For my daughter, Hannah, this was the most exciting part of the Tower tour. When Charles 1st was executed in 1649, the ruling Commonwealth insisted that the Coronation Regalia be demolished. In 1660, Charles II was freshly endowed with jewels, when he began his reign in 1660. We rode on a moving platform past exquisite treasures. My husband asked a young guard how much one of the jewels was worth. He replied, “It is priceless.” I suppose he was correct. What price could such a jewel, steeped in history and tradition, be sold for?
However, on May 9th, 1671, Thomas Blood evidently viewed the jewels as extremely lucrative. He and his partners bound the unfortunate Keeper of the Crown Jewels and proceeded to plunder the riches. They were caught, but in a world where thieves could be put to death, the robber managed to talk the king into a royal pardon. A version of this story was actually preformed in the Tower courtyard, where we sat for a time, eating waffle sticks with chocolate sauce and conversing with a couple from Enfield, Nova Scotia. Hannah asked for cream for her coffee but was told that she was in the wrong country! Is coffee cream a Canadian tradition?
In the courtyard, we also watched the Yeomen Warders or Beefeaters converse with the crowds. These lively performers provide tours and their own brand of entertainment. They are immediately recognizable in their blue and red Tudor style outfits. The Warders live right on the grounds with their families, and I am sure provide their children with their own slant on history!
My husband, Andrew, felt the Tower was well worth the admission price, because it was like having a number of small museums in one place. He was especially interested in the exhibit Fit For a King, in the White Tower, which features suits of armour and gives tourists a good idea of the size of the kings wearing them. There is even armour belonging to either a very small king or a child. All kinds of details are explained and we could easily have spent much more time learning about armour and the kings who donned it.
No trip to the Tower of London could be complete without contemplating the deaths of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. Anne and Catherine, wives of Henry Vlll,were beheaded ostensibly for adultery, but a guide told my husband that they were most likely innocent. 16 year old Lady Jane Grey was queen for merely nine days and executed for solely political reasons.
According to a guide, Queen Victoria felt extremely sorry for the victims. Today, on Tower Green, there is a monument, designed by Brian Catling and put in place in 2006. Around the base of the memorial is written Catling’s tribute: “Gentle visitor pause awhile. Where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life. May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage, under these restless skies ” (punctuation added). We were standing under the skies of Tower Green and could only imagine these victims of political circumstance laying down their lives, while spectators watched nearby. Did Henry VIII feel any remorse as he watched his wives beheaded at his own command or did he feel, as supreme monarch, that he was somehow justified?
Andrew and the girls went off to see the instruments of torture, but I had spent enough time climbing long, narrow staircases and stood instead by Traitor’s Gate,where prisoners once arrived along the Thames in barges. I thought of the prisoners and those who had power over them. Was Henry VIII, who by our standards, murdered two of his young wives, convinced he was right, overtaken by religious conscience or merely a dictator who could get his own way? If he were to walk out into the sunshine at Tower Hill tube station, and look across the street at the Tower, would he gasp in delight, as a 21st century tourist might, or would he gasp in horror at a world he could barely comprehend? It is probably fair to say that we cannot fully comprehend his world either. Regardless, the Tower stands as a tribute to human courage, is a famous World Heritage Site, and is an absolute must to see during any tour of London, England!