Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A stronghold for all seasons

The problem with tourist attractions is that it tends to be only tourists who schedule going to see them. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever been to the Tower of London before until a dim memory of the sparkling crown jewels resurfaced. Since that time, I'd developed a strong obsession with reading Tudor history (and probably learnt to read period; it really had been a while) where the majority of the notable figures seemed to like to hang out in the Tower and, you know, be decapitated.

We took advantage of the tour offered by the Beefeaters, the origin of whose name is lost in history but most likely stems from their original payment being of meat; a reasonable fare in a time where most could only afford vegetables. Members of our tour group came from around the world and included Americans, who, the Beefeater cheerfully pointed out, would be able to claim all this history if only they had paid their taxes.

With our guide, we started at the watergate, later renamed 'Traitor's Gate' where prisoners were brought into the tower by boat. One of the most famous entrants through this system would have been Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and later her cousin, Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Neither ever emerged and are buried alongside one another in the Tower's chapel by the place they were executed. Next to them lies Anne's brother, George, Duke of Rochester (beheaded for supposedly frequenting his own sister's bed) and his wife, Jane (beheaded later with Katherine Howard for concealing her ... sharing nature in regard to bedroom partners). When it comes to playing with power, the great Tudor families were not quick learners.

Perhaps more sympathy should be shown to the 16 year old who lies buried at their feet. Lady Jane Grey ruled for nine days, having been coerced onto the thrown in opposition to the Catholic Mary by her father and father-in-law. Her husband, Guilford Dudley, met the same fate and engraved his wife's name twice on the walls of his cell, which can be seen along with the stone etchings of many other unfortunate residents of that room.

The chapel also contains the remains of Charles II's bastard son. The merry king was blessed with 14 (acknowledged) children, but since none of them were from his wife, the throne was due to pass to his brother (an unpopular move, but surprisingly one that did not end in the Tower). His eldest illegitimate off-spring attempted to take the crown himself, resulting in the removal of the necessary body part for said ornament. Upon beheading, however, it was realised that no official portrait existed for the son of this king, which apparently was unacceptable. The head was therefore stitched back onto the body, adorned with a large ruff and an artist called in to capture the likeness within twelve hours, least the corpse start to smell. The painter finished in eight and the image is now in a private collection. Our Beefeater tour guide claims that it does not look life like.

This is of course, only a fraction of the people who met their end in England's greatest stronghold (another one being the inspiration for this entry's title; Sir Thomas More, later canonised for what compensation that is). Close to 1000 bodies are buried under the floor of a chapel that contains no more than ten rows of seats. When the building was restored in Queen Victoria's time, the floor was uneven due to the shallow shuffling of graves.

In the centre of the grounds stands the White Tower. Originally build by William the Conqueror in 1077 as his place of residence, it is the oldest of the buildings and contains a museum of armour. It is also where a chest containing two small skeletons was found, identified as the remains of the "Princes in the Tower". These two boys (12 and 9) were murdered around 1483 by persons unknown, although eyes tend to drift towards their uncle who seized the throne even while they lived.

Opposite the White Tower is the most secure place on the site where the crown jewels are kept. The doors that allow you into that area weigh 2000 kg each. Rather like the Scottish deep fried mars bar, here lies anything that someone thought might look good dipped in gold. Crowns, swords, spurs and a whole load of plate.


One crown, known at the India crown, was only worn once, during a visit of George V to Delhi in 1911. Since by Old Royal Law the official crown (or, more accurately, the crown jewels) is not allowed to leave the country, another priceless identical one was created for the occasion...

As closing time rolled round, we vetoed the prospect of spending the night in the dungeons in favour of a pub in Charing Cross. This area of London turned out to be full of black phone boxes. Black. WTF, London?

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