Tower of London – Grim History Set In Stone

I can never pass the Tower of London without shuddering for all the horror that took place behind its walls. People did not just have their heads lopped off – which must be something rather less than jolly. They were comprehensively tortured in ways that would make you faint to read about them. So although the Beefeaters – all ex-non-commissioned officers in the forces – look jolly and benevolent and tell a good yarn, never forget that this place saw some of the most horrid events of English history. A history that was far from bloodless.

The Tower of London was home to every monarch from William the Conqueror – the Norman who took over the country in 1066 by hammering Harold on his horse at Hastings with an ‘andful of arrers in his eye as a popular poem of the last century would have it – to Henry the VIII in the 16th Century who started the tradition of getting involved with other women which is still shown by certain sections of the Royal family to this day.

The Tower has also been the site of the Royal Mint, has housed public records, the Royal Menagerie and the Royal observatory. It is arguably the most famous, well preserved historical building in the world.

William the Conqueror started work on it three months after he arrived in 1066 and the Great Tower – later to become the White Tower when Henry III had the light stone which had been imported from Caen whitewashed – was built to let the Anglo-Saxon people know there was a new sheriff in town.

Initially it was earth and timber – there were stone walls still standing from the old Roman town of Londinium Augusta and they helped form a foundation.

In fact, John Stow in his epic ‘A Survey of London’, first published in 1598, refers to this although he says there is no documentary proof to support the theory.

But at the least you could say it is very probable that a fort of some kind has been there since the Roman Times and that at least some of the stones in the wall date from those times.

To this was added The Great Tower, now The White Tower and this is where the king moved in as a full time resident. The castle was always being added to and modified. It is a happy thought that if town planning had existed today there would be no Tower of London. There would be a mound of earth and some old stone walls. Today you can view the White Tower which was basically finished in 1097 and has on display a collection of armour and weapons.

Then there is the Bloody Tower where Richard III is supposed to have drowned the young prince Edward V and his younger brother in 1483 so he could claim the throne.

This is a piece of blatant propaganda that was written by William Shakespeare to curry favor with the monarchy. Richard III probably didn’t drown the princes and he certainly did not have a hump. For one alternative version read Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time.’ Mark you, that is probably wrong as well but as no one knows the truth it is at least an acceptable theory.

Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned here from 1603 until 1616 during which time he wrote ‘The History of the World.’ He was more under house detention than actually imprisoned. He had two servants and his wife and his two sons sometimes came to stay with him.

He was released to lead an expedition to find the fictional El Dorado. He did not find it so when he returned he was executed as an encouragement to other explorers.

The moat became an open sewer until the Duke of Wellington, ever a man of direct action, had it drained.

The famous ravens do not hang around the tower of their own volition. They have their wings clipped. This does not lead to a friendly disposition and they are known to make quite scary attacks on visitors. Personally, I think they are dead souls haunting the castle but I am a Celt and ever superstitious.

One of the great attractions of the Tower are the Crown Jewels which are housed in the Duke of Wellington’s Barracks. Among them are The Royal Sceptre, containing the largest cut diamond in the world.

The Imperial State Crown, made in 1838 for the coronation of Queen Victoria and containing 3,000 precious stones including the second largest cut diamond in the world. And the Kohinoor diamond which is set in the crown made for the coronation of George VI’s queen, Elizabeth (the present Queen Mother) in 1937.

The people of India, from whom it was looted, would quite like it back. They are next in line to the Greeks who are waiting for the Elgin Marbles.

Nicking the Crown Jewels would be a great wheeze, although they would be very difficult to fence. In 1671 Colonel Thomas Blood managed to get the Jewels as far as the Wharf before he was arrested. He was punished with a Royal Pension which suggests the idea was that of Charles II, who at the time was running a bit short of the readies.

The few executions carried out at the Tower were on Tower Green. They have marked the spot where the block is supposed to have been with a bronze tablet. Unlike your normal public executions, which was the equivalent of the Cup Final, watching an execution at the Tower was for the very privileged.

So only the top – pardon the pun – miscreants were dramatically shortened in the Tower. The rest were carried out on Tower Hill, outside the Tower so that the thousands of spectators could have a better view.

One of the latest additions to the Tower is the History Gallery which was opened in 1978 for the Tower’s 900th Anniversary. It is enthralling although chilling. The Tower is an evil place.

They have the Ceremony of the Keys, which has been held at 10 o’clock every night for more than 700 years although there appears to have been one night in the Blitz of the second world war when the service was disrupted.

It is a most impressive ceremony if you can arrange to see it. This is not easy but well worth the effort.

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