London, Day 2: The Tower of London

The next morning was rainy and chilly when I set out on foot toward the Tower Bridge. The walk was about 1.5 miles, taking me about 30 minutes since I wasn’t in a hurry, stopping now and again, looking at the neighborhood, which was not touristy on this side of the Thames.

The Tower of London began life when William the Conqueror set out to build a defense to ward off rebellion from his recently-conquered subjects. He built the “White Tower,” the most recognizable building in the Tower complex. It was unique and considered massive in its day, and surrounded by a wall.

By two centuries later, the Tower walls encompassed about three times the original area around the White Tower, plus the walls had additional turrets, all surrounded by a moat plus water access for boats bearing prisoners. The final expansion (in the 1300s) to the east was supervised by Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet, who was also Clerk of Works at the Tower. The arrangement has remained to this day, except that the moat has been filled in, so boats can no longer come through the water gate. The expansions were a big deal because the Tower is a separate entity from the city of London, and this relationship was rocky. The Tower represented royal authority, whereas the City of London represented the people, and the City supported sieges of the Tower in the Middle Ages, including the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Tourists enter through the western gate, which is really two gates, one positioned between the two towers of the Middle Tower, and one between the towers of the Byward Tower. The step backward in time is diminished by the shop offering souvenirs and audio tours, but the audio tour is very good and I recommend it. This view is from the inside of the western gate, with visitors coming through. The red umbrella is where the audio tours can be rented.

I walked along what is known as Water Lane, built on land reclaimed from the Thames River, at the behest of King Edward I. It was built on top of hundreds of wooden piles, pushing back the river. This was enclosed by an outer curtain wall, creating the Outer Ward.

On Mint Street, perpendicular to Water Lane, English coins were manufactured until 1810. In the beginning, coins were hammered by smiths, and were made of real gold and silver. These coins were vulnerable to “clipping,” wherein small shavings or clips of the coins would be taken from the edges, melted down, and sold separately, while the coin kept its original denomination. Edward I moved the manufacture of the coins inside the Tower walls where it was secure, and ordered the re-making of the entire coinage, introducing the “groat” and the “halfpenny.” And, averting a currency crisis. About 300 years later, King Henry VIII had reduced the purity of England’s gold and silver coins so much, that there was more copper (then cheap) or other metal than there was metal of value. This was one way he funded his wars. It was Elizabeth I who restored the value of English coins, remaking the purer coins with her image on them. Charles II introduced machine-made coins to England, with engraved edges that protected them from clipping, but he failed to deal with the problem of the earlier hammered coins, which were still legal and still clipped. People traded the newer, more uniform coins overseas for their silver, and used the older, clipped coins. By 1696, about ten percent of England’s currency was fake. William III ordered another “Great Recoinage” of all silver coins in circulation. The recoinage cost over 2 million pounds and took three years. Isaac Newton was appointed Warden of the Mint in 1696, and part of his job was to investigate and prosecute crimes against coins. Newton was responsible for the capture of one particularly resourceful counterfeiter, and was rewarded by being made Master of the Mint in 1699. He served until his death in 1727.

Mint Street now houses the Yeoman Warders and their families. Yeoman Warders are the caretakers and guides for the Tower of London, responsible for visitor safety, and they are a select group: minimum 22 years of military service, reaching the rank of warrant officer or above, awarded the long service and good conduct medal, and between 40 and 55 years old upon appointment as Yeoman Warder. There are thirty-seven Warders, thirty-six men and one woman. These Warders and their families function as a little village within the Tower complex, with a church, a village green (that once held a private scaffold) where the children now play after school, and their own pub, the Yeoman Warders Club.

Being British, the Warders still conduct the “ancient Ceremony of the Keys,” the closing and locking up of the Tower each night. The ceremony’s status as “ancient” is real – it’s been carried out every night for over seven hundred years, changing only the name of the monarch:

Sentry: “Halt, who comes there?” / Yeoman Warder: “The keys.” / “Whose keys?” / “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.” / “Pass then, all’s well.” /

The Yeoman Warder hands the key to the Resident Governor, and the Chief Yeoman Warder says, “God praise Queen Elizabeth.”

They all lift their bonnets and reply, “Amen.” The Last Post sounds, ending the ceremony.

The part of the Tower called the “Medieval Palace” is made up of three towers: St. Thomas’s Tower, the Wakefield Tower, and the Lanthorn Tower. The tower rooms are rather barren – wooden floors, stone fireplaces, and textile hangings and shutters that clothe the windows are the main features. There are several small, personal chapels for the use of the monarchs during their visits. The monarchs in the years from 1066 until the late 1400s, moved from castle to castle, carrying their household, including the furniture, with them. The rooms inhabited during their visit would sit empty and idle in between, so these rooms looked as they would while the monarch was absent.

The Wakefield Tower was built as part of Henry III’s residence and Lanthorn Tower was built as his queen’s residence, between 1220 and 1240. Henry ruled until 1272, when he was succeeded by Edward I. Edward I built St. Thomas’s Tower between 1275 and 1279. Additional buildings, such as kitchens and a great hall, existed during the 13th century because the royal residence served as a family residence, including children, and as a place for royal business. Lanthorn Tower contains a display of some objects from the royal household. These additional buildings were torn down when the Wall Walk was built in the 19th century.

Edward I’s bedchamber and his personal chapel are re-created to illustrate the lifestyle of the liege in the late 1200s.

King Henry III’s receiving room:

But, when we think of the Tower, we think of prisoners and executions. There were relatively few executions, because executions at the Tower were reserved for prisoners of standing – three Tudor queens, for instance: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both wives of Henry VIII, and Jane Grey, who had been declared Queen for nine days before being imprisoned by Mary Tudor. These were not public executions, either for the sake of privacy or politics. Jane Boleyn, Catherine Howard’s lady-in-waiting, was found complicit in the Queen’s crime and beheaded; Countess of Salisbury, executed for involvement in a Catholic rebellion; and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, for treason, were all Tudor executions by either Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. William, Lord Hastings, was ordered executed in 1483 by the future Richard III (of Gloucester) and in 1743, three soldiers were shot on Tower Green in front of their regiment for mutiny. The last execution, in August, 1941, was by firing squad, executing Josef Jakobs, who was found guilty of being a German spy in World War II. There is a memorial on the spot where the queens were executed:

Imprisonment began right off in 1100 when Ranulf Flambard, who had been chief tax-gatherer for William II, was accused of extortion and delivered to the White Tower in chains. During the ensuing 800 years, the Tower was home to kings, queens, priests, heretics, Welsh, Scottish, French, German, and American prisoners of war, thieves, politicians, terrorists, aristocrats, and prostitutes. Prisoners were not always held in the White Tower. The Beauchamp Tower was not built as a prison and had no cells, but during the turbulent 16th and 17th centuries, political and religious instability made prisoners of aristocrats and priests, many of whom resided here. In the late 1500s, it was illegal simply to be a Roman Catholic priest in England.

The stars of the show at the Tower of London are the Crown Jewels, and they are spectacular. Originally, the Crown Jewels were kept in the Martin Tower, and there is an exhibit called “Crowns Through History” that tells the history of English crowns in the Martin Tower. It is historically interesting, but the crowns are imitations and not part of the current collection. The current, dazzling collection of Crown Jewels is kept in the Waterloo Barracks. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos – security – and so I don’t have any to share with you. If you visit the Tower, don’t skip this exhibit. It is both historical and impressive.

The White Tower itself, which I think must be the biggest building in the complex, holds a huge collection of armor and armaments that served England through the centuries. The top photo is a suit of armor made for Henry VIII. The woman standing next to me pointed at the codpiece made for Henry VIII’s armor and said, “That’s what I call wishful thinking.” Even horses wore suits of armor. It’s hard to see how the horse could move with the constraints on their movement and the weight of all that metal plus the rider, but they must have moved somehow, because the practice lasted for a while. The last royal armor was made for James II in 1686. By then, battles were being fought with firearms, and armor heavy enough to be bulletproof was too heavy for the wearer, so it simply became impractical to be armored.

The other notable things about the White Tower are features of the building itself. The current roof was constructed in 1490, during the reign of Henry VII. The roof is supported by single load-bearing beams stretching from wall to wall, in some places about 43 feet long, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 3.5 tons. They are the largest beams ever used in England. The effort to find suitable trees, create the timbers, and haul them to London was huge, but when they got to London, builders had to hoist the beams over 100 feet into the air and maneuver the beams into place. Amazing. St. John’s Chapel is a smallish chapel, a well preserved example of an Anglo-Norman church interior. I found it a beautiful, simple chapel, enhanced by the ivory-colored stone walls. From the divine to the cruel, the basement of the White Tower was used for torturing the likes of Guy Fawkes, among other prisoners.

Animals were kept at the Tower complex for about 600 years, including lions, tigers, crocodiles, baboons, bears, an elephant, and an ostrich. These were mostly gifts from other royalty – the King of Norway gave a polar bear in 1252 that was allowed to swim in the Thames “on a leash,” (it’s hard to imagine a leash that would work) and to catch fish. “The Menagerie,” as it was known, ended in 1832 because of the expense, nuisance, and occasional danger. The animals went to the new London Zoo in Regent’s Park.

Ravens are part of the Tower. Legend says the the kingdom will fall (along with the Tower) if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. There are actually seven ravens – one to spare – who are cared for by the Ravenmaster, who feeds them a very specific diet. “Despite the painless clipping of one wing, some ravens do in fact go absent without leave and others have had to be sacked. Raven George was dismissed for eating television aerials and Grog was last seen outside an East End pub.”

There are several more towers with exhibits in them or other interesting features, but the last one I will describe is the Bloody Tower. It was called the Garden Tower, occupied for many years by Sir Walter Raleigh, who enjoyed visits from his family there, just to show you that imprisonment varied from the almost-luxurious to the lethal. King John “the Good” of France lived there with members of his court, but others endured physical torture, mental suffering, and the constant threat of execution.

While official history does not support the Bloody Tower’s link to the disappearance of the two young princes in the early 1600s, nonetheless, that is the story that grew up around the tower, and the Garden Tower became the Bloody Tower. People came to believe that two young princes were done away with by their uncle, who became Richard III. Adding fuel to the legend is the fact that a chest, containing the bones of two adolescent boys, was discovered in the Bloody Tower. It is not known if these bones are absolutely the bones of the princes, but the age at death seems to correspond to the missing boys’ ages. The description discreetly and tactfully does not draw the conclusion that a king of England is a murderer, but for those of us not bound by allegiance, it looks very bad for King Richard III.

There is much to explore in the Tower, like so much of London, and the layers of history are many. I continue to be amazed that, lacking engines, computers, or mechanized cranes, these buildings were (1) built at all and (2) they are still standing, along with Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and numerous other places in London and the United Kingdom. I have been to Ireland, but traveling through England, Wales, and Scotland is something I am looking forward to.

This trip had to be brief – Olivia and I returned to Bahrain – it was back to school for Olivia.

One thought on “London, Day 2: The Tower of London

  1. A very interesting Post! Thanks for posting this. Lot’s of History to see there. Wish that I could see it for myself. Great Images. I will be following. Cheers!


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