The Tower of London

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The Tower of London.

When it is mentioned normally two (or three depending on how you count them) things jump to a person’s mind. The Crown Jewels of the British Monarchy and the sight of grisly tortures and executions.

As is the case with most historical places the above is both true and false. First the Jewels…and a True fact!

True: The new Crown Jewels are housed in one area of the Tower of London and are usually open to viewing by the public. I say ‘new’ because all of the Jewels are ‘modern’ in that they were all made after 1660. When the people of Britain temporarily abolished the monarchy in 1649, following the execution of Charles the I, all of the Crown Jewels at the time were melted down, the gold and silver turned into coins and the jewels disposed of in various ways. When the monarchy was re-established they made new Jewels which are still used today by Queen Elizabeth the II and will be used by future monarchs during the coronations and other ceremonies.

Now Jewels are nice and all but…I kind of suspect that a lot of people are more morbidly curious about the second of my statements then the first. So on to the torture!

True AND False: The Tower was used as a prison, a torture chamber and as an execution ground.

Now here is where things get a bit muddled and fact and fiction tend to get all tangled up. If there is one thing I have noticed about people it is that, somewhere deep down inside, we are all fascinated by these kinds of subjects. As a result they can get blown out of proportion and made…bigger than they really are.

The Tower was used as all of the above but it was also a fortress meant to protect the city of London, it was a place where merchants set up markets, the monarchy used it as their base of power for quite some time and it is still occupied today. Many of the staff who work at the Tower in various positions also live there.

Norman the Conqueror built the White Tower (see photo above) in 1066. By building his fortress over the River Thames he could control and protect the capital city of London. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries a whole complex of buildings grew up around the White Tower, creating what we now call the ‘Tower of London’. It became a main symbol of the monarchy as it housed the royal family at times, the Mint, a storage place for the royal records, and the housing point for a garrison meant to both defend and suppress the population of London.

The bloody history of the Tower first rose up in the rumor of the “Princes of the Tower” which was further immortalized in William Shakespeare’s play “Richard the III”. In the early 1480s Edward V and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, were the only surviving children of Edward the IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. Despite the weighty titles the two boys were only 12 and 9 at the time and, while the younger Edward’s claim on the throne was debated, they were placed in the care of their uncle, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Once Edward’s claim to the throne was secured Duke Richard housed the boys in the Tower of London, supposedly while waiting for the coronation. Only the boys disappeared and Richard took the throne himself, becoming King Richard the III of England.

As the boys were never found it was rumored that Richard had murdered them both in order to claim the throne. While Shakespeare went with that theory himself in his play (therefore securing it as ‘fact’ in the minds of anyone who has read his play all the way up to modern times) it has never been proven. In fact there were several suspects at the time. In light of the recent discovery of a skeleton that is widely suspected (and almost proven) to be Richard the III’s skeleton, there has been some discussion on re-examining the disappearance to see what else might turn up.

In 1674 workmen found a box containing two small skeletons buried near the White Tower. This find gave further weight to the idea that the princes were in fact murdered (Since other rumors had cropped up that they’d escaped the Tower). Though it could not be proven that these were the bodies of the missing princes King Charles II had them re-buried in Westminster Abbey, thus adding a new twist to a very old mystery.

That was the first incident that led to the Tower’s more dubious modern reputation. But it really started with Henry VIII, his spilt from the Roman Catholic Church, his use of the Tower as a place to imprison his opponents and where two of his wives were executed.

While the basement of the Tower, being an active center of the monarchy, was regularly used to house prisoners and gather information from them, this function became more prominent during the religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries as the Catholic and Protestant churches began a long, monarchy-fueled battle for dominance in England. During this time the basement of the Tower became infamous as a torture area for priests, sympathizers to either side and anyone else that the government had grounds to view as ‘suspicious’. In fact you can still visit the Tower of London today and enter one area that has torture devices set up where you can learn about them. Expect a bit of a line though…it’s a place that draws the morbidly curious to it.

But the real question here is often about the executions that took place on Tower Green toward the center of the Tower of London.

The fact of the matter is that only a handful of executions actually took place on Tower Green. Most of them were public affairs, taking place some ways from the Tower on Tower Hill. However at times (roughly around seven according to most records) an execution was too politically sensitive to take place in public or they might decide to afford some privacy to the condemned. The latter most commonly was granted to female prisoners of high status.

While I won’t go into grisly details of the executions all of the ones at the Tower were beheading by sword or by axe. Among the rather short list of victims were two of the wives of Henry the VIII: His second wife Ann Boleyn, and his fifth wife Catherine Howard. Jane Seymour, the Nine Day Queen, was executed there as well. The three of the other four recorded deaths at Tower Green were also related to the Tudor reign. Margaret Pole was an ally of Henry the VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon and so convicted of treason following Anne’s fall from grace. Jane Boleyen (Who gave damning evidence against her sister-in-law Anne Bolyen) had encouraged the dalliances of Catherine Howard and was executed right after Catherine. Richard Duvereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth the I who later turned against her, was executed for treason following a failed rebellion. The only remembered execution at Tower Green that was not connected to the Tudor reign was William Hastings who was executed in connection with the Princes of the Tower and King Richard III’s rise to power.

So, as can be seen above, despite the hype there really were not that many deaths officially at the Tower. Most of them were some distance away in London proper on Tower Hill. Still the intrigue lives on since most of the victims were women and several were quite young with tragic histories. Artists and fiction writers have heavily romanticized these histories over the years, adding to the allure.

At almost a thousand years old the Tower is one of the oldest still-standing structures of power in the world. With its age comes a long, dramatic, bloody and exciting history that continues to intrigue people. Whether people come because they’re history buffs, they’re fascinated with the Royal families of England, or they’ve just watched a lot of episodes of shows like “Tudors” and “Reign”, they want to see the places were so many moments in history happened.

Also we are generally fascinated by that which lies outside of our culturally-appointed comfort zones so, rather like moths, we are drawn in by the tragic histories and tales that fill the Tower. We want to see these places for ourselves, to stand on the stones and try to imagine back into the past, so far back that we have no authentic frame of reference for it, and try to imagine a time when these grisly matters were a fact of existence rather than something viewed through the lens of a story.

Deep down inside we all know that the world is so much older than we are—that it has gone on for ages long before our distant ancestors lived and it will keep spinning on in some form for years into the future. We just want some small proof of that. And, standing on grounds surrounded by buildings that date back to the 11th century at their oldest, we find a piece of that proof.

And that keeps us coming back.

I hope if you’re ever in the area that you’ll stop by the Tower! It’s quite amazing , well worth the visit and the wait to get in should there be a line! It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site along with being one of the palaces of England. More information about visiting the Tower and its history can be found on the Tower’s website: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon\ . Have great adventures until the next time we meet!

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