Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Tower Of London

Tuesday 5 December 1995. Having come down the river and left the boat at the Tower of London, we buy tickets and enter through the castle walls.

This is what people think of when the Tower of London is mentioned, though the White Tower is only one of the many buildings within the castle wall. It was built from around 1078 by William the Conqueror as a symbol of his power and sovereignty after his taking of the Crown following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Always fearful of rebellion, he dashed out of Westminster Abbey during his Coronation, mistaking the cheers outside for the sounds of an uprising.

The Tower is guarded by the Yeomen Warders, or Beefeaters. They wear the black uniform with red highlights unless the Monarch is at the Tower in which case they wear red uniforms with black highlighting. The uniforms are thought to be the oldest design still in use. We will return to the White Tower later, but for now we find ourselves between the inner and outer walls of the castle.

Water Lane in the Outer Ward. Due to the narrow lane between the high walls, it is a place of shadows under the outer wall and brighter only on the other side of the lane. The Bell Tower is on the left with the arrow loop. Wakefield Tower juts out to the left just in front of the archway. Also just before the archway but on the right hand side the outer wall is pierced by Traitor's Gate.

Which is where I found a vantage point to take this photo of a Yeoman Warder leading a tour. Tower Wharf on the river was started by King Edward I and was added to by Richard II in the later 14th Century to its current proportions. It allowed access through Traitor's Gate by boat only. Up the steps visible on the lower right of the photo, prisoners, including Princess, later Queen, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, walked from their boat into the Tower and imprisonment.

The Yeomen of the Guard were created by King Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth. That term is no longer correct as they were split into two corps when Henry VIII moved his residence from the Tower. The Ordinary (or permanent) Yeomen being bodyguard to the king and the Extraordinary (originally paid roughly 1/4 of the wages of the Ordinary). The guards who remained at the Tower became known as Yeoman Warders, a term more aptly describing their duties.

The Bloody Tower is the one under which you pass into the Tower of London, the gatehouse. It housed higher status prisoners such as royalty or those who had previously been royal favourites. Anne Boleyn is said to be one of the ghosts who supposedly haunt the Bloody Tower, as the song goes: with her head tucked underneath her arm...!

The room shown above is set out as it might have been when occupied by Sir Walter Raleigh with his chair and writing desk. Queen Elizabeth I had great affection for him and must have felt betrayed when he started an affair with one of her Maids of Honour, Elizabeth (Bessie) Throckmorton. As a Maid of Honour, Bessie was not free to have any relationship without the specific permission of the Queen and Raleigh found himself imprisoned here in the Tower. He was released when one of his ships brought back a great treasure that had been captured from a Spanish ship.

He married Bess and retired to Dorset. After the death of the Queen he was framed in a plot against King James I and was again imprisoned in the Tower, convinced he would be executed. He spent years imprisoned here, writing five volumes of a History of the World. In the preface he thanks the "ungentle and uncourteous readers" who had had him thrown into the Tower, "For had it been otherwise, I should hardly have had the leisure, to have made myself a foole in print."

Yet in 1616 he was freed once more. Undertaking yet another expedition against the Spanish, this time their influence at Court was to cost him a third spell in the Tower. And on this occasion it ended with his beheading in 1618. Having asked to see the axe, he said "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases." His head was embalmed and sent to Bessie as was custom. The poor woman apparently carried it with her at all times until her death at the age of 82 some 29 years later.

People assume that the Tower was the scene of lots of executions, but it isn't really so. Most executions were carried out outside of the castle on Tower Hill to the north, where crowds could gather to watch. Only six people were executed on the scaffold, three of them Queens of England. Queen Anne Boleyn was the first of them, her head struck off by a skilled French swordsman so fast that as her head was picked up and displayed to the witnesses, her eyes still swivelled and her lips were still moving in prayer. Queen Catherine Howard was the second, a young girl a fraction of the age of her husband Henry VIII and this time she had most definitely been guilty of adultery. The third was the tragic Lady Jane Grey, queen for only nine days and a pawn of her ambitious family. She was executed by Queen Mary I, first daughter of Henry VIII. Blindfolded and groping about her for the block she asked "Where is it? What shall I do?". She was guided to the place and then a few seconds later her head was struck off. She was 16 years old.

The other three executions were those of Lady Rochford, the Lady-in-Waiting who had made all the arrangements necessary to allow Queen Catherine's lover to visit her during Henry VIII's Progress through England; The Earl of Essex, executed by Elizabeth I, but granted a private execution due to her previously having held him a great favourite; and finally Countess Margaret Pole of Salisbury. She was the niece of Kings Edward IV and Richard III, the daughter of their middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence. He had been found guilty of treason against Edward and given the choice of how he would be executed. He joked that he would be drowned in a vat of best wine - and was... Margaret Pole was one of the few Plantagenets to survive after the Wars of The Roses ended at Bosworth. She was cousin to King Henry VII's queen, Elizabeth of York. She was Lady-in-Waiting to Catherine of Aragon both as wife of Prince Arthur and later as wife to Arthur's brother King Henry VIII. Later she was to become governess to Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I. A Catholic, her sons worked to bring back the old faith and she was arrested by Henry VIII as part of a conspiracy in 1539.

She was held in the Tower for over two years. On the morning of 27 May, 1541, she was told she would die within the hour. Her response was that no specific crime had been laid upon her. However she was dragged out to the block, yet refused to lay her head upon it. Physically restrained and forced down yet struggling fiercely, the headsman (later recorded to be a "blundering youth"), missed her neck and inflicted a hideous wound to her shoulder. It took him a further ten blows to kill her. The Calendar of State Papers records that he "hacked her head and shoulders to pieces".

The Jewel House occupies the ground floor of the Waterloo Barracks and was very recent at the time of our visit having been opened by the Queen in the March of 1994. It contains the crowns, sceptres and orbs and Coronation paraphernalia plus a number of ceremonial items such as gold plate and a magnificent gold punch bowl.

Moving platforms take the visitor past the main items of the Crown Jewels but as it was so quiet at the time, we were able to go past several times to get a good look!

Whilst inside the Yeomen Warders' main duties are to inform and help visitors, the building is secured by the Tower Guard - comprised of whichever regiment is on duty at the time. They stand on sentry duty outside, marching up and down a short distance as necessary to keep warm and awake - or to move away from the banal comments of visitors!

The White Tower, seen from one of the souvenir shops. These sold the usual books on the English Monarchy, castles and history together with jewellery, prints, and history-based games and videos.

The entrance to the White Tower leads to a complete Norman chapel, the oldest complete Norman place of worship in the country. They tell you here that, ten feet beneath the steps to the Norman chapel, workmen in 1674 found the burial place of the murdered princes, Edward V and his little brother, Richard, Duke of York, murdered by their ambitious uncle, who became Richard III. For two centuries their whereabouts remained a mystery until during alterations to the Tower in the reign of Charles II the bones of the princes were found and by order of the King, removed to Westminster Abbey.

The mystery, however remains that. The bones were buried by Charles II in Westminster Cathedral but remain unproven to be the two princes. They were briefly examined for evidence of how they died, but not for anything else - even their gender! They could be two scullery maids...

In 1491 a man known as Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, the younger of the two princes. He was formally recognised by the princes' aunt, the sister of Edward IV and gained support from the Kings of France and Scotland. He was captured in 1497 and lived at King Henry's court until 1499 when, after an escape attempt, he was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn and hanged. The fact that he lived and attended court with high status for 18 months is rather curious though if we are to believe he was simply an imposter... Modern thought tends to believe that Richard III was not the guilty party anyway, but that their deaths - if they were indeed murdered - were down to followers of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII, or his mother, Margaret Beaufort.

We walked through the White Tower and then left the Tower of London, walking along Tower Wharf, to view this infamous entrance. We saw the steps on the other side of this gate earlier. Traitor's Gate was the entrance to the Tower from the river. In Queen Mary's time her sister the future Queen Elizabeth I was brought into the Tower, terrified and anxious as to what would be her fate. Mary was taking England back to Catholicism and had already had the head of Lady Jane Grey as we have seen. She knew that Elizabeth could equally be used by Protestant supporters as a figure head. Then an apparent pregnancy seemed to secure Mary's line and Elizabeth was released. Only later was it found to be a false pregnancy, now thought to perhaps have been an ovarian cyst.

In the next article the bus tour takes us around London taking in lots of sights. We will return to the Tower during darkness and then onto a West End show.

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