Need I introduce The Tower?
I was fortunate enough to visit The Tower four times this year, once on a private occasion, where I was able to linger in front of the Crown Jewels for as long as I wanted, no public in sight. The Art Fund card allows free access until 31 August 2015, so if you haven’t visited The Tower in a while and you have an Art Fund card, now is the time to visit.
While the White Tower in the centre of The Tower dates back to the 11th century, the Crown Jewels generally date from 1661, Cromwell having melted down the previous set during the Commonwealth.
The mace is the sign of the Crown in Parliament (neither the House of Lords or House of Parliament can commence without a mace present) and the orb is the sign of Christianity.
The inside of The Tower is also where many important individuals were beheaded (normal plebs being put to death on Tower Hill). Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard all died within these walls. Surprisingly to most people, only five people were actually killed inside the tower, including the three queens and only one man.
Today, on the site of the scaffold where the beheadings may have taken place (no one is entirely sure of the location), there is a memorial to the deaths. In the tower nearby, one can witness the graffiti of many prisoners who were held in The Tower.
The Tower is also allegedly where Richard III had killed his brother’s two sons, so that he could rule, and where one finds one of the oldest buildings in London – the Tower having been moated, its timber-framed buildings survived the 1666 Great Fire of London.
Below you’ll see the bed that Historic Royal Palaces have created to fill the bedchamber of Henry III / Edward I’s bedchamber. No such genuine physical bed actually survives from the period, but many were show in drawings. The bed is of course flat pack of the best sort, as in Edward and Henry’s time the monarch was still part of a travelling circus, staying in one of his many palaces or with loyal subjects (see my post here on how the country house finally came into being and with it some sort of fixed abode on a smaller scale for monarchs).
The Tower was also the original zoo in London, the collection being moved to the present day site in Regents Park. Technically, it wasn’t a zoo but the Royal Menagerie, filled with animals gifted to the monarch, many of which endured a terrible journey to get to England (a giraffe, for example, was walked across Europe, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it only lived for a year after arriving). One room is dedicated to explaining more about the animals’ life in The Tower, including many of the strange practices that took place, basically coming about because the keepers didn’t really know how to care for the animals in their charge.
Today, memories of the animals that once lived here can be found in the form of wire animals. However, the ravens remains, for if they fly away the kingdom will fall.
The day before my third visit to the Tower I had visited London Zoo, where the Duke of Wellington during his time in charge of the Tower moved the animals. A few cheeky faces are below.
Arthur Wellesley was also responsible to draining the moat: there had been an outbreak of cholera and thus the water was drained. It was he too who commissioned the rebuilding of parts of the Tower nearest the river – in the 1840s a terrible fire destroyed much of the lodgings in the Tower, the wooden great hall and the stone towers being taken to the ground. The great hall was not rebuilt but the curtain walling was. Look out for these 19th century recreations!
On my third visit also, one of the Beefeater’s daughters was getting married (it being a privilege of the Beefeaters that their children can marry in the chapel within the tower).
I therefore lingered in the sunshine to catch a glimpse of her being escorted by four Yeoman Warders in full getup from her father’s house to the chapel.
The Tower of London might possibly be the most historically fascinating building in London. I really enjoy every trip there. I even enjoyed watching the fake torturing that was on offer to visitors over 12 years of age (although this led to some tears from B, who is definitely not old enough to have watched).
If you do go, definitely join one or more of the Beefeater’s tours. They are free and wonderfully insightful. It’s also with them that you’ll be able to access the chapel, where Anne Boleyn is buried.
Historic Royal Palaces definitely get it right, from the actors they employ to the balance of interactive technology and historical information they offer. HRP’s website also offers detailed information on the history of the building, in stark contrast to the National Trust’s website, where it seems they’re offering a day out rather than a history lesson.
When visited: March & July 2015