Updated: Jul 30, 2019
The stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tower of London is a spot crucial to England's rich and colourful history. From the prison towers, charming row homes that are still standing, and awe-inspiring Crown Jewels, there is something here for every history buff.
I'm going to do my best to summarize this all in the most informative (but concise) way possible, unlike the never-ending rant with a thousand different sub-stories spanning hundreds of years that I gave poor Kat while we explored the site of the Tower of London. This was the result of her asking just one simple question about Anne Boleyn... but more on this ill-fated queen later (*wink, wink*).
Though the name of this site (which is officially known as "Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London") suggests that there is only one singular tower, there are in fact twenty-one on location, with the keep and the White Tower having been built by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a demonstration of Norman power. This makes it the oldest stronghold in all of Europe, a contributing factor to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sitting it strategically on the River Thames, the fortress served as a gateway to the capital, but in the modern day is known for being the most complete example of an eleventh century fortress palace still remaining in Europe.
In addition to this, it features an incredible visual example of the continuously developing ensemble of royal buildings, brilliantly spanning from the eleventh to sixteenth centuries with its beautifully shifting architecture. Most intriguing to me however, and where I first came to hear about the location when first becoming enraptured with Tudor history at the tender age of eight, the Tower of London has been an integral setting for crucial historical events in European history, particularly the execution of three English queens... one of these was the aforementioned Anne Boleyn that Kat had asked me about.
After paying £27.20 for an adult admission (you can save online by purchasing your ticket in advance, with admission costing £24.70), we opted to pass up the Yeoman Warder tour, pictured above, so that we could explore the grounds slowly and at our own pace.
I was instantly enraptured by the beautiful architecture surrounding me, my heart all aflutter as I took in this lovely site with a past equally magnificent and horrifying. My favourite manifestation of these years of evolving façades and structures is easily the Tudor style, a style of architecture developed in England between 1485 and 1558. It was (and to this day, remains) a lovely transitional style that mixed elements of both Renaissance architecture and a Perpendicular Gothic style that could be found mostly in England, emphasizing vertical lines as seen in the photo example above.
Along this initial alleyway upon entering the Tower of London, you can find what was the Royal Mint to your immediate left. This was instated by Edward I, safely within the Tower’s walls in the year 1279, where it continued functioning until 1810. As a result, this dedicated area that became known as Mint Street was home to the hot, noisy, and extremely dangerous coin making of the time. In fact, very few Mint workers actually completed their career uninjured, with most facing the loss of fingers and eyes throughout the duration of their time employed. Furthermore, tampering with coins was considered treason and consequently, the threat of the horrific punishment that would follow if caught deterred most thieves and forgers from breaking the law.
You can enter the old Mint today, to see where this process would have taken place, as well as to view a small exhibit that is in its place in the modern day.
Walking on a little bit further up the road, you'll see life-size replicas of animals, crafted out of metal. These represent the many animals held in the Tower of London's menagerie over the centuries, most of which were gifts from foreign royal families. You can see an example of this in the collage directly above, with photos that I took while at the Tower.
As you likely know, the stunning Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom are also housed in the Tower of London, located in the Waterloo Barracks (pictured directly below). Because so many people view these as a must-see, I would highly recommend arriving as close to the Tower's opening time as possible, in order to avoid an agonizingly long line up. We waited about a half an hour, after arriving onsite at about 10.30am. Thankfully, we had the foresight to visit the Waterloo Barracks first, and then explore the rest of the site once we had seen the Crown Jewels.
Absolutely no photos are allowed to be taken within the Jewel House, meaning that I have none to share on here. These precious pieces of history are under armed guard and still in use by Her Majesty, typically for important national ceremonies, like the State Opening of Parliament; these pieces are marked by little signs stating that they are "in use". However, all the jewels that are on display are magnificent, featuring incredibly fine details and the most beautiful stones. For me, seeing these were so fascinating, because they are yet another glimpse into England's ever-intriguing history. The handcrafted details, beautifully cut gemstones, and sheer grandeur and regality of it left me completely mesmerized. I couldn't help but imagine the many heads that the crowns rested upon, and how their wearer felt — terrified and regretful? Thrilled with the anticipation of their upcoming reign? Solemnly dutiful? — while they experienced their coronations. Or how the guards felt sporting such colourful golden scabbards. Or how the Kings felt clutching their sceptre and orb.
These are all little moments in history that we will never be able to relive, but that one can nonetheless attempt to experience in the imaginations of their minds whilst seeing such historical artefacts (really, this is what they are) first-hand.
Immediately after exiting the Jewel House, we walked next door to Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, the Tower of London's parish church. The original building dates back to the year 1510, but was unfortunately destroyed two years later in a fire. The present building was rebuilt for King Henry VIII by Sir Richard Cholmondeley, between 1519 and 1520. This is also the location where Henry VIII's wife, Anne Boleyn's (who was beheaded under his order) ghost roams with her head tucked under her arm. Though the thought of this beautiful queen being damned to wander the lonely and cold interior of the church breaks my heart, it nonetheless elicited the memory of one of my favourite paintings in my mind's eye: "Anne Boleyn in the Tower" (1835) by Édouard Cibot, pictured directly below, on the left.
As well, I thought of the Nine-Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, whose reign is dated from the moment of (Henry VIII's son) Edward VI's death on July 6th, 1553. Despite being a daughter from an annulled marriage of Henry's, in September, Parliament declared Queen Mary I (later known as Bloody Mary), the rightful successor to the throne, all the while denouncing the young Jane, who was only fifteen or sixteen years of age at the time. She was thus proclaimed a usurper, who must be punished with death. At the core of it, she was only the innocent pawn in a failed military coup by her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland. As a result, she was imprisoned at the Tower's Gentleman Gaoler's apartments, while her husband was placed in the Beauchamp Tower (more on this Tower later). You can read about her tragic story in greater detail here.
Centuries later, Paul Delaroche would depict a romanticized moment of her execution in "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" (1833), possibly my favourite painting in existence, pictured directly below on the right.
From here, on our way over to Beauchamp Tower, we paused a moment on what was the Tower Green, where countless people met their unforgiving fates... including Queens Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. Although a monument commemorating the many lives lost at the Tower can be found along the path, the actual spot where the executions took place would be located somewhere on the roped off grassy area, between the path and the Queen's House to the south.
Beauchamp Tower was one location in the Tower of London that held prisoners in the days leading up to their executions, including the aforementioned Queen Anne Boleyn, her daughter Queen Elizabeth I (then Princess Elizabeth), and Guy Fawkes. Here, you are able to see the graffiti of prisoners from long ago, their messages carved into the stone walls as a testament to their time imprisoned in the Tower. For many of them, it was one of their last — if not their absolute final — living mark in our earthly realm. A handful of examples can be seen centre, in a collage of photos I captured while in Beauchamp Tower, directly below. These are the engravings of (from top to bottom) John Collins of the Pilgrimage of Grace, English priest Thomas Abell, and rebel-supporting Lawrence Cook.
Centuries later, during the First World War, eleven German spies would be shot here by a firing squad. In the Second World War, one German spy by the name of Josef Jakobs was executed in August of 1941.
As we exited, I caught my first true glimpse of the Queen's House, pictured below, which is now inhabited by the Resident Governor of the Tower of London. We even caught the family's adorable black cat peering from an open window on the second floor while walking by it, toward the Bloody Tower!
It is commonly believed that King Henry VIII built the Queen's House for his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was executed soon afterwards. It's said that she not only stayed there prior to her 1533 coronation, but ironically also before her execution on the Tower Green. However, the buildings that stand there today were not the originals that Anne would have dwelled in; after falling into disrepair, the current apartments were not built until 1540, at least four years after the late Queen's death. It was after this that a floor for a Council Chamber was added on, where in 1608, conspirator Guy Fawkes was forced to confess his plot to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. It is with near certainty that historians believe he, along with the other conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, was tortured at the Tower of London, where he was eventually executed in gruesome manner.
Indeed, the Attorney General of the time, Sir Edward Coke, told the court that each of the condemned would be drawn backwards to his death by a horse, his head near the ground. They would then be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth, as unworthy of both." As well, their genitals would be cut off and burned before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, with the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed at the four corners of the kingdom, so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air" and serve as a reminder of the power of the state to anyone who may be contemplating rebellion.
Adjacent to the row homes, one can wander about another building with a dark history. Originally called the Garden Tower, this building was the result of the constructions launched under King Henry III between the years 1238 and 1272. As we wandered through the narrow corridors, tightly wound stairwells, and chilling rooms, I talked Kat's ear off about the history the stone walls surrounding us could not speak for themselves.
The tower's name shifted ominously to the "Bloody Tower" thanks to the countless people who were imprisoned or who died within its walls, including Archbishop Tudor Cranmer and Bishops Ridley and Latime (Protestant martyrs condemned to death for heresy by Bloody Queen Mary I), the poet and courtier Sir Thomas Overbury (poisoned here after his arrest for refusing to undertake a diplomatic mission in 1613), and Judge Jeffreys (who died of kidney disease during his detention in the Tower).
Most famously, this tower is well known for its association with the supposed 1483 murder of twelve-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York. It is said that they stayed in these rooms on the orders of their uncle, the future King Richard III; however, the young princes' subsequent disappearances understandingly remains, to this day, one of the Tower's most intriguingly baffling stories.
Moving centrally along the site, you'll find yourself standing in front of the instantly recognizable White Tower, one of the most famous castle keeps in the world. This was a fortress built with the purpose to equal parts awe, subdue, and terrify Londoners whilst frightening away foreign invaders... something it still manages to do nearly a thousand years later.
We entered the White Tower through the back, climbing up a flight of stairs on wooden scaffolding to make our way into the maze of rooms within. It was during this ascension that I caught sight of some of the Tower's ravens. Legend has it that both the kingdom and the Tower of London will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. Today, you can spot seven ravens at the Tower — the required six, plus an extra to spare for good measure!
Within the White Tower, you'll have the opportunity to see the Line of Kings, including the magnificent tournament armour of King Henry VIII and the gilded armours of Charles I and James II. Among suits of armour intended for noblemen and common soldiers (some of which are pictured directly above), you can spot an amazing silvered and engraved armour once belonging to Henry VIII. As you can tell from its proportions upon viewing it, it was made for the young, slender version of the King, around 1510 to 1515. This suit is the earliest of the six surviving armours of his, made for the once handsome young man on horseback.
Two other spots to note in the White Tower are found at the uppermost level and the basement: the former houses an executioner's block and Tudor-era axe, believed to be used at the last public beheading on Tower Hill in 1747. The basement is believed to be the site where the torture and interrogation of prisoners such as Guy Fawkes and the Jesuit Priest John Gerard once took place.
But it's not all doom and gloom, nor seemingly magical royal splendour within the walls of the White Tower.
On the second floor, you'll also find the tranquil St. John's Chapel (pictured directly above), a Romanesque style chapel built sometime during the White Tower's 1080 construction and one of the oldest parts of William the Conqueror's fortress. This picture-perfect alcove of worship was constructed with stone imported from France and features a tunnel-vaulted nave with an east apse and groin-vaulted aisles. The beautiful gallery above curves around the apse, in which thick and round piers support magnificently simplistic unmoulded arches, with unobtrusive carvings of scallop and leaf designs providing the only decoration in the space. It truly is the perfect spot for a monarch to steal a few moments of contemplation and prayer, without the pomp that he or she is so accustomed to in their everyday life.
At the end of our morning at the Tower of London, I found myself reluctant to leave. These buildings held so many tales that I longed to linger within, had so many details I feared that I had missed, and overall, had this equally comforting and horrifying history that I yearned to hang on to for a few hours longer. Then again, there's no doubt that should I have allowed that extra time to elapse, I would find myself still in that same dreamy-eyed situation as I had earlier. There's no easy parting with places like this — these magnificent testaments to humankind and the wonderful and terrible things that we are capable of as a species.
And so I left, stealing a few glances behind me as we made our way back onto Tower Hill at Byward Street, reassuring myself that although this was my first time visiting the Tower of London, I would not let it be my last.
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