Monday, 3 November 2014

Tower of London – Part 1A

Wednesday October 29 2014

Where to begin ? – To be honest we were overwhelmed, though both of us have been here before, so decided to divide writing the account into internal and external aspects of our visit. This meant we were both juggling cameras, books, pens and of course by the end an umbrella.  Additionally we had chosen one of the half-term weeks in order to include the wonderful display of poppies – otherwise known as Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red which by now (last one to go in on 11/11/2014) fill the moat.

The Tower, as we Londoners tend to call it, is undoubtedly a fortification built on an earlier Roman citadel and later chosen as the site upon which William the Conqueror chose to broadcast his conquest – The White Tower is almost square and bold and solid. It dominates the whole complex and for many years must have been visible for miles.  The stone almost certainly came from Normandy, though the masons would have been more home grown.  Before the later towers were built this keep too was used as a prison; with walls 3-4 metres thick it was quite secure. The queue to visit it was significant so we left it for another day….and Jo will be telling you about what there is to see inside – the Armouries as it happens. But by criss-crossing the site we were able to admire it from all sides.

Early Kings needed both a place to live and somewhere which could be guarded and fortified hence the moat, which stayed filled until 1843, by which time it must have been quite smelly. Of course there are and were several (draw) bridges which gave access to the Tower, but some two hundred years after William’s initial building the curtain wall and the intervening little towers (now used as separate exhibition spaces) were added allowing the guarding soldiers to patrol the circumference.  

Jo and I are particularly fond of wall walks (‘I’m the King of the Castle’ springs to mind) and while this one was less engaging than many because of the crowds, what it lacks in intimacy it more than makes up for in the scenery. With the exception of the ghastly Gouoman (sp?) Hotel  you have iconic London on all sides – today both the Gherkin and Shard were cloud shrouded but Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and the Thames were clearly visible – you can see river and air traffic and today hordes of people peering into the moat. We had assumed the Tower must be one of London’s most visited tourist sites but no – it ranks at Number 8 according to this.

Because the Tower has been added to over the years, because it was home (or palace) to many of the early monarchs but also some of them and their leading courtiers being imprisoned or even beheaded here it also offers a potted history of England.  My knowledge of monarchs before Richard III is pretty sketchy and based on a mixture of Shakespeare, Marlowe and ‘1066 and All That’ so not entirely reliable, For anyone who likes things in order here is the classic school child’s way of remembering the Kings and Queens:    

Willie, Willie, Harry, Steve,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard two
Harrys four, five, six... then who?
Edwards four, five, Dick the bad,
Harrys twain and Ned the Lad;
Mary, Bessie, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again...
William and Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria;
Edward seven next, and then
George the fifth in 1910;
Ned the eighth soon abdicated
Then George the sixth was coronated;
After which Elizabeth
And that's the end until her death.

After Henry VIII the links with the Tower became more symbolic than actually taking up residence and the buildings remained as garrison symbol and strangely a menagerie. Close to Traitors Gate there is a reminder that they used to let the polar bear into the Thames to fish – on a lead apparently!

Different early kings added different bits so gradually the original White Tower was surrounded on four sides by thick wall dotted with intervening towers or turrets of different sizes, not all of which are open to the public.  My 1981 Guide lists twenty, but think of them more as bus shelters on a round walking trip… Some of course are bigger and were lived in, some were store-rooms and some prisons.   Most of the main fortifications were complete by the time of Richard III and the buildings after that were more for comfort and convenience so some quite large houses and eventually in the 17th -19th centuries some barracks, hospital block and a Museum for the Royal Fusiliers, recently renovated.  

In spite of all this building within the walls there is still room for some green spaces and of course the capacity to absorb the visiting crowds. The greens are close to the chapel, several times rebuilt, and would originally have been burial grounds, but are now more famous as the site of executions held in ‘private’.  The list of ‘famous’ prisoners is long though only a few were actually executed here – let’s just say being a  2nd/5th wife to Henry VIII or close relation is a clue..

Always a place for dealing with traitors those shot  (up against the wall at the foot of the Martin Tower) during World WAR II are also remembered , with modern guns in among the steel sculptures of patrolling guards. 

More cossetted than the prisoners the Ravens (wings clipped to stop them from flying off, when, according to legend the Tower will fall) strut their stuff seemingly unphased by the crowds.   

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