Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The history of the Tower of London is high drama on an operatic scale replete with executions, treason, treachery and murder. There have even been apparitions of mournful ladies floating about holding their royal severed heads....

I'd planned to see the Tower on Saturday and had been warned that it was going to be mobbed with tourists. Agnes (our tour guide) had already shown me where to catch the bus so I set out early to beat the crowds loaded down with maps, water, snacks and expectations. London was also in the midst of an unseasonable heatwave, but I still looked forward to spending the day at this iconic symbol of England's power.

My guidebook told me that the Tower of London is not just a tower but a massive castle and it wasn't kidding. As soon as I saw it, I literally stopped and stared at the enormous brute force of it. It covers several acres with formidable walls punctuated every few feet by impenetrable looking towers.  Surrounding it is a river sized grassy area that had once been the moat.The very size of the Tower is enough to dissuade any potential invader, which is probably what William the Conqueror had in mind when he had it built in 1066. Situated on the north bank of the Thames, the Tower is strategically placed and it's easy to see that whoever possessed this immense fortress in medieval times would possess England.

The Tower of London
The former moat is now a pleasant lawn displaying weapons of siege.

I arrived just in time to join a gathering crowd for a guided tour by one of the famous Yeoman Warders or Beefeaters as they are also known.

 "Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London. My name is Yeoman Warder Bates and for the next hour or so I'm going to be your guide around the fortress. I'm going to point out some famous buildings and structures and you're going to look at them and I'll talk about their history. Got that?

"I see, Madam, that you are looking at my uniform. It was given me by King Henry VII.  Well, not him personally but it is essentially the same as when he formed the Yeoman Warders to guard the Tower in 1485. These blue and red uniforms are our "undress" uniforms.  The fancy red and gold ones are only worn on state occasions, and yes, they are uncomfortable. And, we are called Beefeaters because we are fed very well. We must be strong to guard the Tower, you see.

"Now, I'm sure you want to know how I got this cushy job. I had to be in the Queen's employ in the Armed Forces of the Commonwealth for at least 22 years. It is required to have a Good Conduct Medal and we must like people. Well, tolerate them anyway." I'm sure they also were chosen because they were outgoing, charismatic and very funny.

So off we went our stalwart Beefeater and his gaggle of tourists, to learn about the Tower of London.  As we walked, he explained that since its building the Tower has served as a royal palace, fortress, prison, royal mint, armory, treasury and home to the Crown Jewels. We stopped at Traitor's Gate, a water entrance from the Thames where prisoners (Anne Boleyn for one, Yeoman Warder Bates assured us) were brought by boat into the castle. The walls of the Tower had once fronted the Thames which had also supplied the water for the moat.

Traitor's Gate through which prisoners were brought by boat from the Thames.

From there we walked to the center of the fortress to the White Tower, a magnificent building literally "towering" over all the rest. Named for its original white washed exterior it was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror as a royal residence and stronghold and gives the entire castle its name. It now houses an impressive display of suits of armor one of which is Henry VIII's with its equally impressive cod piece (a protective covering for the family jewels). Upstairs are exhibits of armory of all sorts, plus a fine example of the latest in medieval toilets called garderobes. Built into the walls they consist of a bench covering an opening that emptied right into the moat. When the tides failed to flush the moat out, I'm sure you wouldn't want to be downwind of it.

 Henry VIII's huge armor and vanity displayed.

 The largest and smallest armor on display.

 One of the garderobes or toilets that emptied into the moat below.

 St. John's Chapel built with lovely buff colored limestone.

Window in St. John's Chapel

Our Yeoman then guided us to Tower Green (a spot of lawn beside the White Tower) and to a memorial where our guide tells us, only "friends of the King" were executed. Actually only seven people, mostly women, were executed there because their deaths were too politically charged for public viewing. Among those whose heads rolled on these grounds were Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, second and fifth wives to Henry VIII. The only male who lost his head upon the Green was the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's "favorite" who betrayed her. Anne Boleyn is buried just a few feet from her beheading in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. She and the others executed there were gruesomely buried in the Chapel without their heads. It was eerie and sad standing on the same spot where these people lost their lives in such a horrific way knowing they had been utterly abandoned.

 The Tower Green, and former Queen's Palace, now housing the Yeoman Warders and families.

 Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula where Anne Boleyn and the Earl of Essex
are buried.  It is right across from the execution site.

The most infamous murders within the Tower walls were of the two little Princes in what is now known as the Bloody Tower in 1483.  Two boys, 12 year old Edward and 9 year old Richard were the sons of Edward IV and heirs to the throne. Shortly after their father died, their uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester declared them illegitimate and confined them to the Tower. Richard then became the heir and was proclaimed King Richard III. Soon after that, the boys conveniently disappeared. Bones thought to belong to the boys were discovered in 1674 when a building within the Tower was demolished. Richard died in battle a year after becoming King. Was this a fitting end to a brutal man or was he wrongly accused of their murders? It is still a mystery.

Our tour being over, I was on my own to explore and headed straight for the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept. It was beginning to get really hot and I appreciated the cool dark rooms where the jewels were displayed. I marveled at these priceless symbols of the Monarchy, crowns and scepters encrusted with priceless gems of astonishing size. The Imperial State Crown holds one of the largest diamonds ever found and the Royal Scepter has one the size of a golf ball.

 The medieval Royal Apartments situated above Traitor's Gate.

 The Royal Apartment's Tudor style walls.

 The King's Chamber

The King's Chapel

After a delicious focaccia bread sandwich at the Tower Restaurant, I climbed one of the staircases to the top of the defensive wall where it was a little cooler in the shade of the sheltering trees. It's possible to walk the entire circumference of the castle passing through the guard towers, but I just went a short way pausing often to enjoy the great view of the Tower Bridge. Also from this vantage point I could see the Raven's Keep where, our Yeoman explained, at least 6 ravens are cared for at all times. Legend has it Charles II believed that if the ravens ever left the Tower, the fortress and the kingdom would fall, so there is actually a Ravenmaster who feeds them raw meat to ensure their loyalty. By then it was around 3pm, and I was hot and tired and ready to go back to my hotel. It was a wonderful day and one more item was checked off my bucket list.

 View of the White Tower on the left, Raven's Keep on the right, the
surrounding castle walls and Tower Bridge with the Olympic Rings still displayed.

 View from the castle walls.

 On the wall going from tower to tower.

 View from one of the towers.

 Raven's Keep where the ravens are cared for.

 A raven in front of one of the Yeoman Warder's homes.

 Tower Bridge as seen from the Tower of London. The Summer Olympics had just finished.

Double click on any picture for full screen image.
Next time: Stonehenge and Bath

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