Monday, 24 March 2014

Being British: Tower of London, a Beefeater's View

"History is nearly always written by the people who win"

For my 25th birthday, a year ago, I visited the Tower of London. It's somewhere I've wanted to visit since I was a child, and it absolutely did not disappoint. British history is kind of barbaric, and lots of people have died at the hands of it, and a lot of that happened in the Tower of London. This post, by the way, is probably the longest I will ever write, as I so love the history of this place.

We were very lucky on the day we went, it was incredibly, unusually quiet, we joined a Yeoman Tour, our guide was @billybeefeater and boy we were in for a treat. Starting the tour with a fantastic quip of, "Alright you lot at the back move a bit closer otherwise this might be beyond your mental grasp", he continued to make the crowd laugh through the history of the Tower of London. Not that I've had any of the other Yeoman walk me around the Tower, but if you get Bill then you are in for a treat. To be a Yeoman you must have served a minimum of 22 years service and you must have reached the rank of Sergeant Major.



The Tower of London is actually a palace and a fortress, and not a prison. It's official name is Her Majesty's Royal Palace & Fortress. In spite of this, the tower has held 3,000 prisoners of which around 300 were executed, and they were executed up on Tower Hill. 

The moat surrounding the tower appears to be larger than necessary, or larger than you'd imagine at 130 ft across. This distance is significant because, back in the days when they were used, it was further than an archer could shoot accurately. However at the tower they had their own archers on the ramparts where they could shoot from relative safety at anyone trying to cross the moat. Of course the problem with the moat was, as it was part of the Thames, at low tide it dried out. As well as this the moat served as a sewerage system for the 2,500 people living in the Tower, as well as those living in the City of London around it, meaning that it was full of faeces. As well as that carcasses were tossed in, and bodies of those who had died from The Plague, so there was a lot of disease in there too. The moat didn't stay as a permanent feature, because as you can imagine the smell was horrendous and it being a royal palace, well... they weren't going to put up with that.



The defensive walls around the outside were built in the 1280's with two bastions to the north which dominate the approach from the city. They were also modified in Tudor times to house cannons. There are six towers to the south defending against any attacks from the river. There is only one landward entrance into the fortress, it's known as a barbican tower and there are two turrets and a gateway, which, if you look up you will notice the sharp spikes of a drop gate weighing one and a half tonnes. It's held up by a rope, both of which were installed in 1286.

The inner defensive wall dates from the 1220's and has 13 defensive towers with only one way through defended by a huge 2 and a half ton oak and steel portcullis and the gates beyond weigh a further 3 tonnes. So if you had got that far, through the moat with people and polar bears (yep, polar bears, the monarchy's across Europe didn't particularly get on so they sent each other presents to show they were being civil. The polar bears were sent from Norway), and you were unlucky enough to arrive here, the only entrance to the fortress you were going to be pretty unlucky trying to make your way through 5 and a half tonnes of oak and steel. Especially since the people in the fortress would be attacking you with anything and everything they could get their hands on, including buckets of hot tar.  



In front of said wall is Traitor's Gate, which was a magnificent feat of military engineering. Originally known as the water gate, as it was the access to the Thames. Boats and barges would come in this way, as water filled the area until 1275. It soon became known as trader's gate, as this was where the provisions for the fortress were delivered. The name changed again to Traitor's Gate in the 16th century as the human traffic coming through it became largely one way. Famous people to pass through were, of course, Queen Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and William Wallace. 

Behind Traitor's Gate is the Bloody Tower and again not it's original name. Originally called the Garden Tower, this was home of Henry V, not a well known British monarch as he was only 12 years old. Himself and his brother Richard the Duke of York were there under the protection of their uncle, The Duke of Gloucester. They were hiding there because they were targets in the War of the Roses, a huge civil war that went on for 30 years. So worried, was The Duke of Gloucester he had the children deemed "bastards" and therefore unworthy of the crown which he then took and became King Richard III, and the children played in the grounds of The Tower long after his coronation. 

Strangely, the boys disappeared, no one knows precisely when, why or how, though Shakespeare tells us that one night in 1483 they fell asleep as every other, and were smothered to death with their own pillows. Of course this is poetic license, and the mystery went on for over 200 years, until 1674 when workmen removed a stone stairwell from the south side of the White Tower. Under the stairwell was a box, and in that box were the dusty remains of two children, experts at the time declared them the bones of the two prince's. Charles II had their remains buried in Innocents Corner, named for them, in Westminster Abbey. Still to this day, no one knows who killed them; Shakespeare would have you believe it was Richard III. Then Shakespeare was writing to amuse the Queen at the time, Elizabeth I, grand-daughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard III in the battle of Bosworth. He had no claim to the throne, and on defeat of Richard III took the crown and placed it on his own head, had the two boys been alive, he could not have done that so it is entirely possible that Henry Tudor had the them murdered. 



In 1078, William the Bastard, (more commonly known as William the Conqueror) having defeated King Harold II in the battle of Hastings in 1066, started work on The White Tower. Work took 20 years to complete and for nearly 500 years Kings & Queens lived in the top most floor of the tower. The floor below was accommodation for their most favoured knights & ladies and the lowest floor with windows was where the kitchens were. The lowest floor, with no windows, partly below ground, constantly dark and damp, this is where they kept the wine! 

The first prisoner in the Tower was a French bishop named Ranulf Flambard, he was held in the top most tower and in his time noticed a few things. So he held a party for the warders, having wine brought up, and the warders ate and drank too much, and all this time the bishop was collecting the rope that bound together the bottles. He abseiled 90ft down the tower using the rope and escaped!  

It wasn't until the 16th century that the wine rack was removed and another rack installed, this one for torture. Bill told us:

"The thing with torture is, it's misunderstood, many people think of torture as a punishment. It isn't. It just feels that way. Torture is a way of keeping the conversation going. It is a tool of interrogation. And, by the far the most famous interrogation to happen at the Tower was that of Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes is famous in English History for being the only man to enter parliament with honest, noble intentions, a clear agenda and the resources to see it through. Something that you won't find in our government any time soon.."

Guy Fawkes was, of course, going to blow the houses of Parliament up. James I, who would have died in the blast, was desperate to know who was in Guy's gang, but he was saying nothing. The interrogators got a Torture warrant signed- only 48 have been signed at The Tower since 1215, when the Magna Carta was signed. The Magna Carta outlawed torture unless Royal consent had been given and it was in the national interest. So Guy was bound by his wrists an ankles to two spindles theses spindles were set in the rack by means of a ratchet in the middle which began to stretch him. On a rack you can stretch someone 4 inch's, after 3 inches your joints start to rip apart, and ligaments and tendons rip. Some say Guy Fawkes didn't get this far, that he signed a confession and was taken as a commoner and hanged, drawn, and quartered. However, as he made his way up the gallows, he collapsed and died, his racking had been so brutal, in spite of this they carried on. 



As you walk into the White Tower, you may think that people were small, back in the medieval times when the tower was built. You'd think this because you have to bend your head to get through the door ways. Take a look to your right, and note the empty space there. That is where a guard would be stood who, if you were attacking the tower, would attack you with a club or mace. You will also notice that the stairway spiral in one direction (except one set of stairs), so that you have to fight left handed, which for most people (not me) wouldn't be good, though the defenders of the Tower would be fighting with their right hand. The steps, also, are uneven, every few stairs one is a couple of inches higher than the one before, meaning if you run, you will fall. The White Tower today holds the armour of the Kings (sheild, sword, bayonet, rifle, etc). Check out the codpiece's particularly on Henry VIII's armour, definitely trying to show some authority at a very personal level. 

Of course the Tower is home to something else people find interesting. The Tower houses The Crown Jewels, it houses the world's largest diamond at 531 carats. There is also the Koh-i-noor, Light of India diamond regarded as the most beautiful diamond in the world. 



You can also see the Queen's House, built for Anne Boleyn. Construction started the year of her wedding and was completed five years after her death. Now it is home to the Governor of the Tower of London and guarded by soldiers, who are not afraid to use their live weapons should they feel the need to. They deserve respect, they are still serving soldiers and some have been to Iraq, and Afghanistan, and will probably go back there. You've also got the Beauchamp Tower, the walls are covered in graffiti that dates back 500 years. 


Tower Green is also a feature in the Yeoman's talk, particularly as in various other languages the wording makes its sound like there is a Green Tower (the way we would say it). Tower Green is also the feature of beheading's of two of the Queen's of England, both married to Henry Tudor, and both beheaded for adultery- and therefore treason. Anne Boleyn died so desperate to give Henry a male heir that she slept with every male she could, including her brother. Catherine Howard, a teenage Queen, beaten on her wedding night because a morbidly obese, ulcerated legged King Henry could not perform on his wedding night and took it out on her. She fell in love with another man, and when she was about to be beheaded she announced so, and who he was before the axe fell. Thomas Culpeper, her lover, was hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in the affair. Henry VIII apparently had a solution poured into her casket that dissolve her body and turn it to sludge, which may not seem that big a deal, because there's not a lot you can do with a body once you're dead and buried. The Christian belief at the time, though, was that without a body on Judgement Day you cannot rise from the dead, so he had effectively denied Catherine Howard a chance at the afterlife. 



Things you should know
Getting there: Closest Tube stop is, of course, Tower Hill
Ticket Price: £22 per person
There are two Yeoman tours a day, I highly suggest you plan your visit to get on one of them, they last a little over an hour. 




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