Today I went with a friend of mine to visit the Tower of London. I still can’t get over how lucky I am to live in a city that has such an enormous amount of history and culture behind, in and around it. I saw a poster on the tube this afternoon that said: “Londoners are 26% more likely than the rest of the UK to have recently visited a cultural destination” and I remember thinking, “I should bloody well hope so, the amount of historical attractions we have in this city!”
Anyway, the point is that we went to see it and even though the tickets are pretty expensive, considering how much there is to see inside, and WHAT you’re seeing, I think it’s actually not bad for the money.
The first part of the Tower of London’s construction began with the building of the White Tower in the 11th century. The Tower complex has been used at various times as a fortress, an armoury, a prison, a safehouse and has housed royal residents and also a menagerie (which included a polar bear and an elephant among its attractions). There have been grisly executions, brutal tortures, daring escapes, secret assassinations and even an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. Enough sensational stories, in short, to keep today’s tabloids going for, oh, a day or two at least 😉
We watched one short video where the narrator explained that in 1263, during a seige of the Tower by Simon de Montfort, Henry III’s wife Queen Eleanor tried to escape by going on a boat down the Thames, but unfortunately she was bombarded with threats from local residents and had to be rescued from drowning by the Mayor of London.
The mental image of Boris Johnson diving into the Thames to save our present Queen from an ignominious death by drowning is one which filled me with much amusement! 🙂
We also discovered that the Tower’s defences have only ever once been breached by outsiders – this was during the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt (“Your majesty, your majesty, the peasants are revolting!”) when a very angry group of peasants stormed into the Tower, insulted the Queen Mother and dragged out the much reviled Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, later murdering him on Tower Hill.
This last piece of information was particularly sobering when you consider the recent revolution in Egypt (NOT “uprising”, thank you BBC) and the fact that it has not only been successful, but also relatively peaceful, compared to what might have been.
Then we have the very famous and tragic story of the two boy Princes who were allegedly secretly murdered at the Tower and their bodies hidden within the Tower walls. Two skeletons were discovered during renovation work on the Tower in the 17th century, but it has never been proven whether they are in fact the bodies of the two brothers.
The next big events are the beheadings of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn in 1536 and Lady Jane Grey in 1554. In the 17th century we have the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and an attempt by the fantastically-named Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels in 1671. There is a boardgame of this story called Outrage! which looked rather good, they had a version on display at the Tower which is apparently the most valuable boardgame in the world – £15,000. The board is made of oak and the playing pieces are made of real gold and encrusted with jewels.
The last hangings took place on Tower Hill in 1780 – I was surprised at that, in fact, apparently there weren’t that many prisoners at the Tower who were executed, most were just quietly released later on. The cunning Colonel Blood actually received a full pardon from the King and was even welcomed at court – how he managed to re-ingratiate himself I have no idea!
In 1826, the Duke of Wellington became Constable of the Tower and re-organises the Yeomen Warders. The blurb also stated that he was chosen as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army twice, Prime Minister twice and was three times Head of the House of Lords (I think)! And all for bashing old Napoleon about a bit. Good grief. Actually, Wikipedia mentions something very interesting about the Duke here:
“Until his early twenties, Arthur continued to show little sign of distinction and his mother grew increasingly concerned at his idleness, stating, “I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.””
Wow. That’s one hell of a turnaround for someone who was apparently the despair of his distracted parent in his younger years!
In 1841 there was a serious fire at the Tower, luckily the Crown Jewels were saved, but a fair amount of repairwork was necessary.
The last person to be executed at the Tower was a German spy called Josef Jakobs in 1941. He was shot by an eight-man firing squad. Rudolf Hess was the last state prisoner to be held at the Tower and the Kray twins – notorious London gangsters – were among the last prisoners (if not the very last) to be held there for failing to turn up after being issued their National Service papers (the regiment was based at the Tower).
The ravens of the Tower were apparently first protected by Charles II, much to the displeasure of his chief astronomer John Flamsteed, who complained that they impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower. Legend says that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. Today there are seven ravens in residence at the Tower (one is a spare!) and they are looked after by the Ravenmaster. They have one wing clipped to ensure that they cannot fly too far and apparently “eat 170g of raw meat a day, plus bird biscuits soaked in blood”. Mmmmm, scrummy.
It was Charles II, incidentally, who also ordered the making of the St Edward’s Crown for his own coronation, the previous set of Crown Jewels having been melted down for coinage by Oliver Cromwell after the Civil War and execution of Charles I. The crown has been used in most coronations since then, along with the Orb and Sceptre, which I believe both date from Charles II’s reign. There are many other priceless objects within the collection, too many to list really, but I did recall seeing a simply ENORMOUS gold punchbowl that you could quite literally have bathed a small child in, which was particularly impressive.
Oddly enough, whilst wandering around looking at dates from way back in the distant past – like 1290, 1381 and 1660 – it reminded me of my visit to the British Museum last Sunday. We had only really had time for the Egyptian exhibits – statues and stone sculptures on the ground floor and mummies up on one of the higher levels, but I remember looking at the dates on the labels: 2500 BC, 1300 BC etc and not really grasping the scale of it all until I spotted a timeline on one of the walls. Some of the highlights mentioned on this are below:
|3500BC||Around 3500BC craftsmen began to create the first wall paintings using hieroglyphic symbols in the Egyptian writing system.|
|2500BC||Around 2500BC Egyptians built the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza.
2500BC to 2000BC was the ‘Old Kingdom’ period.
|1550BC||It was around 1550BC that many of the royal tombs were built in the Valley of the Kings. 1500BC – 332BC was the period of the ‘New Kingdom’.|
|1325BC||Around 1325BC, King Tutankhamun was buried in the Valley of the Kings.|
|332BC||In 332BC Egypt was invaded by Alexander the Great and was then ruled by Greek Kings. The era of the New Kingdom ends.|
3500 BC. That is five thousand years ago. Five THOUSAND YEARS! Suddenly 1260 sounds positively recent. I suddenly understood why they were called the Ancient Egyptians. It gave me a much deeper respect for the culture and also a sense of awe that so many astounding objects of historical significance had been so well preserved. And I could see them! For free. It seems almost incredible to me that this is even possible, that I could stand within centimetres of a huge statue that had been built for the glorification of an all-powerful king during his reign, discovered by explorers and excavators centuries later, brought back and displayed for public viewing so that I personally could stare at it in dumbstruck amazement five thousand years later. It is mind-boggling. I still can’t quite seem to grasp it.
Anyway, I shall wind up this ramble about cultural and historical attractions by saying that if you haven’t yet visited either the British Museum or the Tower of London, do go and see them for yourselves. Apart from anything else, I wouldn’t like to bet on how much longer we will have free entry to our museums, so that’s another reason to make haste and visit them ASAP.
I leave you with a poem which for me sums up almost perfectly what I have just been trying to describe re: ancient Egyptian history, the sands of time and so forth.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
**”Ozymandias was another name for Ramsses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses’ throne-name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue… “King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.””
1) Wikipedia – through Google Search
Apologies for any historical inaccuracies. I did try to check facts and dates where possible, but it is late and the internet is a vast sprawling tangled web of falsehoods and mistruths 🙂