This post follows on from my last one, A Brief Introduction to the UK. Having talked about the four countries that make up the UK, I shall now mention some famous UK landmarks and their history. All of these places are in London – since it is the capital city, it naturally has a number of historically significant buildings, most of which are huge tourist attractions. There are, of course, plenty of other fascinating places to visit all around the UK and if you are planning a visit here, I strongly suggest that you try and fit in trips to other places outside of London as well.
The first landmark is Buckingham Palace, main residence of the current reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II, pictured below with two of her corgis. The photo may possibly have been photoshopped, but I can neither confirm nor deny this!
Buckingham Palace was not actually built by or for the royal family, but was originally the townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham. George III bought it in 1761 for his wife to use as a private residence and it only became the official royal palace after Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. You can actually go inside and visit various rooms of the Palace on guided tours – I’ve never done one myself but I imagine it would be fairly expensive.
The guards outside Buckingham Palace are famous for their discipline. They are not allowed to move or even smile while they are on duty. The ceremony of the Changing of the Guard takes places at about 11am every day, or every other day, depending on the time of year and crowds of tourists gather to watch the New Guard marching in, accompanied by a military brand.
When I did my presentation on UK culture at the local school, I got a couple of the kids to come up and pretend to be guards and tourists – the tourists had to try and make the guards laugh and the guards had to keep a straight face for as long as possible – it was highly amusing!
On a side note, I was astonished to find that the celebrity magazines here in Canada are obsessed with the royal family – there are pictures of Princess Kate on almost every front cover, all the time! I wouldn’t have thought that other countries would have been particularly interested in our royal family, unless there was a wedding or something, but clearly I was very much mistaken!
The next famous London landmark on my list is the Tower of London. This dates back to the 11th century, with the original White Tower being constructed by William the Conqueror in 1078. It has a long and bloody history involving torture, treason and murder along with many other dark misdeeds. The Tower has been used for many different purposes over the last 1000 years, including royal residence, mint, treasury, menagerie and, perhaps most famously, as a prison.
The Tower is also the place where the Crown Jewels are kept. They were moved there from Westminster Abbey in the 14th century after a successful attempt to steal them – most of the jewels were recovered. After Charles II came to the throne in the 17th century, it was possible for members of the public to view the jewels by paying a fee to the guard who looked after them. However, after a notorious attempt to steal the jewels in 1761, this practice was – understandably – abolished. The Crown Jewels are still kept at the Tower of London today – although they are very heavily guarded, they can be viewed by the general public.
The story of the 1761 plot to steal the Crown Jewels is an excellent one, being blessed with exciting subject-matter, a villainous anti-hero with a name so perfect that it’s almost too good to be true AND a surprise twist at the end, so of course I simply have to relate it to you, dear readers.
The man who guarded the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London was called Talbot Edwards and he lived in an apartment with his wife just above the locked basement room in which the jewels were kept. Our anti-hero, a cunning rogue by the name of Colonel Thomas Blood (told you it was good!) disguised himself as a clergyman and hired a female actress called Jenny Blaine to pretend to be his wife. They went to the Tower and asked Talbot if they could view the jewels. He escorted them downstairs, unlocked the door and let them in. While they were admiring the jewels, Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned a fainting fit. She was led upstairs to Talbot’s apartment to recover and Blood took the opportunity to ‘case the joint’, making a close inspection of the room. He and his companion thanked Edwards and his wife for their kindness and departed.
Following this episode, Blood returned to the Tower, bringing some white gloves as a gift, to better express his gratitude. After this, he and his accomplice paid several more visits to the Tower and cultivated a friendship with the guard and his wife. The next time Blood visited, however, he brought a group of friends with him. He told Edwards that his friends also wanted to view the Crown Jewels and the guard agreed to escort them to the room. Upon unlocking the door and allowing the men to enter, Edwards was attacked by Blood and his gang, who bound and gagged him, before stabbing him in the stomach. The men attempted to break some of the pieces, such as the sceptre, into smaller parts and Blood flattened one of the crowns with a mallet, the better to hide the jewels inside their clothes. Reports differ as to how the alarm was raised, possibly the thieves were disturbed by other guards arriving on the scene, or Edwards may have managed to cry out and raise the alarm. Either way, Blood and his men realised the game was up and they would have to run for it. They were chased from the Tower by guards and had almost reached their horses, positioned ready to assist their escape, but the guards caught up with them and they were apprehended, although some of the precious stones were apparently lost in the struggle.
Blood and his fellow gang members were imprisoned at the Tower of London. Everyone took it for granted that they would be executed, as stealing the Crown Jewels counted as treason. However, when Blood was brought before the king and questioned, Charles seemed to have been amused by Blood’s audacity and his charming manner. He actually pardoned Blood and his fellow conspirators – and, even more incredibly, Blood was given an income of £500 a year and a position at the king’s court! Several people were, understandably, very upset by this and it was a matter of great debate as to why the thieves had been let off so lightly. Edwards himself didn’t do nearly so well – he survived the attack, but became infirm and the government refused to grant him a pension until just before he died. It must have been bitter for him to compare his own treatment with that of Colonel Blood, who not only escaped punishment, but was practically rewarded for his crime!
It has been suggested that the king himself may have been behind the plot – Charles was in desperate need of money, having run up a huge amount of debt. Had he hired a group of thugs to steal the Crown Jewels and sell them in order to make a bit of ready cash? His lenient attitude to Blood certainly raises suspicions about the king’s possible involvement in the plot, but we may never know for certain who was really behind it.
Last year marked 100 years since the start of WWI. To honour this anniversary, a special exhibition was put on at the Tower of London. Over several months, 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted in the grass moat surrounding the Tower – each commemorating a British soldier who died during the Great War. When the exhibition finished, the poppies were sold for £25 to anyone who wanted one and the proceeds, around £15 million, went to six different charities who support military personnel and their families.
The Tower of London is also home to the famous ravens, who are looked after by the Yeomen of the Guard. There is a legend that says that if any of the six ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will fall. To prevent this calamity, the ravens are extremely well cared for and they have a spare seventh raven, just in case anything happens to one of the others! They are fed on a mixture of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits. Mmmmm, scrummy!
The next and final London landmark I will mention is the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I think they can count as one landmark because they are so close together and you can’t really see one without the other!
Anyone who has grown up in the UK will know the story of Guy Fawkes, but just in case there is anyone reading who doesn’t know it, I will now relate the tale. Back in the 17th century, there were two main religions in England, the Protestants and the Catholics. Generally, if there was a Protestant monarch on the throne, Catholic people were persecuted and if there was a Catholic king or queen in power, then the Protestants were the ones being persecuted. In 1605 James I was on the throne. He was Protestant and therefore disliked by many Catholics. One such Catholic was Guy Fawkes. He and some friends hatched a plot to assassinate the king and his government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament when the king came to open them in November. The conspirators bought several barrels of gunpowder and hid them in a room they had rented, which was right under the Houses of Parliament.
Unfortunately, someone sent an anonymous tip-off to Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from Parliament because “they shall recyve a terrible blowe”. His suspicions were aroused and he took the letter to the king. The rooms beneath the Houses of Parliament were searched and Guy Fawkes was found in the gunpowder room with a watch and a match, waiting to set off the explosion. He and his fellow plotters were taken to the Tower and tortured for many days in order to obtain a full confession. They were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. There’s a lesson here kids – you might get away with stealing the Crown Jewels, but if you try and kill the king, you definitely won’t be rewarded!
To celebrate the king’s escape from death, people lit bonfires on November 5th, and the day was designated as an annual celebration, which is still marked today. It is also customary to set off fireworks and many events also involve an effigy made of old rags known as a ‘guy’ (symbolising Guy Fawkes), which is burnt on the bonfire.
So there is a little bit of UK history for you all. And now to end this post, I have a Mr Bean cartoon! It features several of the places I have mentioned – and also the Queen! See how many you can spot – and if you’ve been to London yourself, you may also notice several other classic London features, including red buses and black cabs.