England, 1981, Part 3

Tower of London, Tuesday, 3/17/81

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today we took the bus to Oxford Street and and the Tube to Tower Hill, to see the Tower of London. The Tower stands on the site of the old Roman city of Londinium. William the Conqueror entered England in 1066, and spent the next twelve years travelling about putting down resistance in various parts of England. In 1078 he returned to London and found the people there unwilling to submit. So he built the White Tower, a classic Norman keep, which commands the area. Succeeding kings made it their residence and expanded the site. The Tower was occupied as a residence until James I. It was customary for each monarch to stay in the Tower until the coronation, and to ride in procession through the city to Westminster.

The Tower has always housed the Crown Jewels, being one of the strongest fortresses in the land. It has also housed the Royal Mint, and was for centuries the Royal Arsenal for Small Arms.

The tours are conducted by the Yeoman Wardens (also known as the Beef­eaters). There are 32 of them, all stationed at the Tower. The name Beef­eater comes from an old custom of allowing them to eat all the beef they wanted from the King’s table, and to take all they wanted for their families. The Yeomen Wardens were the personal bodyguards of the monarch, and are still officially part of the Queen’s bodyguard.

Our guide was a delightful fellow with a great sense of humor. We entered through the Byward gate, which was defended by two portcullises, and by holes for pouring boiling oil, molten lead, etc. The name comes from “By – word” , or password, which you needed to enter. We then stopped under the Bell Tower, which contained two cells that could only be entered through the Queen’ s House, which was formerly the Lieutenant’ s Lodgings. Thus the prisoners there were under the personal control of the chief official there. Thomas More and Princess Elizabeth were confined here. More was later executed, but Elizabeth became Queen. Next to the Bell Tower is the Council Chamber, where Guy Fawkes was questioned prior to his public trial.

We then stopped at the Traitor’s Gate, which is connected by a short canal to the Thames. Traitors were brought in by boat and marched to their cells. We then walked up to Tower Green, where the executions took place. The highest nobility, such as Henry VIII’s wives, were executed here privately. Lesser figures were executed publicly at Tower Hill, which is outside the Tower fortifications and overlooks them.

We ended our tour at the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in prison). Prisoners came here to pray while awaiting execution. Execution did not always follow immediately upon imprisonment. Sir Walter Raleigh probably set the record by being imprisoned twelve years before being executed. The Chapel was renovated by order of Queen Victoria, and under the floor stones they found 1,500 bodies without heads, which were removed for proper burial elsewhere.

Executions were not always quick and painless; it could take as many as eight strokes to sever the head. The executioner would then hold the head up for the crowd to see, and announce “Here is the head of a traitor.” The heads were then planted on spikes on the London Bridge for two weeks before being tossed into the Thames. For centuries the London Bridge was the only bridge over the Thames, so all travellers to London from the south were given something to think about.

After the official tour we went into the White Tower, which is now a museum of arms and armor. In the White Tower is the Chapel of St. John. In early times it was customary for monarchs to create Knights prior to their coronation. The Knights then kept a vigil in the Chapel until the coronation. This is the origin of the Order of the Bath. This Tower also has a number of dungeons, where it was customary to leave people to die of starvation. We met a cockney Guard, who explained to us the origin of the cockney dialect, which was a type of code by which they could discuss illegal activities without being understood. He pointed out some iron rings which were worn under a hat to afford protection against a blow, and which were called “secrets”. He claimed that this was the origin of the phrase “keep it under your hat”.

In the Bowyer Tower we saw an exhibit of instruments of torture, and then we went to see the Crown Jewels, which are housed in the Waterloo barracks. You enter on the ground floor, where there are exhibits of table items (wine coolers, candle sticks, etc.), official sceptres of office with the monograms of the various monarchs, the trumpets that were once used to announce people and the official uniforms of the various orders of knights. They had the coronation robes worn by Queen Elizabeth II.

Then we went downstairs and entered a giant safe, going through bank vault doors several feet thick, to see the Crown Jewels. The crowns were unbelievable, with diamonds and rubies the size of eggs. We bought a book­let describing the jewels, and walked through the room, where we found rings, crowns, etc. It was quite a stack of jewels.

We then left the Tower proper, passing by the ravens who reside there. Legend has it that when the ravens leave the Tower will collapse and the Empire will crumble, so they bring in ravens from time to time and clip their wings to keep them there. There are currently seven in residence.

We walked along the wharf between the Tower and the Thames, where guns are kept for the official salutes given to visiting dignitaries. When we had arrived at the Tower earlier, a salute was being fired in honor of the President of Nigeria, who was arriving.

A note about the Beefeater’s uniforms: while we were there, they were wearing the black uniform, which is the Undress Uniform. The red Dress Uniform, which is Tudor, is worn only on special occasions.

The Tower turned out to be pretty full day by itself, and it was 5:00 when we left. We took the Tube to Covent Garden, which was formerly a fruit and vegetable market, but is now a flea market. We had dinner at Porter’s, on #12 Henrietta Street, which serves English food. Cheryl had a chicken and leek pie, with Plum Duff for desert, and I had a lamb and apricot pie, with Gooseberry Fool for desert. The food was good, and so was the price, at £10 for the two of us.

Next Page

 Save as PDF

Comments are closed.