Have I mentioned how freezing cold London is lately? So cold, in fact, that for the first time in a long time I saw snow the other day. Granted, it was pathetic snow- the kind that sticks and then shrinks into nothingness in the time it takes you to bundle up, ready to face it all.
It was on such a day (well, minus the mediocre snow showers) that my friend Leah and I decided to learn more about our British heritage, particularly its violence and snobbery. The natural choice of venue was The Tower of London.
In 1066 Edward the Confessor died, leaving the English throne up for grabs. William the Conqueror, a Norman duke, tried his hand and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings- something that took place approximately where my middle school sits, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the centre-most location in England. In said middle school, I recall extensive research on the matter, countless essays and critical essays, and yet today I really couldn’t tell you much more than “Wills won”. And that I got A*’s on my papers. I always got A*’s.
Anyway William, feeling the urgency in securing control of the nation’s capital London, set up camp where the White Tower now stands, and that’s the beginning of what is today known as the Queen’s Fortress. Through time additions have been made to the plot. It sits within a moat-like circumference and is home to one of the oldest torture dungeons, and many mini-palaces. It functions as a vault to the Queen’s jewels and most historic royal treasures such as crowns, ceremonial goblets, swords, bejewelled cutlery, etc etc.
What you didn’t know about the tower:
(1) Basically, it partly functioned as a zoo from medieval times right up until around 1850. Monarchs have been gifted exotic and dangerous animals such as polar bears, lions, elephants, tigers, you name it, since 1185. It seems like a good enough concept for a gift- what do you get someone who has everything money can buy? Easy! An animal they’ve never seen before! Taking care of animals one knows little about proved problematic on many occasions, usually resulting in death, death, and more murderous gruesome death. Can’t fault them for keeping things interesting though.
(2) Essentially, at least from the vibe I was getting from my literature etc, the tower was more like a retreat for misbehaving nobility and influential leaders. As far as jails go, I wouldn’t mind shacking up in what can only be described as a palace. When Ann Boleyn was incarcerated, her “cell” was the very same room she spent her honeymoon in, and I’m not being kinky. It was a straight up royal apartment. Most high profile prisoners were permitted to travel up to 30 miles outside the tower if they left their footman in the prison in their place. Basically, the tower back then was to nobility what Betty Ford’s is to Hollywood B-lister’s. The only exception to this seemed to be stories about warlocks from around the country- simple folk known to dabble in the dark arts. One guy locked up in a nicely furnished suite scratched zodiac signs into a wall, probably to ensure a longer stay in his luxurious apartment.
(3) Six ravens are kept within the tower walls at all times because of the ancient belief that if they are absent the kingdom will fall. Wikipedia confirmed that little tid-bit, so you know it’s true.
The stuff you really want to know about is the torturing, yes? Well. This is where the tower is the most disappointing, in my opinion. A place famed for it’s grotesque history of beheadings, drawings, quartering’s and so on ought to be kitted out with decent square footage-worth of equipment. NOT SO. I don’t know maybe I missed a crucial catacomb or something, but all I saw was one round room with a couple of nuts and bolts. BOO HISS. Regardless, you should know that the last execution at the tower was as recent as 1941 (a German, Josef Jakobs).
Both Leah and I had success with the gents on our little outing. While walking the surrounding wall of the tower, Leah looked down on a young soldier who was on his way to some soldiering activity. Essentially she hollered at him, like a ruffian builder on a building site leering over a passer-by. I’d like to say he took a giant leap for feminism throughout the world, but he grinned up at her and drank it in. It was true love.
I set my sights a little higher and landed myself a King. OK an actor. He was playing a King, strutting around the palace apartments. We found one another in “his” bedroom hallway and with his courtiers in tow, he tried to spew some hoity toity history, but I beat him to it with a smart alec comment or some such nonsense. After a few seconds of spluttering and attempts at recover, he broke character and the whole room of us dissolved in laughter. I made a king crumble. So, also true love.
My favourite part of touring the treasury was not standing sandwiched between second graders on the conveyer-belt watching oversized jewels sparkle in crowns. It was actually an old film of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. I love having a monarchy, and say what you will about them, I think it’s humbling to think they have each devoted their entire lives to serving the commonwealth. Watching the film, I realised that she was just a young girl- younger than me!- when she covenanted with the nation to preside in faith and devotion to both God and her people. She was anointed as a monarch. The ritual that set her apart was ancient and historical. I couldn’t help but wonder how she must have felt, aside from worrying that she could drop her sceptre or that ball thingy or even the sparkly sword. Was it something she wanted? Didn’t she wish her father could witness it? Was she worried about the future of her small family? Did she really understand what she was getting into? Worth a teensy round of applause/ curtsey/ whatever you deem appropriate.
THIS IS TOWER BRIDGE, not London Bridge, don’t make that mistake, ya tourist! Tower Bridge is best experienced in the rain. With a friend. Or not, whatever.