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A History of England via the Tower of London



Rob Hardy


If you have ever been to England, chances are you have been to the Tower of London. It is, after all, the most visited tourist attraction in a country that is full of places to see. It has been a tourist attraction for centuries. There were, of course, no cafés or baby-changing stations when in the 17th century crowds would come to see if they could catch a glimpse of the most famous prisoner the Tower ever contained, Sir Walter Raleigh. They would watch him take his constitutional on the terrace that is still known as Raleigh's Walk. Before the Tower was a prison, it was a palace, and it has been a public zoo, torture chamber, mint, armory, treasure house, and more. The many uses of the buildings, and especially the stories of the people who passed through them, are all in Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson) by historian Nigel Jones. The buildings and stones themselves aren't the story in this big book. The history of England is deeply connected to the Tower, and the most famous names in English history walked through its passages and walk now through Jones's account. This is less an account of a building complex and more an overview of all of English history itself. 




The story begins with the commissioning of the construction of the White Tower, still the most outstanding feature within the Tower array. The Normans were masters of what Jones says were "flat-pack fortresses - they could build one within a week," but William the Conqueror wanted something strong for London. His coronation in 1066 had been protested by angry Londoners, showing that he was only going to rule them by brute force. A regular wooden fortress was built, but William commissioned a monk named Gundulf as architect of the stone fortress and palace to replace it. Of course it has been changed many times since then, including getting a lead roof in 1156; work like this was commissioned by Henry II and executed by his eventual Constable of the Tower, none other than Thomas Becket. Henry III loved art and architecture, and though he is little remembered and has a poor reputation as king, during his long reign he reconstructed the Tower and made it an opulent palace. Henry also instituted the keeping of a royal menagerie in 1235 when another royal gave him three leopards. A lion soon came, too, and a polar bear, and an elephant. The court knew little about taking care of such exotics, and the animals did not fare well. Sometimes they were not just badly but maliciously treated. James I in particular had a blood lust, and arranged the cages and trapdoors for the enclosure of the animals because "his chief delight was to watch them tearing each other to bleeding bits." The Tower remained a zoo until 1830, when The Duke of Wellington ordered the remaining animals to be transferred to Regent's Park Zoo. (Wellington was also the one who instituted the opening of the Tower to the paying public.) The famous ravens are the only animals that remain; Jones reminds us that among its other roles, the Tower was an astronomical observatory, and in the seventeenth century the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, complained that the ravens were depositing droppings on the lenses of his telescopes. 




The Tower keeps a sense of gloom about it, starting from the days of Henry VII. He moved into the Tower in 1501, and was the last monarch to use the Tower as a home. His departure "marked the start of the Tower's decline from glittering royal pleasure dome to gloomy decay, and its sinister sixteenth-century role as the site of torment and martyrdom for Protestants and priests in turn; and the last station of condemned queens and nobles on their way to execution." Much of Tower has to do with its role as prison and site of public executions. The first prime minister Sir Robert Walpole was confined there, as were Henry VIII's wives. Sir Walter Raleigh was there three times (he was released when his country needed him, and then re-installed) until as an old man he climbed the scaffold. The prisoners who were well-off, and who hadn't offended grossly, got to enjoy good food and wine, and visits from family and friends. They wandered the complex with relative freedom. Most others were consigned to slimy dungeons or to the ironically-named Little Ease, a cell so small that the inhabitant could not lie or stand. Jones does not stint on descriptions of brutality, and here is a mild one from 1326: "The Tower's lieutenant, the hated Bishop Walter de Stapledon, was caught seeking sanctuary in St Paul's Cathedral, and had his head sawn off with a bread knife." The official beheadings were often not much better. Why the axe used for the job should not have been razor sharp I do not know; its prospective victims complained and fretted about its dullness, or the lack of skill with which it was wielded, before they had to go under it. The Duke of Monmouth in 1685 gave his executioner the customary tip and asked for a clean hit: "Do not use me as I hear you hacked poor Lord Russell." Monmouth knew that two grim strokes had befallen Russell's neck before a third severed it, and he was right to be concerned. Ketch the headsman bungled it again: "The first blow merely gashed the duke's neck, at which he raised his head and looked reproachfully at his killer." A couple of further strokes were required to release the duke from his agony, and even then a flap of skin kept the head attached to the body. Ketch used a butcher's knife to sever it. The crowd who came to see the show knew they were being given a display of incompetence and roared their disapproval. 




The very axe used, and plenty of other fearsome implements of torture, are now on display in the "Torture at the Tower" exhibit, and their uses and deployments are described in these pages. Jones does not mention the exhibit, but I will tell you that when we have visited the Tower, the line to see the rack, thumbscrews, and the rest was longer than the line to see the Crown Jewels. (I do hope that the attendees were congratulating themselves on how much more civilized our punishments are nowadays.) The Jewels are now in a stately and splendid display, but Jones shows how they were used as a mere source of funds by bankrupt kings or melted down by Cromwell. They aren't all ancient; bad King John (the villain in the Robin Hood legends), was escaping with them as he fled rebel barons and Prince Louis of France in 1216, when his baggage train was lost in the Wash estuary and there went his crown and the rest. In the seventeenth century, the rogue Colonel Thomas Blood almost succeeded in insinuating himself into the family of an Assistant Keeper of the Jewels and making off with the lot. Probably he instituted this plot with the secret collaboration of Charles II, who could have used the resultant cash. At any rate, Blood got a quick pardon, and money and land to boot. This is lighter and dashing reading after all the gore, as is the chapter on escapes. For instance, there is an exciting story of the Earl of Nithsdale, a Jacobite captured in battle against George I in 1715. His resourceful wife arranged an intricate deception, and he got out dressed as one of his wife's maids. 




Jones essentially winds up with the Tower's brief imprisonment of Rudolph Hess, and in 1952 of the mobsters the Kray twins, who were there for shirking national service. He does not tell much about the running of the Tower as the cynosure for tourists, although it is amusing that the endpapers which show the book's most comprehensive view of all the buildings seem to be from a tourist brochure, and you can find where the toilets and currency exchanges are. The Tower is open for business, all quiet and safe now, but its story told here is history of the most gruesome, rollicking, and thrilling kind. 




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