Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Her lips were still moving. The Tower of London

We completely lucked out when it came to our day at the Tower of London. Kirsten and I will never win awards for being the fastest moving travellers, so we thought we'd miss the walking tour of the Tower. Run by London Walks, these tours were rumoured to be fantastic so we didn't want to miss out. Despite the fact that it took much longer on the tube then we calculated (turns out twice as many stops does not mean twice as long to get somewhere. Add another 10 minutes for good measure), luck was on our side.

Our guide, Tom, was a retired barrister. Don't ask me the difference between a barrister and a solicitor and a lawyer. That's not what this blog is about. Anyway, he was incredibly entertaining and told us so much more than if we ventured on our own.

Our tour started across from the Tower - on Tower Hill, the site of an obscene number of executions done at the top of the hill to make sure the excited masses were entertained by watching the slow death of the latest schmuck who angered the king. This was the site of beheadings - hangings were performed up the road. How entertaining was it for the crowds? Well, how gruesome shall I get here? The axes weren't always very sharp and the executioners weren't always that sober, so naturally, the aim of the ax wasn't always that accurate. Some notable people to die here, include Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and George Boleyn. Good times.

A simple memorial where so much carnage took place.
Our guide showed us where the damned would make there way into the tower by boat - through Traitors Gate. One of the first things Anne Boleyn would have seen was the addition built to celebrate her marriage to Henry. A few years later, she was imprisoned awaiting trial - and ultimately her death. Her great crime was to not produce a male heir (yes, that was Henry's fault, but they didn't know that back then and isn't it always easier to blame the woman?). She was accused of adultery (with her brother - hence his execution) and witchcraft, but really, her sin was to have a daughter. Who, by the way, became one of England's greatest rulers.

It was a time when gossip was truth. As we often see even today, you repeat something enough times, it becomes believed as the truth. Why? Because humans are stupid. And the whispers of the court were all about gaining favour and ruining not just the reputation, but the lives of others in order to get ahead.

The iconic Tower Bridge. Maybe our guide was full of the macabre because even this beautiful bridge has been the site of many very sad stories.
Only a few people died within the grounds of the Tower. It was a private affair when held behind those walls - only a few hundred, versus the tens of thousands on Tower Hill. The most famous was Anne Boleyn,who was not given a Christian burial and instead was buried in an arrow box. She was, however, allowed to hire a French swordsman to make sure her death was quick. It was said that her lips were still moving in prayer when her head was lifted to the excited crowd. Henry's other wife Catherine Howard also lost her life here. She was a foolish girl who thought that it was OK to have a lover just because her ass of a husband did.

Yes, the Tower is full of cheerful memories. Some of the other famous prisoners include Sir Walter Raleigh (he was eventually hung), Guy Fawkes and Rudolf Hess. It has always been a place of imprisonment and violence. There are 3 torture devices on display - likely the most popular of the day - the rack, the manacles where people were hung from their arms and a device that was used to basically compress someone. They were very effective at getting confessions. Who wouldn't confess to any crime when they were literally being ripped apart limb by limb? Of course George Boleyn said he slept with his sister. Confessing meant signing your own death warrant, but it was the better option.

The Tower also has an impressive display of the suits of armour, swords and military paraphernalia of the British royal houses. Not usually my cup of tea, but I'm glad I took our guide's advice to check out Henry VIII final suit of armour with its enormous backside. The cod piece displays Henry's delusion.

It's kind of fitting that the permanent residents of the Tower, aside from the ghosts, include ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower, the monarchy will fall. So they have a permanent home and clipped wings to make sure that does not happen.

And in the midst of this macabre and violent history is the home of the most beautiful gems of the Crown Jewels. Stunning does not begin to describe these pieces. My favourites were the Imperial Crown of India, which was created for George V to wear on his trip to India in 1911, the Saint Edwards Crown, used for Coronations and the Imperial Crown, which is worn every year for the opening of parliament. A girl could spend some happy time in amongst these jewels.

Such a beautiful place - with such a brutal history.
Despite the fact that the history of the Tower of London made me cringe and, a couple of times, the stories brought me to the verge of tears, it is one of the most fascinating spots in London and totally worth the five hours of exploring. I am thankful that the evil and darkness of the Tower's history is firmly in the past.

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