England IV: A brief overview of the Tower of London

March 9, 2011. My Dad dead two years, me beginning the day in confusion and sorrow–wondering how I should feel, how I would make it through.

We continue my adventures deeper into England (or should I say less deep, because technically London is closer to the coast?) Anywho, we are still in the lowlands of Britain where, 2000 years ago, the Romans built the “city” of Londinium in 43 CE. What’s important to know is that I touched some of the original Roman walls of this now metropolis, urban center of hipsters and ethnicities, pubs and gay bars.

Londinium was visited by Emperor Hadrian in 122 CE…I wish I knew this a year ago; I’d have certainly snuggled with the Roman walls just a tad longer. “Londinium” possibly comes from the Celtic word Lond, meaning “Wild.” Among its assets, Londinium boasted several bath houses, an ampitheatre, a temple to Mithra, God of the Sun (the Romans actually practiced mainly Mithraism; Christianity was persecuted about this time. Mithraism worships the ‘good’ god who constantly fights with the evil god, the foil and counterpart), and a fort.

One of these crumbling walls resides near the London Tower and the Tower Bridge. Again, please, this is too much…you can’t stump me with history coexisting and structures spanning over two thousand years still in existence, practically touching.

The actual hill [Tower Hill], the site near London’s famous Tower of London (and close to the Tower Bridge) holds a black building which serves as a WWI remembrance monument, but was also the site of the majority of executions during the time the Tower was used as a prison… And so, prison and torture associations aside, I think (well I definitely know) the Tower was one of my favorite–maybe my absolute favorite–thing on the entire trip. And so a sorrowful day became a joyful one…

So, I walked on down through London town. I wanted to see everything about the Tower of London and just revel in history. I mean, why don’t other people feel what I feel, knowing that a Roman emperor once walked where I walked, that soldiers built a civilization here intending to drive the natives out? I was sorrowed I couldn’t see Hadrian’s Wall (too far North) but being close to Roman ruins was about the same thing. I was appalled after leaving England of my original ignorance: to think that at the mention of Roman ruins in England, my ears pricked up, thinking that the professors were mistaken? How could anything 2000 years old survive? How could it survive here, when modern day kept knocking down and rebuilding? The fire of 1666. The Black Death. Medieval Times. The invasion of Germanic tribes. HOW could anything survive.

Well. Here is how.

The Tower of London: There are ravens. First, you walk past traitor’s gate with the undeniable unsettling feeling that you’re being marched to your death because, well, honestly, several hundred years ago you would be doing exactly that. Originally, you’d have entered Traitor’s Gate by moat. Now it just looks like an awkward basement window.

Erre es Korakas! The ancient Greeks used to say. Go to the crows/ravens! Birds of Hell, of course. GO TO HELL! I will have your soul!

How appropriate. The Tower is home to exactly eight ravens which can never leave else the monarchy will fall, according to legend.

We are told Ravens are not friendly, and they eat meat and foretell and associate with death.

I find Ravens respectable, and upon mentioning this a few friends looked at me like I’d gone crazy.

We walked through the fortifications which remain untouched since before the Tower was a prison; originally the Tower was surrounded by a moat but that landscape’s been altered since then. It’s named for the White Tower, built by William the Conquerer in 1078; he built the original walls (later, a second set of walls would be added) and the White Tower was his keep. It was a grand palace in prime, a prison since at least 1100 but not wholly. The castle was expanded and its current architecture remains from the 13th century. The moat was added to prevent undermining by soldiers.

 Since you’d have arrived by boat, you walk into the castle under the heavy iron gates (portcullis) and through the heavy wooden doors with a metal ring on the stone wall beside you where a boat would have been tied once. In the ceiling between the two gates are faces–removable if you wanted to drop flaming stuff or stones on the attackers (and the castle has been breached before). IF the army made it through the murder holes and the portcullis and the doors, they’d have to get through a second portcullis where defending soldiers would be waiting to push them back into the entrance and trap them.

At the entrance of the Tower we looked at the walls, which had cross shapes in them, which were there to provide a good view and to allow archers to shoot from a safe position. Above these were the battlements, you know, walls that look like stereotypical castle.

I wonder how many people died on the ground where we walked.

We walked out into the grounds to where there are houses lining the insides of the walls. These are mostly occupied by yeomans who live–yeah, they still live there! Right in the Tower. Our tour guide took us to a memorial statue which stands on the site of several executions, including Anne Boleyn. He told us how Anne was finally discarded by Henry VIII and her charges were of witchcraft and apparently having sex with her brother, among many others…she was not the last Queen to be killed, though. Jane Seymour was also beheaded where we stood on this site, upon which a tall platform once would ahve stood, where the executioner would bring the condemned.

Jane was probably a couple of years younger than me, and by the time she was forced to marry Henry he was fat, gross, suffering from infections and in his late 50’s or even older. When Jane was being brought to the Tower after having lovers, knowing she was going to die, she rode in a boat per usual and looked up at the London bridge, the original one the Romans built, where the heads of the recently executed were displayed as a warning. She looked up and saw the head of her lover, and so when she faced the block, she apparently said that she would rather be [her lover’s wife] than ever the Queen of England.

Executions used to be a kind of a day out.

Families would go and bring picnics. There would be crowds of hundreds, even though it sounds weird–my tour guide said it’s akin to us watching horror movies today for fun. It was a good day to see the Tower because along with everything else, I knew my Dad would have loved to hear and see everything I learned about…the history and everything like that.

Someone put roses on the execution memorial.

I spent some time meditating on that.

My friends really wanted to see the crown jewels, so we did that, and then I really wanted to see torture devices and the armory. So we went into the White Tower to see what a real castle looked like inside, at the time of William the Conqueror, and to see racks and a few other things used to cripple a torture victim.

THE ARMORY: WHITE TOWER! Stop me from making any “white tower of Ecthelion” comments (thanks, Tolkien, for alerting me to the White Tower of Minas Tirith before I ever learned about England).

Henry VIII’s armor was displayed along with other kings’…it was all very fascinating. No, I did not see chainmail, sadly, but I looked upon swords, bucklers, lances, horse armor, maces, artifacts found in the Thames, cannonballs, cannons, guns, arrowheads, helmets, gloves, metal suits…awesome indeed. All of my favorite things. And we progressed on to walk along the castle walls, up on the battlements. Along the way we were able to stop in a few of the towers around the walls, which even still had writing from prisoners that were kept there and tortured hundreds of years ago! It was all very fascinating. And of course I had to stop by part of a Roman Wall and an ancient tower (now ruins) that still stands inside the castle.

I looked around the gift shop a bit…I really wanted to buy a suit of chainmail that was for sale but it was over 300 pounds…so I had to say goodbye to it instead. I was kind of amused and slightly honored that they actually sold chainmail in the gift shop…as in, to buy and wear. I never thought I’d see the day.

In conclusion, the Tower has some incredibly confusing and expansive history. For instance, I didn’t even get to touch upon the fact that the Bloody Tower (one of the towers’ names) is called that because supposedly King Richard (one of the two) killed his young nephews in that tower, or ordered them killed. Read Shakespeare’s histories–the history of some of England’s most interesting kings is in there.

But really, the greatest thing I learned is that Ravens are big birds. And when I say big, I mean, the size of a small dog. Fascinating.

Well, I used to be an adventurer like you, and then I took an arrow in the knee.

My new metaphor.

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