Friday, 18 June 2010

The Tower of London

The first time I came to London, I was an eager, young history student and the city both disappointed and disconcerted me. I longed to step back in time and feel the past all around me. Instead, I was confronted by a pastiche of eras and traditions from pre-Roman to all-too-modern. Bauhaus, post-modernist ice cube, Jacobean and Georgian architecture were jumbled together cheek-by-jowl. I could hardly see Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, for the tatty office buildings around it.

While my views have changed somewhat and I have come to embrace the layers of history that this most fascinating of cities has to offer, the Tower of London does not disappoint the history seeker. Sitting on the banks of the Thames where the eastern edge of the Roman walls of Londinium ended, it is almost a shock to see it's massive, Norman towers--twenty in all--and enormous moat. The original buildings were started in 1086, twenty years after the Norman conquest that displaced the Saxon dynasty. Edward I, the "Longshanks" you might recall from "Braveheart", extended the walls, gatehouses and the moat to its present size. Henry VII added the Tudor buildings lining the green inside the castle. The Tower of London, in fact, is also a compendium of historical times and styles.

What makes the Tower different, however, in spite of the tourists and the gift shops, is that you step into a flowing river of history which continues unbroken from the past. The yeoman warders or Beefeaters who walk you around are there primarily as guards, not guides. The reason they are dressed in their peculiar, red uniforms is that these are what they wore to guard Elizabeth I when she was imprisoned by her sister, Mary I, in the tower. The reason that they are all retired non-commissioned officers is because the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo who defeated Napolean for good, only wanted trusted men of battle in charge of the ultimate defensive building in London. Wellington had been made Constable of the Tower as a mark of favor and reward for his long and distinguised military and political career. It wasn't a comfortable sinecure, but an important, working position.

The Beefeaters actually live inside the Tower with their families. They have their own doctor and their own, parish church, St. Peter ad Vincula, or St. Peter in Chains. Their children have the right to be baptised and married in that church even after their yeoman warder father passes away, a right that continues for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in perpetuity, since anyone baptised in St. Peter ad Vincula can be married there as well. This makes the Tower of London the most exclusive village in England with the possible exception of Windsor Castle.

Somehow, it's easier to come close to English history here than just about any place else. You can, for instance, see the carvings in the stone of the Beauchamp tower made by state prisoners to mark their imprisonment with verse or coat of arms or, in the case of Robert Dudley, a later favorite of Elizabeth I, a cunning Latin play on his name and an oak leaf. You can also see Henry VIII's massive armor--he had 54 inch shoulders and a 51 inch waist the last time he managed to struggle into it. You might also talk to Dave, a yeoman warder who guarded Rudolf Hess, a prisoner in the tower after World War II until he was removed to another location. The British army was concerned that his guards disliked him too much and might harm him. Dave, our guide, told us that he believed him to be an unrepentant Nazi to the end. This is history with a vengenance.

My point is that in spite of the moving walkways that take you past the crown jewels in the tower vault, the Tower of London is the real deal. It is as close to living history as we will ever get. Except, of course, for the history that we all live through. Because today's current events are tomorrow's history. Like it or not, we are all living in the Tower of London.

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