The Tower of London is many things: a place of execution, an infamous prison, a royal palace, a mighty formidable fortress. Bloody beheadings have taken place here. Extraordinary rituals and relics are uncovered in this documentary of England’s most iconic landmark. The Tower is over 1000 years old and its walls are 15 feet thick. It sits on the bank of the River Thames on grounds that are the same size as the grounds of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Today, this infamous place is a public tourist attraction. Behind the scenes, however, the guards perform ceremonies which the tourists never get to see.
The White Tower - Wikimedia
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror constructed the fortress in the City of London. It was 90 feet high, a huge domicile at the time, but today it is dwarfed by modern buildings in its midst. By the year 1100, the White Tower, an enormous white stone building, was completed. It represented power. Twenty-one additional spires have been added. The moat contains water from the River Thames.
In the 1930s, an ancient menagerie was discovered with the remains of a leopard, dogs, and lions. They were not ordinary lions, but Barbary lions, which are now extinct. These were carbon dated to 1802. They are the medieval lions. They were gifts from foreign visitors which the Royals did not really want. The menagerie held 280 animals which first arrived in 1235. Twenty years later, an African elephant came, a trophy from the Crusades. The elephant was given a gallon of wine a day to keep out the cold. A chained Norwegian bear was part of the menagerie, as well as kangaroos. In the 18th century, admission cost three half-pence, but if you brought a cat and dog as a treat for the animals to eat, admission was free. The animals were later sold at auction along with the fixtures and fittings.
Hidden in the turret for more than 500 years, are works of art so fragile that no one is ever allowed in the room. It holds a 14th century mural of Christ’s crucifixion. Historian Jane Spooner cares for the art work.
The Royal Mint was housed here for 500 years until it was moved to Wales in the late 1800s. Merchants would bring bullion in and sell it to the King and it would be turned into the King’s coin. In 1526, King Henry VIII stole from the Royal Mint to fund wars, wives, and weapons. He had absolute power from 1509 to 1547.
Sir Thomas More - Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger - Wikimedia
Sir Thomas More
At that time, the Tower became a symbol of cruelty and treachery. Religious life in England was split apart. All who questioned the King’s divorce were thrown into the tower. Sir Thomas More was imprisoned in the steeple for more than a year. Historian Sally Dixon Smith has exclusive access to the now deserted room that housed Sir Thomas More.
The accommodations in the Tower depended greatly on one’s social status. You could live well there if you could pay for it. High class prisoners were able to have rugs, tapestries, furniture, books, visitors from relatives with food and fine wine. They also might have domestic servants. Sir Thomas More was comfortable in the Tower at first, but eventually his books and writing materials, as well as visits from his family, were taken away as he stuck to his principles. He was beheaded in 1535 and his severed head was placed on Traitor’s Gate.
The Waterloo Block of the Tower - Wikimedia
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII now had total power. He went on a spending spree of millions of dollars for his second wife Anne Boleyn. The White Tower was renovated, making it more visible for Queen Anne’s coronation. She was six months pregnant at the time. Those years were a heyday for the Tower as a Royal residence.
Unfortunately, Queen Anne did not produce a male heir. She was accused by the King of adultery with five men, including her brother. Anne was the first Queen to be executed in the Tower. Her death occurred on May 19, 1536 on the Tower Green, away from the public gaze. Most executions took place outside the walls of the Tower. The execution of Royals took place inside the Tower. Out of consideration for Anne, Henry hired an expert swordsman from Germany. With one clean sweep, Anne’s head parted company with her neck.
Three hundred years later, builders found 1500 skeletal remains in the Chapel Royal. They were unidentifiable and were re-interred in a crypt. One is believed to be the ill-fated queen.
Beheadings are by axe and are carried out by a masked executioner. The prisoner signals when he/she is ready. The executioner is often very drunk. It is not a high-status job. The head is carried through the streets of London and displayed as a warning to other traitors.
King Edward V and his brother, the Duke of York in Prison - Wikimedia
Prisoners of the Tower
Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth, was imprisoned in the Bell Tower for two months by her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who regarded Princess Elizabeth as a threat to Mary’s claim to the throne.
King Edward V and his brother Richard, the Duke of York, were confined in the Tower of London by their Uncle, who became King Richard III. The young royals were never seen again.
Guy Fawkes was tortured in the Tower of London for attempting to blow up the British government with two tons of gunpowder. He escaped execution by falling or jumping from the scaffold as he was being led to his death.
Not all prisoners lose their heads. Henry Laurens, a leader of the American Revolution, was captured at sea in the 1780s and sent to the Tower of London. He was greeted there with the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He lived at the Tower with a Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) and his wife. He was not treated like a common prisoner. Authorities went easy on important and influential figures, just in case they lost the war. Laurens was traded for a British Lord and sent back to the States.
The Tower Bridge - Wikimedia
The Tower Bridge in Queen Victoria’s Time
Construction began on the Tower Bridge in 1880. Queen Victoria said it must match the Tower. The cost of the bridge was 150 million dollars in today’s money. Dave Duffy is responsible for raising and lowering the bridge. He works 30 feet below the bridge. He stated that everything on the bridge is original, nothing of its Victorian engineering has been replaced. It is manned 24 hours a day, and is lifted for vessels 30 feet high. In the summer, there are usually 20 lifts accomplished in one day. Road traffic must stop and wait even for small craft like the Lady Daphne seen passing through. The Tower Bridge is a major London landmark and matches perfectly with its neighbor the Tower of London.
Bombing in World War II
During World War II, the gates to the Tower of London were closed to sightseers. The Tower was bombed, but the damage was surprisingly light. Twenty-three people were killed. A chair used in the very last execution is still extant. In 1941, Joseph Jakobs, a German spy was captured after he parachuted into Britain. Because he was a military officer, he was spared hanging. He was shot by a military firing squad instead. Eight rifle shots sealed his fate.
The Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters - Wikimedia
The Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters
The biggest tourist attractions today are the Defenders of the Gates, the ceremonial guardians, known as the Beefeaters. Their official name is Yeoman Warders. They may have gotten their nickname because they were allowed to eat as much beef from the King’s table as they wanted. The uniform of the Yeoman Warder costs $10,000. On the Queen’s birthday, the Yeoman Warders arrange a 21-gun salute from the Tower.
Thirty-seven warders live on site in a self-contained community. They have their own doctor. They have their own pub. You can only come into their quarters if you are invited. Each warder has his own tankard for secret ceremonial dinners. They live in unique homes. You must walk up 50 steps just to carry up the groceries. The doors are closed at l0 p.m. If you want to come back in after midnight, you must book yourself in ahead of time. After 22 years, the Yeoman Warder receives a Good Conduct Medal.
The roles of the Yeoman Warder have changed dramatically. They were initially the custodians of prisoners. There are still bars on the windows. The wife of one of the warders is the Supervisor of the Jewel House. She cares for England’s most prized and priceless possessions, the Crown Jewels. There are 23,000 jewels worth 32 billion dollars in the Tower of London. They have been guarded here since the 14th century. The Queen’s Imperial State Crown which Queen Elizabeth II wore for her coronation is housed here. There was only one attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. The thieves were arrested. Iron bars have replaced the previous wooden ones surrounding the royal regalia. No one is allowed within touching distance of the jewels.
There are half a million visitors each year to the Waterloo Barracks, the newest building on the site, which houses the jewels. Visitors are not allowed to take photographs. In 2012, all of the London Olympics Medals were brought here for display. It is also home to the longest running exhibition in the world. Since 1600, the Line of Kings is a theatrical experience open to the public. The armor and weaponry of the Kings, now out of fashion of course, are displayed here with metal horses which go back hundreds of years. The display is now open to a new generation of onlookers.
A Raven at the Tower of London - Wikimedia
The Ravens on the Tower Grounds
Ravens have been kept on the Tower grounds forever. There is a saying that if the birds leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. So the Ravens’ wings are clipped. The Raven Master takes care of them. Many years ago, a King declared “Get rid of them all” as they had become pests. When told of the warning, he decided that six ravens would be allowed to stay. The Raven Master keeps two more for spare. They are treated like royalty and never leave the grounds.
At locking-up time, there is great pomp and ceremony which lasts 7 ½ minutes. It is called the Ceremony of the Keys, and has taken place every night for 600 years. The ceremony finishes at exactly 10 o’clock. The Mighty Tower stands guard over London just as it has done for 1000 years.
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