In the heart of London along the River Thames lies one of the most extraordinarily historical places in London. Known as the Tower, it is a complex of buildings dominated by a white castle built by William the Conqueror shortly after the battle of Hastings in 1066. It is an impressive fortification with its moat, narrow winding staircases, and vast rooms. It was originally designed both as a home for the king and a defensive keep. Over time it became better known for the prisoners that were held on the premises and the executions that took place on the green. It is an imposing and improbable complex whose elevations seem both in and out of place in the modern world.
Some time ago I learned that my lineage can be traced back to William the Conqueror and from there to Vikings. I suppose that such is a somewhat dubious honor given that the Norman king was so often resented by the people of England who saw him as a bloodthirsty outsider. Nonetheless his legacy in creating the famous white tower remains as a reminder of the often violent and dangerous history of Britain.
What was once designed as living quarters for the first Norman king has evolved over time in its use, and now stands as a museum and respository of many stories. Visiting the Tower of London is perhaps the most fascinating tour in all of the city, complete with legends about the ravens who have lived on the premises for most of its existence. It is said that as long as they remain Britain will not fall and great efforts are made to keep them happy and willing to stay as permanent residents of the compound.
Countless mysteries and tragedies unfolded in the Tower. Richard II, the protector of his child king nephew, took both the little monarch and his brother there for safe keeping, but they subsequently disappeared thereby leaving the throne to him. Years later when the bones of two children were found buried under a set of stairs it was conjectured that they must have belonged to the long missing brothers.
It was in that Tower that Anne Boleyn awaited her tragic fate once Henry VIII had decided that she was no longer of use to him. Later she would be publicly executed for treason on the grounds. Lady Jane Grey would serve as Queen for nine days after Henry’s son James died without an heir, and then lose her life when Mary I laid claim to the throne by right of being Henry’s eldest daughter. Elizabeth I would also spend time imprisoned in the Tower but was luckily spared a death penalty and eventually given the throne. Other famous prisoners like Sir Walter Raleigh spent years behind the walls as condemned persons before being put to death.
One of the most interesting areas of the Tower complex is a building in which prisoners left graffiti on the walls. Over time they meticulously carved intricate signs that they had been there. These were no ordinary scrawlings, but rather beautifully carved inscriptions left in the stone for all time. They told of the long days of isolation that the captives had to endure and their determination to leave their mark on history in spite of their wretched conditions.
The Tower complex also features a sampling of the crown jewels including the largest known diamond in the world. It displays goblets and plates of gold, as well as jeweled crowns and scepters. It is a remarkable showcase that points to the wealth of the monarchy and the traditions that have both evolved and continued over time.
A tour of the Tower grounds includes a rather jolly session with a Beefeater who reveals the history, the stories and the secrets of the complex. The Beefeaters live and work inside the Tower walls and provide visitors with an in depth detail of information. Our particular guide had a rather wicked sense of humor that added to the interest of his tales. He provided a voice to the people who had lived and worked and even died in that fascinating place.
The history of the world is one of violence and tragedy as people fought to gain and retain power. Their’s was not so much a fairytale as a story of intrigue, jealousies, and betrayals. Perceived treason brought imprisonment and death. Choosing sides carried dangers for both noble men and women as well as the common folk. The walls of the Tower of London indeed seem to talk of the fears and horrors of real people who either fought to maintain a hold on their power or suffered because they appeared to be threats. The chronicles of lives celebrated and lost are written in the very stone of this place. There is something majestic, awe inspiring, frightening and evil about what happened within at the Tower making the ravens that act as sentinels seem an appropriate symbol of both the ingenuity and the flaws of humankind.
I left the Tower of London in a rather pensive state of mind. It is a glorious edifice that is a remarkable reminder of the steadfastness and resilience of our humanity, but it is also a respository of our imperfect natures. It is a place where we should surely learn the lessons that history attempts to teach us. Our time on this earth is short in the grand scheme of the universe. The possessions that we accumulate are unworthy of our focus. We will all soon enough become ashes but our actions while still on this earth will have far reaching consequences. Let us hope that we have made good choices and demonstrated honor and integrity rather than greed. The history of mankind is littered with far too much hatred. It is our duty to work toward the good insofar as possible. Power comes and goes and too often corrupts, as we humans continue to work toward a more perfect union of our differences.