The Tower of London
From palace to prison, this historic location is one of a kind
By Sarah Stockman
Storehouse, royal observatory, royal mint and royal menagerie…these are just a few of the many former uses of the historic royal palace known as the Tower of London.
Prior to visiting the legendary Tower I was primarily familiar with its history involving the Tudors and torture. I had no idea that the legacy began in 1066 when William the Conqueror constructed the fortress to keep Londoners at bay. I also didn’t know that so much construction would be underway at the time of my tour; however, considering that the structure has stood for nearly 1,000 years I suppose I shouldn’t gripe.
My education increased when I learned that the tower was actually one of the first zoos. Back in the day, individuals who wished to get into the king’s good graces decided to gift him various types of wild animals. During the reign of King John, the first record of lions at the Tower has been recorded. Apparently, the animals were used for entertainment purposes (in exercises we now deem cruel). Elephants, tigers, polar bears, kangaroos, ostriches and more lived in what was known as the Royal Menagerie. Thankfully, in 1832 the Duke of Wellington, who was Constable of the Tower at the time, ordered the animals to leave after several incidents occurred—including attacks and escapes—and they arrived to their new home at the London Zoo.
Nevertheless, the Tower is famously known for its history as a state prison. Now, when I call this place a “state prison,” please do not compare it to the state prisons of modern times. People imprisoned at the Tower were no ordinary offenders, they were charged with treason. What exactly is treason? In my opinion, treason could have basically been anything that the king disagreed with; however, technically treason included: trying to kill the monarch, helping rebels or foreign enemies, speaking against the monarch and/or counterfeiting coins.
Contrary to popular belief that countless, brutal deaths have occurred at the Tower, I was surprised to learn that only 22 executions have ever taken place within the Tower of London. Therefore, this palace is actually more famous for its torture practices.
During the infamous Tudor dynasty prisoners were mentally and physically tortured at the Tower of London. Personally, I found touring the torture chamber to be a bit of a let down. It’s very small and doesn’t really provide the haunting experience expected after hearing so many terrible stories about the torture practiced on prisoners.
Personally, my favorite experience was viewing the memorial to the executed. The memorial sits on the location of the previous scaffold site where historical individuals (primarily women), such as Anne Boleyn, were beheaded. Created by Brian Catling, the inscription along the memorial reads, “Gentle visitor pause awhile: where you stand death cut away the light of many days: here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life: may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage: under there restless skies.”
The bone chilling feeling I expected from the torture chamber was fulfilled at this commemorative site instead.
Fun fact: The men you may see walking around wearing strange navy and red striped uniforms marked with the letters “E” and “R” with matching top hats are called Beefeaters! To this day no one knows why they have been given this humorous moniker. However, they still act as Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary, and are ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London.
My journey through history didn’t end there. The Tower of London is also home to part of the Royal Collection of the Crown Jewels. Sparkling, luminous, jaw dropping, decadent, etc. are not nearly descriptive enough for these extraordinary treasures.
The Imperial State Crown was my favorite piece. The Queen wears this crown at each State Opening of Parliament. Although the crown includes older gems, it is actually one of the youngest crowns in the collection after being remade in 1937. Sorry, no photography allowed! If you’re trying to imagine what this crown looks like in real life just keep in mind that the reason it was remade is because the previous frame weakened under the weight of all of the gemstones! So just take your original imagination and add on more sparkling jewels and diamonds.
Side note: Be sure to set your alarm and wake up early because by the afternoon the line to enter this exhibition takes hours to get through.
My London holiday is coming to a close, but not quite yet! Last but not least, I’ll be checking out Stonehenge and Windsor Castle before taking the Eurostar to France!