Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tower Power

Last year, my mother-in-law was struggling to think of something to buy me for my birthday and asked if there was anything that I particularly wanted. There wasn't. I live in a small house that's under permanent siege from an army of plastic toys and DVDs - one more thing would only add to the clutter. But I still wanted a present.

Then I realised that what I needed was an experience, not a possession. I knew that my mother-in-law had just enjoyed a private tour of the Tower of London and asked if she could arrange one for me. I'd been to the Tower once as a child, but the sight of hordes of badly dressed, bumbelt-wearing tourists had put me off making a return visit.

A private viewing was the perfect solution.

The tour was booked for last Wednesday and I can't stress how satisfying it was to walk past the long queue of tourists and have a Beefeater lift up a rope to let me in. Queue jumping is a petty, slightly malicious pleasure that plays to my vain conceit that I'm a cut above the hoi polloi (I know I'm not, but it's fun pretending for a few minutes).

Once we were inside the Tower complex, I was struck by how separate it felt from the rest of London, as if we were in an independent city state like the Vatican, with only a tenuous connection to the present. Everywhere we looked, there were reminders of the Tower's sad, brutal history.

I knew about some of the more famous executions: Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, but this anecdote was new to me:

'In 1541, it was the turn of the 71-year-old Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, whose offence was being the last surviving member of the Plantagenet dynasty, overthrown by the Tudors. The Countess refused to place her head on the block, and had to be chased around the green by the executioner, who hacked her to death.' (From

If you like your historical buildings to be a bit "Hey-nonny-no", where you can almost hear the sound of lutes playing, I'd recommend Hampton Court Palace. The Tower of London is all about power and retribution. Initially built to dissuade the English from rebelling against their new masters, it is now said to be the only building in London that would still be standing in a thousand years if we all suddenly became extinct.

At one point my mother-in-law turned to me and said "Well, you must have one and a half blog posts here." But I haven't. What can you say about 900 years of history that hasn't already been said?

One of the highlights of the visit was seeing the tomb of Sir Thomas More, which is in the crypt of St Peter ad Vincula. The crypt isn't open to the public and I was told that very few people are allowed to see it:

I was going to start writing about how much I admire Sir Thomas More, but I quickly realised that the entire basis of my knowledge comes from watching Paul Schofield in 'A Man For All Seasons', so it's probably better to shut up. However, it is a very good film and this final scene is very moving:

The other highlight of the visit was seeing Henry VIII's suit of armour, with it's absurd codpiece. Apparently, in the 16th century, it was fashionable to accentuate the male features (but mitigate the female ones):

This Cylon-style armour was made in the 1540s, when Henry had put on a few pounds. But there were also other suits of armour from the days when Henry was the svelte renaissance prince who composed 'Pastime with Good Company'. It was the first and last time a member of the Royal Family wrote a chart hit.

If you're not familiar with the song, here's my crude, two-part arrangement:

Not a bad tune is it? Sorry about the performance.

Once we'd seen the armour, we decided to give the Crown Jewels a miss and decamp to the nearest pub. As I nursed my thirst-quenching pint of Amstell, I reflected on how lucky I was to be born in a more civilised age.

Just as I thought this, a City banker entered with a much younger woman who clearly wasn't his wife, and found a discreet booth where they couldn't be spotted by any colleagues:

We may not hack elderly duchesses to death, but greed, lust and betrayal still have their part to play in London life.


Mo said...

What a lovely post and a brilliant gift.

lucy joy said...

I think I'd rather be killed in a high speed chase with an intoxicated driver at the wheel. Poor lady. Word verification today-'welshi', how apt.

Unknown said...

What a great birthday gift. I think that is the only way you'd ever get me to visit the Tower of London. We skipped it on our one trip to England. I did brave the crowds at the British Museum and the National Gallery but stuck with smaller, less traveled museums after that.

Somehow, London seemed to attract some of the rudest tourist I've ever encountered.

BTW, thanks for playing Henry's little song for us.

Anonymous said...

What a very satisfying post (and a half?!). Thanks for the private tour, the glimpse of Sir Thomas Moore's chapel, the film clip and for playing us Henry the VIII's chart hit. The end of your post is as good as the end of a good short story. Yes, indeed, humans haven't really changed all that much. Happy Birthday to you as well!

Mrs Jones said...

The last time I went to the Tower of London (a few years back now) I was excited and really looking forward to it. When I got there all I could concentrate on was how much blood had been spilled, how much pain had been suffered, how many tears had been shed there. The whole place reeked with despair and fear. I was not expecting it and I left feeling very, very uncomfortable which saddened me tremendously.

The exact same thing happened to me a few years ago when I was in Rome for the first time. Being an archaeologist I was thrilled beyond measure with all the treasures on offer and I thought the Forum and Palatine Hill were just fabulous. Then we went to the Colosseum, and the same visceral reaction happened. All I could focus on was the fear, pain and blood that those stones must have witnessed, and I had to leave.

I did like Henry's little tune though.

Little Nell said...

What a great idea for a birthday gift. Thank you for sharing some of the hidden extras. The Tower was the setting for Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, 'The Yeoman of the Guard' also thought to be their 'darkest' - as it isn't all happy endings. Perhaps G&S were affected by some of that same melancholia when they visited the Tower.

Roger said...

It's usually spelt More, actually.
They were a bit eclectic in spelling then, so Moore may have been the way he spelt it.

Steerforth said...

Oh dear. Moore is less. I shall edit immediately.

Steerforth said...

C.B. - I think that you were very wise. Places like the Tower of London feel like a huge heritage machine, extracting money from tourists. The gift shop was very depressing. I'd advise anyone to follow your example and visit the smaller museums. Also, get out of London and see England, Scotland and Wales.

Lucewoman - I'd broadly agree, although I'd prefer to be in an Aston Martin than a Daewoo Matiz.

I like the word verification!

Christine and Mo - glad you enjoyed it. It was a great birthday present and from now on, I shall be asking for experiences rather than things.

Mrs Jones - I think that's an entirely rational reaction, but I wonder how many people feel like this? Most of the tourists I saw seemed to regard the whole place as a fairground.

Little Nell - I was forced to see 'Yeoman of the Guard' when I was 11, which has unfortunately resulted in a lifelong antipathy to the works of messrs G&S.

magiciansgirl said...

Happy birthday! Although it's not a tour, per se, another way to see the Tower without hordes of tourists is to apply to attend the Ceremony of the Keys - the traditional locking up of the tower every evening. Here's a link in case anyone is burning to do this:
I did it many years ago and the groups are limited to 6-15 people.

As a history lover, I agree it's very hard to get any sense of the past from sites like the tower or Westminster Abbey even in the off season. Although you can get lucky and hop the wall at an historic site during off hours, if you're so inclined (not that I am advocating this, of course - but Middleham Castle is quite lovely at night :-) PS love the last photo

Martin said...

I so much want to take our grandchildren to London, but I don't think the Tower will be on the list of things to see, for all the reasons that have been put forward.

Loved the piano piece. Have you seen anything of 'Tudors' shown by the BBC? Hmmm...

Unknown said...

Excellent blog! And Happy Belated Birthday.

Gardener in the Distance said...

I respect Thomas More enormously. What I know of him comes from my 16- year-old class reading of T S Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' and subsequent re-enactment of it in our school chapel, where, despite my awful acting skills, I got to take part. I'm so grateful you've included a picture of his tomb. What a fascinating blog you have, Steerforth! Don't stop.

Annabel said...

We took our daughter a couple of years ago out of season - and as we arrived at opening time and it wasn't so crowded, we went round the Crown Jewels conveyor belt three times - little pleasures eh!

Loved the post, and a fab birthday present.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. I did enjoy your playing of Henry VIII's melody. Very nice.

Britain has so much wonderful history, and so many places where interesting things have happened, that a trip to any town (or even village church) can become an adventure. But what a lovely way to see the Tower -- when we went, we were part of the unlovely group of tourists milling around. But at the time I wasn't aware that one could book a separate tour.

Thanks for sharing a lovely experience.
Canadian Chickadee

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Many Happy (and belated) returns Steerforth!

What an excellent present.

As for 'Enery VIII, who does he think he was kidding with that codpiece? Not that he could have worn that get up for more than about 10 minutes anyway before collapsing under the weight of it, but I remember marvelling at it on my own (more public) visit.

That's so sweet of you to perform a special piece for the upcoming Royal Wedding like that - I'm sure Kate and Wills will be duly honoured. ;-)

Bev said...

Lovely post, but you did not write about the blood thirsty ravens aggressively stalking small children that haunted us last time we went. Or perhaps yours are a bit bigger and not so covered in crumbs?

Steerforth said...

Tattyhouse - I didn't ruin the occasion by bringing children with me ;)

Laura - Apparently, Henry wore it once and very briefly - for purely ceremonila purposes.

Chickadee - I love the history too. It makes up for the weather. But curiously, when I go abroad, I'm drawn to recently-colonised volcanic islands with very little history and no ancient buildings.

Annable - Three times! You're making me wish I saw the Crown Jewels after all.

Gardner - Do you mean Thomas à Becket? He was a bit earlier than More (or Moore as I originally wrote), but also committed the tactical error of choosing God over king.

Lyne - thanks.

Martin - No, I haven't watched the Tudors. When I heard that it had been 'sexed-up' I decided to avoid it. Was I right or wrong?

Kim - thanks for the link. I'd really like to try this, but when the weather's gloomier. It was hotter than Istanbul when I went to the Tower and the dungeons didn't seem quite so menacing. I agree about climbing over walls - I used to enjoy exploring Hyde Park after the pubs had closed.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Oops, yes...I got my wires crossed, but did comment early hours of the morning. And/or I've lost a section of the plot!

Little Nell said...

Ah, the recently colonised volcanic islands - I happen to live on one! You're right about very little history (in the sense of Tower of London visits etc); however, The Canary Islands have a fascinating recent (in relative terms) history, well documented from the early 15th century, and before that its neolithic inhabitants. Let me know next time you visit!

Steerforth said...

Which island? Tenerife?

Yes, the Canaries do have a fascinating history - I'd love to know more about the mysterious indigenous inhabitants - but it's not like going to Florence, where you feel overwhelmed by the architectural heritage.

I love the Canaries. I've been to Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Tenerife and El Hierro (a truly magical place) and have always hoped to visit the remaining three, but I've had a phobia of flying for the last few years and trips abroad are now limted to northern France.

I know that my fear of flying is irrational, but it hasn't been helped by events: I flew on an American Airlines flight from Boston to LA one September morning and also had a terrifying journey from Brazil to Spain, along the same route as the crashed Air France jet. I know that millions of other people have too, without any problems, but that still doesn't help.

I might try hypnotherapy, as I don't want to spend the rest of my life holidaying within a 500-mile radius.

Little Nell said...

Lanzarote actually. We chose it to retire to, having tried Fuerteventura, Tenerife and Gran Canaria. We have since visited Alegranza and Graciosa. We know we made the right choice. The early history is fascinating; did you know there are pyramids in Tenerife? I may put it in my blog someday.

We just watched 'United' the drama about the Munich air disaster. However did Bobby Charlton carry on after that one?! I don't think they had hypnotherapy in those days. However, someone I know very well says it works, so go on - give it a go.

Steerforth said...

I didn't know that there were pyramids in Tenerife!

I love Lanzarote. It's an acquired taste isn't it, but I loved the bare volcanic rock and the brilliant white buildings with green shutters (it helped that I stayed in a remote villa with a private pool and a sea view). I haven't been since the early 90s, but it seemed mostly unspoilt (partly thanks to Ceasar Manrique's input?).

There's an attractive minimalsim about the island: rock, sea and sky. I can see why some people find it too bleak, but I loved it.

Lucky you!