Sunday, May 13, 2012

London on $98 a Day – Tower of London

David and I first met William the Conqueror in the threads of the Tapestry in Bayeux, France, where William's overthrow of King Harold was recounted. Now, here in England, we see that William, once he claimed England's throne and was crowned on Christmas Day, didn't waste any time getting started on his architectural projects. He began building the tower that was to be the first of many on a fifteen-acre complex that became known as the Tower of London.

In this castle complex, surrounded by what had been an impressive moat, kings and queens lived, the crown jewels were stored, prisoners were held in various towers (Many scratched their names in the walls. One wrote a single word: “Remember.”), and traitors were hanged or decapitated. And, since an exotic animal was judged an appropriate gift for a monarch who had everything, leopards, monkeys, elephants, and other wild animals were caged here.

Each successive monarch added a personal touch to the complex, and the number of buildings grew.

The Traitors' Gate
King Henry VIII refurbished the traitors' gate to impress his new bride and second wife, Anne Boleyn, but she would enter the watery gate just three years later as a prisoner destined to be beheaded. Her inability to produce a male heir was supposedly what cost her her life although the official charges were treason, adultery, and incest; since Henry married Jane Seymour just ten days after Anne's execution, I think it was probably Henry who was fooling around, not Anne. At least Anne got her revenge—her daughter, Elizabeth I, became one of Britain's most beloved and respected monarchs.

Decapitations were frequent and dating Henry VIII proved especially dangerous. Catherine Howard was Henry's fifth wife, but she was condemned for adultery. As she was about to face the executioner, she yelled to the assembled crowd, “I die the Queen of England, but I'd rather die the wife of Thomas Culpepper!” The guards made short work of nabbing Thomas who, according to our Beefeater guide, was quickly dispatched to join Catherine on the other side. Bet he wishes his lover had kept her mouth shut!
Crown Jewels Building

Still, despite all the beheadings and hangings, there were other more inspiring spots to dally on the Tower grounds. Up the hill from the hanging tree, there is a lovely chapel where services are still held today, the building with the vaults holding the crown jewels—so elaborate they appear to be zirconia fakes—is around the corner, and the mint where Britain's money was created for hundreds of years is in the White Tower.

David and I enjoyed our history lessons touring the grounds, climbing the towers, and walking the ramparts, but we left quite grateful that we live in the 21st century.

Practicalities -

Tickets are sold near the Tower's west gate. There are bathrooms for a fee (50 pence) just behind the ticket building. Bathrooms inside the Tower are free.

The spot to wait for the free Beefeater guided tour is right inside the gates of the complex. The Yeoman Warders lace their history lessons with humor, so the tours are quite enjoyable. A few actors in period costume are also stationed around the grounds to enact various scenes from history. And if you're patient, you may see the stone-faced guard in front of the crown jewels building fling his rifle around and march from one end of his station to the other a few times. (This poor guy remains impassive as tourists sit in front of him to pose for pictures. Thank heavens he gets to walk around every once in a while.)

The restaurant on the grounds offers a variety of food, all reasonably priced, with free water available.

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