Castle Chronicles: The Tower of London

It’s hard to include little snippets of these great towering legends in general blog posts. These monuments of history deserve more than just a passing glance as they hold so much of our past in them. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine piles of great stone bricks shaping what the future became, but these buildings were pivotal in the schemes of history.

The great castles of old often posed as both an intimidating fortress and a home for its lord and lady. The Tower of London is no different. It has worn the costumes of luxurious apartments for royalty, imposing guardsman protecting its people (and crown jewels), and both sanctuary and jail for the hunted. Some of those that enter the Tower emerge and do great things, while others lose their heads… or simply disappear into the unknown.

Settling in after the successful Norman Invasion in 1066, William the Conquerer was in need of fortifications that could protect his newly won land from both outside and inside attack. He ordered the construction of a tower within an existing Roman wall using limestone from Caen, France. Remnants of this Roman wall can still be seen around the site today.

Construction of what is now known as the White Tower began around 1078 and was completed 20 years later. This imposing tower acted as both royal residence and fortress. It was sure to dominate the native Brits – exuding might, power, and wealth… exactly as William intended. The name’s inspiration came during 1240 when King Henry III had the tower painted white.

The White Tower would have been an incredible sight to see. One can imagine the people of the time staring up at it in wonder, yet suppressed and little underneath it’s might.

The first record of a prisoner being held at the tower was in 1100 when Ranulf Flambard, the Bishop of Durham, was imprisoned in the tower by Henry I. Although Bishop Flambard saw the building of the first stone bridge in London, a hall at Westminster, and a wall enclosing the inner ward of the White Tower, the man was accused of embezzlement and exacting exorbitant taxes on the people. Despite the Tower’s success in keeping enemies out, it appeared to have a harder time keeping people in. Flambard escaped with the help of his custodian, becoming the first to be imprisoned… and also to escape.

The Tower campus continued to expand, the lodging of the royals expanding into the innermost ward. At that time, the river Thames reached the outer wall, as well as the Wakefield and Lanthorn Towers which were constructed around 1220 under Henry III. Both towers that exist today are a reconstruction of the original towers that had been destroyed.

During the 1307-1327 reign of Edward II, the Tower fell into disrepair due to its lack of activity. It did have a notable prisoner, though: the Baron Roger Mortimer. Hacking a hole into the wall of his cell, Mortimer escaped the Tower. He fled to France where he and the Queen of England, Isabella, become lovers, overthrew Edward II, and ruled England until the real king, Edward III, came of age, captured Mortimer and imprisoned him the Tower. Edward III initiated renovations.

The king himself would sometimes be imprisoned in the Tower. A peasants’ revolt in 1381 led to King Richard II being besieged inside the Tower, and again in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke – later King Henry IV.

During the War of the Roses, the Lancastrians and Yorkists vied for the throne. With a Yorkist victory, King Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower and would never escape. It is thought that he was murdered by order of Edward IV. Throughout the wars, fortifications were made, and a Bulkwark was added.

Sadly, Henry VI wouldn’t be the last lost to the Tower. King Edward IV died in 1483, leaving his young son Edward as heir to the throne. Since he was only 12, Edward was too young to rule. His uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was made Lord Protector until the boy came of age. Yet, the Duke had no intentions of his nephew ruling. He locked the prince and his younger brother Richard in the Tower. The Duke was then crowned King Richard III. Shortly after, in June 1483, the princes were never seen again… until a chest of bones were discovered in 1674 after a demolition ordered by King Charles II. The bones were reburied at Westminster Abbey.

In all, there are four sets of bones that could be the young princes, however without DNA evidence, it will remain a mystery along with the story surrounding the disappearance of the young princes in the tower.

During the Tudor period, the Tower was used mostly as a royal residence. Before their coronations, Edward IV, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all stayed in the Tower. But, the Tower was also used as a royal prison. One of it’s most famous prisoners was King Henry VIII’s second wife: Anne Boleyn.

Anne’s story has always fascinated me. The King’s lust and desire for her, and her reluctance to play mistress, set into motion one of the greatest political and religious upheavals in history: the English Reformation.

The Catholic church refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so he appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury, who annulled the marriage, then recognized Henry and Anne’s secret marriage as legitimate. The Pope soon excommunicated both Henry and the Archbishop, though Henry used this to his advantage and became the head of the Church of England.

As Queen, Anne gave birth to the future Queen of England: Elizabeth. Any joy was short-lived as Henry needed male heirs and Anne continued to miscarry. Henry soon lost interest in the woman he broke from the Catholic church to marry.

“Good Christian people, I have not come here to preach a sermon; I have come here to die. For according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.

O Lord have mercy on me, to God I command my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.”

The final words of Anne Boleyn as recounted by the chronicler Edward Hall in 1542

After reigning as Queen for a mere three years, Anne was charged with high treason in 1536. The charges included adultery, incest, and plotting to kill the king. She was convicted for her crimes on May 15th. Four days later, she was led from the Tower and executed in the French style: kneeling upright – the single stroke of a sword coming upon her neck as she turned her head.

Henry VIII married Jane Seymour on May 30th, a mere 11 days after Anne’s death.

Anne is buried in the chapel to the rear of the courtyard where her execution took place. Her grave is marked on the floor. I spent quite some time inside the chapel. I found it to be peaceful, though it was a bit crowded. Exiting, I realized I hadn’t taken any photo’s inside – but just as well. Let the dead rest.

Expansions eventually led to enlarging the moats, building curtain walls, and watermills. Even later, barracks and housing were built for the many soldiers and workers that care for and protect both the Tower of London and the United Kingdom. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers headquarter at the Tower, as well as a detachment of the Queen’s Guard, and the Yeoman Warders.

Raven’s also live at the castle. The Yeoman Warders care for the six birds that remain in constant residence. It’s believed that if the ravens leave the Tower, the Kingdom of England will fall.

It’s believed that Henry III began the tradition of housing the Crown Jewels at the tower. The Jewel House was built, and the royal regalia had a new home.

Though the original Jewel House no longer exists, the jewels and royal regalia of Queen Elizabeth II are protected in the “new” Jewel House that stands behind the White Tower.

The Tower of London was, and remains, an eventful place.

Sources: Ranulf Flambard; Historic Royal Palaces; Tower of London; History Extra; Britannica, Ann Boleyn, Princes in the Tower, Jewel House, Hever Castle & Gardens

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