If I only had time to do one thing in London, it probably would have been the Tower of London. It’s an incredible fortress to visit, steeped in fascinating history and architecture worth marveling over. It was a place of celebration, but also of torture and execution – lucky for me, my day was spent celebrating and the only torturous part was having to leave at the end of the day.
I went to the Tower with a girl I had met the day before. On advice from our tour guide from the Grimm Reaper tour, we got there right as it opened and went straight to where the crown jewels are housed. We got in with zero line up (and we were lucky with that – we checked a few hours later and the line up wrapped its way all around the grounds – moral of the story, if you’re going to the Tower of London, go see the crown jewels first if you want to see them at all). Those are some decadent jewels, I must say – sparkles galore.
Next we went on a Yeoman tour. The Yeomen are the guards of the Tower, and they not only get to live in the Tower but also get to wear this fancy outfit:
I highly recommend going on one of the Yeomen guided tours of the Tower. You get some great stories out of it, plus if you do it relatively early on in your visit, it will help to orient where you are and what you should go see. Our Yeoman tour was probably my favourite part of the day. The guard we had was so hilarious; I was nonstop laughing.
After, we went to take a closer look at Tower Green. Tower Green is where private executions were held (so, nobility such as Anne Boleyn or Lady Jane Grey), as opposed to the more publicly held executions on Tower Hill, which is just across the street from the Tower itself. There were seven confirmed executions which occurred on Tower Green, and today there is a plaque commemorating them: William Hastings, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole, Catherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and Robert Devereux.
On our Yeoman tour we were told the story of Anne Boleyn’s beheading, which is so great I have to repeat it to you guys. First of all, Anne Boleyn requested that a sword be used for her execution (the French tradition, rather than the English tradition of an axe). The King allowed this, however it is said that he had the sword and swordsman ordered up and brought over before her trial was even finished – so, clearly there wasn’t much hope of her being declared innocent. Once Henry had his mind set, he wasn’t going to change it. So, when Anne Boleyn approached the scaffold, she was asked for her last words. She kneels on the block and begins to mutter her last prayer. As she does this, the swordsman swoops down and off comes her head. He then lifts it up for all to see, and a collective gasp rushes through the crowd, for there is Anne Boleyn’s head, eyes wide open, her lips still moving in prayer. Talk about creepy! I love it!
It was pretty breathtaking standing on Tower Green. I had been reading about the things that happened there for so long that to actually be standing where they happened just felt unreal. The whole day felt unreal, really. But it was real and it was incredible.
We went up to the barracks afterwards, which led us through some of the towers, such as the Salt Tower. There’s a section along this path that is set up with information about defense of the Tower. Sounds of the cries of soldiers and revolting peasants can be heard as you make your way through the darkened hallways.
We went through where Henry VI was supposedly smothered in his sleep, through the Martin Tower, where the old crowns are housed, and through the Wild Beasts exhibit, which talked about all the wild beasts that used to be kept in the Tower.
Then it was time to visit the White Tower, which is the oldest tower, built by William the Conqueror around the year 1080.
The White Tower currently houses the armoury. Among the weapons on display, you will also find plenty of suits of armour, several royal death masks, and many other things. There were several suits of armour which belonged to Henry VIII, my favourite being this one, as you can clearly see what he thought of himself:
When you’re going up the stairs to the White Tower, don’t forget to take a look to your right. You’ll see a sign indicating that this is the spot where the two boy skeletons were found, presumed to be the missing princes of the Tower, another great story from a time period I’m obsessed with, the Plantagenet era.
The Bloody Tower is where you’ll find their story. The Bloody Tower was originally called the Garden Tower, until the disappearance of the young princes, and it was apparently Shakespeare who first referred to it as the Tower of Blood. If you don’t know the story, basically, during the War of the Roses, the two princes on the York side who were next in line for the throne were held in the Bloody Tower until one night they just disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened to them, although it is suspected that they were murdered, but again, no one is certain who killed them. Richard III, Henry VII, and Henry Stafford are high on the suspect list. It’s a fascinating story and a great mystery.
Among the other things we saw was the Water Gate, also known as Traitor’s Gate, the gate you would have been brought through from the Thames into the Tower were you going to be executed or tortured. We saw the famous ravens of the Tower – huge, huge, HUGE birds – and we went through the torture exhibit.
All in all it took us about five hours to get through everything, and we probably could have stayed there longer but we were starving and exhausted so we went and got some food.
That was an amazing day. The Tower is a sight to see for sure.