The Tower of London. So much history crammed into a relatively small patch of London. Now dwarfed by the surrounding tower blocks, it can be difficult to imagine just what impression the White Tower would have had when construction started, back in 1078. Also funny to think now, with the Tower being almost a symbol of the nation (and certainly representative of historic London), that it was originally a sign of oppression, resented by a recently-invaded people as a symbol of their new overlords – those pesky Normans.
Built initially by William the Conqueror, the Tower has played an active role in almost every period of British history, serving as a royal palace, a mint, an administrative hub, a zoo, an armoury and, of course, a prison, having housed various enemies of the state from 1100 to 1952 – over 850 years of prisoners! It was often said that “he who holds London, holds England” and to hold London, the Tower would be a very good start.
With such a prominent place in our history, the Tower has plenty of quirky facts to keep a writer’s mind occupied during a visit. For example, in the 18th century, the animal collection which had existed almost as long as the Tower was open to the public: the fee was three half-pennies or, disturbingly, provision of a cat or dog to be fed to the lions!
Despite its association with imprisonment and execution, only seven people were actually killed within the Tower complex itself between 1388 and 1780 – the majority were executed beyond the walls, for example up on Tower Hill, where a small garden now marks the spot where most met their fate. In addition, in contrast to popular belief, there are only 48 recorded instances of torture being used on prisoners, with the three main forms being the rack, manacles and the Scavenger’s Daughter, a delightful device which worked in opposition to the rack by compressing the body, rather than stretching it. No wonder it gradually fell out of favour as a royal palace, knowing such lovely devices were tucked away in darkened corners. Although, not all prisoners endured such horrendous conditions. Walter Raleigh had his ‘rooms’ at the Tower altered so that they could accommodate his wife and family, and his son was even born there in 1605!
To end on a happy note, the Tower is also, according to tradition, home to the first documented Valentine’s message, with the Duke of Orleans, captured after Agincourt, writing love letters to his wife in France. In one letter, he wrote a poem, calling her his “very gentle Valentine” – so the Tower has a romantic side too, after all…