History of London’s Dark Tower
A grim history of treason, torture and death
HIS wicked tower,” says Phoebe Meryll in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, “like a cruel giant in a fairy tale, must be fed with blood.” And, indeed, for more than 700 years the Tower of London was the nation’s slaughterhouse, running with the blood of “the best and bravest in England.”
Used as a prison as late as the Second World War, Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London comprises buildings and grounds covering 18 acres. Until 150 years ago, it also housed the Royal Zoo and the Royal Mint. Today it is a treasury, a garrison, two chapels, several armouries and a museum.
The dark heart of the complex is the ironically named White Tower (so called because its walls were once whitewashed). Built by William the Conqueror, it was his chief London stronghold “against the fickleness of the vast and fierce populace.”
Its architect was Gundulf, later Bishop of Rochester. He was succeeded by another bishop, Rannulf Flambard of Durham, who so “pilled and shaved” the people for his building fund that he was thrown into the tower he had just completed — its first recorded prisoner and, six months later, its first fugitive. Friends smuggled him a coil of rope in a wine jar, and he slid 65 feet to the ground and escaped to France.
The tower the bishops built is roughly square, 118 feet by 107, and 90 feet high. Its stone walls are 15 feet thick at the base, tapering up to 11 feet. Parapets fence the roof, and a turret rounds off each corner. Later kings, notably Henry III and Edward I, girdled it with walls and a moat and added gateways and bastions until it was one of the largest, stoutest fortresses in Europe.
But the White Tower itself they left more or less alone. Its exterior is as it was 900 years ago, except for the windows, which have been widened, reputedly by Sir Christopher Wren, from the wary Normans’ arrow slits. The interior has the same thick walls dividing each of the four floors into three rooms.
Below are the dungeons. The worst was Little Ease, said to he a four-foot cage too cramped for a prisoner to stand upright or lie. Guy Fawkes was chained here in 1605 before being submitted to the rack; he confessed after 3o minutes of torture The rack disappeared years ago, but “the Scavenger’s Daughter,” which crushed the body, is still in the Tower, along with the manacles used to suspend a prisoner by his hands, and the pilliwinks, a sort of thumbscrew.
Enough. Leave the dungeons. Two floors above is the chapel of St. John, with its high barrel vault and bare, cream-coloured stone. Close your eyes and it will people itself : the Archbishop of Canterbury and two high-ranking priests were at prayers here in 1381 when Wat Tyler’s rebels burst in and dragged them off to death, and here Mary Tudor married Philip of Spain by proxy in 1554.
The Banqueting Hall on the same floor is always associated with Charles, Duke of Orleans, taken prisoner at Agincourt, who spent much of his 25 years’ captivity at the Tower. Now it, too, is part of the Armouries, where the weapons and costumes of ancient wars are displayed.
Here is a shield that could “give fire;” a weapon incorporating a spear, a club and three gun barrels; and two of the last surviving longbow staves, once England’s national weapon. Also in the Armouries are suits of grey steel armour by the dozen, fluted and damascened, filigreed and arabesqued, gilded and silvered and engraved with royal devices.
Contrary to popular belief, there have been only seven beheadings in the Tower of London, all on Tower Green, and all the victims people of highest estate. First was Lord Hastings, executed by order of Richard, Duke of Gloucester in 1483.