Traitor's Gate, Tower of London. September 17, 2012.
April 7, 2013

The Bloody Tower

The Bloody Tower
The picture up above there shows an inside view of The Traitor's Gate. This is a a river entrance into the The Tower of London, which is actually not a single tower, but a series of towers built over the centuries. The "Bloody Tower" entrance is shown in the photo at the left.

The Tower served originally as a palace, and as a fortress. It's later history, which has come to dominate the public mind, saw it used as a zoo, as a prison, and as a mint. Most notably though it served as a place of execution for a number of notable prisoners such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, St. Thomas More, and others, including spies in WW I and WW II. There have been no executions at the Tower since the conclusion of hostilities with Germany.

Replica of rack.
Nigel Jones in the course of a little over 400 pages and 17 chapters provides a history of the tower from its origins in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest to its present day eminence as a tourist attraction and repository of the crown jewels. Because the Tower was connected with so many of the events in English history, such as deaths of Fisher, More, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Sir Walter Ralegh, and others, you get also get a brief summary of English history.

For the most part the book is fairly straightforward in its chronology. Jones has chosen, however, to include two chapters, Chapter 2, which is devoted to the tower as menagerie and mint, and Chapter 13, which is devoted to escapes from the Tower, that interrupt the chronological flow.

Jones has a great distaste for James I, which shows up in the chapter on the menagerie. James liked nothing better than bear-baiting, and the bloodier the better. He was also the fourth English king to be gay,* though I don't think Jones holds that against him. He was also incredibly dirty. Jones describes him as not dismounting for urination and excretion [defecation?]. I can't say that I feel as much distaste for James as I do for Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Still, the Tudor-Stuart monarchs, up to Charles II, were generally a nasty bunch.§

*I count Richard I, aka Coeur de Leon, Edward II, Richard II, and James I as among the gay kings of England and Britain. Richard I supposedly had a relationship with the French king while on crusade. Edward II is supposed to have died when a red hot poker was inserted into his body. The execution being designed to mimic his sexual preferences. James was notorious for liking pretty boys.

§Mary Tudor is supposed to have killed about 300 Protestants during her reign. Her father, Henry VIII, may have the deaths of 50-70,000 Catholics and dissident Protestants on his hands. The number associated with Elizabeth I is also relatively high. I had a history professor at GW who commented that Mary's executions during her 5 year reign amounted to "burning a Protestant on Sunday." As to Charles II, the worst that can be said about him is that he liked pretty women, and he fooled around with them to the detriment of his wife. He doesn't have the blood of English martyrs, either Catholic or Protestant, on his hands, and he seems to have been more tolerant than the Dutch import who was his ultimate successor. In all fairness it should be noted that the figure of 72,000 executed under Henry VIII may well be too high. Some estimates put the number of Catholics executed under the Tudors in the hundreds, not the thousands. Having said all that, the fact remains that Henry VIII was a pig.

Fans of Clint Eastwood movies may have fond memories of Escape From Alcatraz which is about the purported escape of several prisoners from the island. It may come as a surprise to some that the Tower, which has existed for almost a thousand years, is not nearly as escape proof as Alcatraz. There have been over thirty escapes from the Tower over the years, and Jones devotes a chapter to escapes. Among them is one of Edward II's favorites who was imprisoned and escaped.

The Tower has become a popular tourist attraction, and it's possible to see replicas of such goodies as manacles (not handcuffs but torture devices, see illustrations here and here) and the rack. It is also where the Crown Jewels are kept. They're rather pretty little baubles, but a bit gaudy for my taste.

The Crown Jewels, while pretty, are also not the originals. Those were melted down by Oliver Cromwell. This seems to me to be foolish. While gold objects are actually worth their weight in gold, they are, because they are artistic objects as well as gold objects, worth far more, i.e., trade at a premium over the cost of their gold content. This incident, which Jones reports and describes in some detail, confirms my negative opinion of Cromwell, and enhances my sympathy for Charles II's actions regarding him.*

*Charles had Cromwell disinterred and his body mutilated, including the removal of his head. There are rumors about the location of Cromwell's head which the interested reader can find in Wikipedia.

Jones provides an interesting and informative book about the Tower, one which might enhance your enjoyment the next time you pass nigh Traitor's Gate.

Next up, a book about Vauxhall Gardens.