Here to return to
THE TOWER OF LONDON
SHAKESPEARE paid homage to a common opinion, resting on “none assured ground” (as Stowe declared), when he described the Tower of London as “Julius Cæsar’s ill-erected tower.” On its site there was indeed the Arx Palatina, a Roman stronghold, remains of which have been unearthed in recent years within the precincts of the Tower; but Stowe correctly pointed out in his “Survey of London,” that “the original author and founder as well of this as also of many other towers, castels, and great buildings within the Realm” was William the Conqueror, who not later than 1078 saw the massive walls of the White Tower rise up under the direction of Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester, known to his contemporaries as “the weeping monk of Bec.”
Possibly Gundulph was plunged into gloom by the realization that his Benedictine habit concealed a genius in the science of military architecture, but his sorrow did not interfere with his work. This, the earliest and most famous of the Norman keeps in England, was intended to outlast history itself; as indeed it seemed to do when Londoners began to call it Cæsar’s. The stones were selected, and of proved strength; the walls varied from 10 feet to 15 feet in thickness, the mortar binding the stones of the lower courses, far from being “tempered with the bloud of beasts,” as a later tradition held, was a more practical compound of lime and cockle shells; while the keep was divided, to increase its strength, by an internal cross-wall from basement to battlement, between 10 feet and 6 feet in width. There was no military engine of the day that could damage the White Tower, and, as the science of warfare improved, monarch after monarch threw around it moat and wall, and a girdle of strong towers.
By the time of Edward III’s death, the fortress stood complete. It faced the river on ground gently rising to Tower Hill. The keep was surrounded by a wall studded with twelve round towers, which are famous by their various names — the Bloody Tower, the Beauchamp, the Devereux, to recall a few — for their associations with prisoners of high rank, and even with murders done by royal command. These towers enclosed the Palace Ward, for between the keep and the south wall was the royal palace, swept away by Cromwell and the Stuarts to make room for storehouses. Around the defence of the Palace Ward, and very close to it, was the outer wall, making between a narrow ward, in which an enemy, were he able to enter it, would find himself without cover from missiles and without room to manoeuvre a battering ram. This was only one of the difficulties of an attacking force, which would have had to cross a broad moat supplied from the Thames in order to make a breach in the outer defences. The moat was filled up by the Duke of Wellington when he held the position of Constable of the Tower, on account of its effects upon the health of the garrison; and no doubt in its day it killed as many people as the headsman’s axe.
It was Henry III (a builder with an outstanding reputation, if it rested on nothing else than his work at Westminster and Windsor) who constructed “the wharf “as a protection: a broad walk like the Embankment, formed of rubble thrown down between piles. Spanning the moat to the wharf was St. Thomas’ Tower, in reality a barbican, since the entrance from the river was by a wonderfully engineered gateway at its base, known to history as Traitors’ Gate, through which have passed some of England’s finest and some of her vilest men. The tower, which contains a little oratory dedicated to St. Thomas-à-Becket, must have been named after that saint as a peace offering.
Naturally enough Londoners had no love for the royal fortress, typifying as it did the power of the monarchy in the very face of their civic independence and, as Henry III had difficulties and disasters in the course of his building, the townsfolk ascribed them to the judgments of Heaven. Even more galling to a Plantagenet, they said it was a judgment of St. Thomas; and in a vision the murdered Archbishop was seen by “a holy and discreet priest,” overturning the walls with his crozier. The visionary also reported that St. Thomas accompanied his devastating labours by the quaint remark that if he himself had not found the occasion to ruin the work, St. Edmund or some other saint most certainly would have done so. But Henry persevered, and to-day Londoners are proud of the walls that so much displeased their ancestors.
As a prison the Tower of London retains its romantic interest to the full, however little it is now a menace or a defence for London, even with its regimental garrison and its sturdy Beefeaters. But the chain of prisoners which began with Ralph Flambard (who soon enough let himself down the wall by a rope, firmly grasping his crozier) perhaps did not end with the brave spy, Lieutenant Lodi, or with Roger Casement. Between the two extremes of type and time, between the Bishop and the spy, is a succession that has left a long tale of intrigue, of torture, of death, sometimes of escape, and a group of inscriptions cut or painted upon the prison walls, which forms a sort of marginal annotation to the history of the country. Most pathetic of all is the inscription “IANE,” in the Beauchamp Tower, traditionally the work of Guildford Dudley, whose wife, Lady Jane Grey, was also imprisoned nearby. The Dudleys, the Fitzgeralds of Kildare, and the Poles (who were of royal blood, and therefore dangerous to the Tudors) were among the families which were practically extirpated by imprisonment in the Tower. Arthur Pole left a beautiful inscription: “I. H. S. A passage perillus maketh a porte pleasant. Ao. 1568.” There is a grim complaint in the Beauchamp Tower: “By tortyre straynge mi troyth was tryed yet of my liberty denied 1581 Thomas Myagh.”
Of those who were condemned to death a favoured few were executed at the block within the fortress on Tower Green. These were Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, the Countess of Salisbury, Viscountess Rochford, Lady Jane Grey, and Devereux, Earl of Essex. The last-named owed the comparative privacy of his death to the fickle favour of Elizabeth, and the others to their sex, for there is no record of any woman being executed in public on Tower Hill, where so many Englishmen died; some, like Sir Thomas More, with a smile, and some like the Duke of Mon mouth, in agony, for the axe, in his case, was blunt, and the executioner nervous.
Unless the body of the sufferer was granted to relatives, it was brought back for burial to the Church of St. Peter-ad-Vincula, in the Palace Ward, founded by Henry I and rebuilt by Henry VIII, who had need of it for his many victims. Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Katherine Howard lie together in death; Cardinal Fisher and Sir Thomas More were brought here for burial a short time before Thomas Cromwell, who gave evidence against them; and here the Jacobite lords, Balmerino, Kilmarnock and Lovat were given at least a better grave than the seventy-odd Scotch prisoners of the ‘45, who were imprisoned in a dungeon in the Wakefield Tower, where many of them died for want of air and food.
There are good stories to tell of escapes from the Tower. Not the least daring was that of Father Gerard, the Jesuit, who let himself down by a rope to a boat in the Thames, despite the fact that he had been suspended in iron clamps by his hands for such long periods that they were paralysed; or that of the Jacobite Lord Nithsdale who, by the devotion of his wife, escaped disguised as a serving maid on the eve of his execution.
As for the other associations of the Tower, who has not heard of the cell named “Little Ease,” of the young Princes buried hugger-mugger at the foot of the chapel stairs that they might lie in some sort within consecrated ground; and who wishes to hear again of the “Scavenger’s daughter,” the thumbscrews, or the racks which the Tudors used so constantly, under the direction of wretches like Wriothesley and Topcliffe?
But, although the human interest of the Tower can never be exhausted, one cannot ignore the institutions or the buildings that grew up within its walls. Architecturally the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist is one of the finest pieces of Norman work now preserved to us. It is on the second floor of the White Tower, its crypt below, and above, forming a triforium arcade, is the mural gallery which runs around the whole wall of the third floor, so that it is evident how far the Norman builders considered a chapel one of the structural necessities of a keep. Subsequently, however, it fell upon evil days. Robbed of statues and stained glass, it was filled with a confused mass of putrefying documents, which were actually a danger on account of “the cankerous smell and evil scent “; but it was cleared in the last century, fortunately before the army clothing department was able to carry out a design to convert it into a tailor’s warehouse.
In the White Tower also was the Council Chamber, and the room where the judge of the King’s Bench sat long ago, while the Court of Common Pleas was held in the hall of the palace, now swept away. The Mint, once one of many, was established in the fortress which was always the natural stronghold for the king’s treasure, and is still the depository for the regalia.
It is evident, then, that in the late war the Germans showed some insight into the meaning of history when they made a special attack upon the Tower of London. An unexploded bomb or two were found in the ground, a small window was broken in the Wakefield Tower, and a pigeon was killed, while German cartoonists and medallists were delighting their compatriots with pictures of London Bridge fallen down at last, and the Tower a burning ruin; for what we call morale is a pride in past traditions, and the spirit of England would have suffered in the destruction of the Tower.
THE TOWER OF LONDON (THE MIDDLE GATEWAY).