Tower of London and Anne Boleyn

21 01 2009

In preparation for this particular London trip, I read Phillipa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, to get myself in the right frame of mind for seeing historic London.  Although historical fiction is often far from fact, it helps bring history and old intrigues alive.  As is apparent from the title of the novel, The Other Boleyn Girl  is the story of the two popular Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, who charmed Henry VIII as mistress and wife, respectively, before their family’s dramatic fall from power after Anne is executed for treason at the Tower of London.  The Boleyn legacy lived on, however, through Anne’s daughter, who eventually became Queen Elizabeth I.  

As usual, it was cloudy on the day we visited the Tower of London.

The Tower of London is one of England’s most famous landmarks because of its turbulent and bloody history.  Henry VIII was just one of many English rulers who used this fortification, although he is arguably the most famous infamous.  While the innermost White Tower was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London as it stands today is quite a large complex of buildings and fortifications built over several hundred years. There is even a moat, although it is dry now. Our tourguide indicated, however, that there is a rumor that the city of London may fill the moat for the 2012 Olympics.

The old moat at the Tower of London is now filled with grass.

When the moat was still in operation in the middle ages, it connected directly to the River Thames. In fact, most prisoners entered the Tower of London by boat through Traitor’s Gate, which leads into St. Thomas’s tower. Princess Elizabeth herself was brought into the Tower complex via this entrance after her half sister Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) sent her here as a prisoner. Elizabeth was treated well in the Tower despite being a prisoner, however, because she was next in line for the throne after Mary.

Traitor’s Gate

The Tower of London has served over the years as a royal residence, fortress, and most famously as a political prison for high status individuals and royalty. In addition, the Tower was the actual site where the most important executions were performed. As a result, a tour of this landmark is quite gruesome. This makes sense, as the Tower was the site of involuntary confinement, political intrique, torture and execution.

Famous involuntary guests of the Tower included Kings of Scotland, Wales, and France, several princes of England, even supposed Kings of England, and of course Queen Elizabeth before she was queen. The succession of the throne of England was always in flux because there were often several heirs, which made everyone involved paranoid. As a result, whoever ended up in power would often lock up their enemies, especially if they were siblings who could usurp their power.

The Tower also hosted non-royal prisoners, including Thomas More.  More was a former friend of Henry VIII who was executed after he refused to sign a document making Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Another prisoner of the Tower was Sir Walter Raleigh, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Raleigh was sent to the Tower after he secretly married one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting without permission. Fortunately Raleigh and his wife and family were able to live in the Tower in comfort, as the crime he committed was not treasonous. Raleigh was later imprisoned again under James I, however, and beheaded for invading a Spanish city in the New World.

At the center of the Tower is the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex. Today, it is a fine example of Norman architecture and houses an exhibition of arms and armor. Honestly, I found this part of the tour a little boring. The most interesting part was an exhibit of Henry VIII’s armor, which showcased just how rotund this king was in his middle age.

The White Tower

View from the White Tower. Notice London’s new city hall, dubbed “Lord Vader’s Helmet” for obvious reasons.

Henry VIII’s Battle Armor

What I found far more interesting were the spooky interiors and staircases in the White Tower.

Norman Chapel inside the White Tower

Staircase in the White Tower

Once we got back outside, we saw much more interesting sights. First, we viewed the Royal Crown Jewels. No photos were allowed inside, of course. I considered this a must-see though! My favorite was Queen Victoria’s little crown.

Building housing the British Crown Jewels, as seen from the White Tower.

Guarding the Crown Jewels

After the jewels, we visited the courtyard where executions were carried out.  Only the most important prisoners of the highest status were executed here.  You knew you had “made it” in society if you died here.  As the queen of England, Anne Boleyn was executed here and buried in the church on the perimeter of the courtyard.  We didn’t go in the church, however, because you have to pay extra.

Execution site with the church in the background.

Medieval buildings surrounded the other side of the courtyard. The building in the corner was built for Anne Boleyn as her wedding present from Henry VIII. Nowadays, the yeoman warders live in these buildings. It’s a little known fact that people still live in the Tower of London. The church is also still used regularly.

Anne Boleyn’s residence

The Tower of London is easily accessible by Tube (Stop: Tower Hill) and is one of the major stops on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours.  We toured the Tower complex with London Walks, meeting at Tower Hill.  Our tourguide was very good, telling us both the history and lore surrounding this fortress.

While Anne Boleyn’s story is riveting, it also demonstrated quite dramatically how much power the English rulers had before the 20th century.  The mood and whim of the king could literally mean life or death for you, even if you are his wife.  Henry VIII went from being madly in love with Anne, even restructuring religious power in England so that he could marry her, to wanting to behead her when she was unable to produce a son.  Although walking in her footsteps on my visit to the Tower of London was exciting, I am glad that I did not have to live her life, even if she was queen.




One response

12 02 2010
john stevan

There been a wide number of ghost stories attached with Tower of London, one old man told me there that a witch comes there at the night of full moon, For finding truth about this statement, i often go there and hope catch him on anyday

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