There are many places in London that most Londoners are happy to leave for the tourists, and I’m not just referring to a certain chain of steak restaurants in which no-one who actually lives here has ever dined.
I refer instead to the museums, the galleries, the churches, the monuments - those things that make the place what it is (they're called ‘attractions’ for a reason). How many people who actually live in London have been round Westminster Abbey or the Houses of Parliament, or climbed up the Monument or the dome of St Paul’s? These are some of the best things that London has to offer, but most of the people who visit them are, well, just visiting.
The Tower - or, to use its full title, Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London - is such a place. Recently, some friends from Canada came to stay with us, so I had the perfect excuse to buck the trend and see some of London from a tourist’s point of view.
I had a really good time, and I even learned a few things – yes, I who reckoned I knew most things historical already!
I marvelled at the Crown Jewels (for which, the queue doesn’t take as long as everyone thinks), and took note of the packing-cases which are also on display by the exit, probably to emphasise that this is very much a working collection (although most of the implements on display haven’t been used for the past 62 years).
Afterwards, we checked the time and headed over to the moat (grassed over, these days) for one of the half-hourly guided tours. These are conducted by one of the Yeomen Warders, and they are full of information about the Tower’s long and often bloody history.
It so happened that the Yeoman who did our tour was the Raven Master; like all of the other Yeomen, he had to serve in the Forces and receive the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal in order to be considered for a position at the Tower, but his particular responsibility is looking after the ravens. There are six of these, and legend has it that the kingdom will fall if they ever leave; in order to protect against this, the Raven Master advised us that they have a seventh, reserve raven who can take the place of any that go AWOL.
The tour ended in St Peter ad Vincula, the Tudor chapel that serves as the parish church for the Tower community (the Yeomen and their families live within the precincts of the Tower). This outwardly pretty-looking building has a sinister past, for it was here that the headless corpses of those who had been executed on Tower Hill were buried (the heads were stuck on spikes and displayed on London Bridge). The Raven Master described this place, rather accurately I thought, as the opposite of the likes of Westminster Abbey; this was where those who had fallen from grace ended up. Among those buried there are three queens (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey) and notables like Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, several members of the Dudley family and the Duke of Monmouth.
We then took in the centre of the complex, the White Tower. First off was the Line of Kings, a frankly massive display of armour which ranged in size from the mens’ extra-extra-large (the suit made for Henry VIII, complete with an overly prominent codpiece) to the boys’ small (the one made for Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son). Elsewhere were exhibits about coins and weaponry – in its time, the Tower has served as the base for the Royal Mint as well as London’s principal armoury – throughout the ages, and amid all of the displays of swords and guns there’s a calm little room which the tourists fall silent as they traipse through it. This room is the Chapel of St John, which dates back to when the Tower was first built in the 1170s and 1180s, which makes it (in structural terms) London's oldest church, and a fine example of Norman ecclesiastical architecture.
Back in the 1960s, the architecture critic Ian Nairn had seen through the touristy bits and got straight to the root of the White Tower’s significance: “Perhaps no other building in the whole of England conveys such an overwhelming effect of early Norman steamrollering mass, the force that produced the Domesday Book and fixed the shires.” He’d touched on a key point about the building itself. It was a key - for London, the key - symbol of Norman power. It is with this symbolism in mind that Boris Johnson (who has a good view of it, from City Hall) has more recently described the Tower as “a Lubyanka, an expression of power, a horrible bully of a building ... It told the English that they had been beaten ... conquered by a race of people who built great donjons and keeps on a scale that had never been attempted on the island.”
But the Tower’s long and bloody history has always extended beyond the Normans who built it. The headless bodies buried in the chapel tell part of the Tower’s gruesome history; for centuries it was the most notorious prison and torture-venue in the country, the place where the boy-king Edward V and his brother (known to history as the Princes in the Tower) were imprisoned and then murdered, the place where countless prisoners were subjected to the rack. These and many other dark deeds form a long shadow over the Tower. Anyone with even a passing interest in this country’s history should visit. Even if they are from London.
One last thing, which has got me thinking. Near Traitor’s Gate at the moment is a series of billboards that tell, among other stories, of Samuel Pepys's unsuccessful hunt for £7000-worth of gold coins that had been buried in the grounds of the Tower. These billboards were obviously covering up some construction work but I was intrigued as I didn’t know that story. I knew the great diarist had once fallen asleep during a sermon at the Tower (presumably in St Peter ad Vincula) and that years after giving up on the diary he’d been imprisoned there on trumped-up charges of spying for the French because of his support for James II, but digging for gold? Another story, I think, for another time.