Friday, June 21, 2013

the tower of london comes through again

If you see only one thing in England, make it the Tower of London. Truly. I have been to this place at least five times now, and it never disappoints.

Founded in 1066 by William the Conqueror, the Tower (officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress) is a series of buildings inside a fortress wall that sit on the banks of the River Thames just east of the old City of London. The Tower has served as many things over the years -- royal palace, mint, armory, prison, and home to the Crown Jewels, among others. We spent spent half of the day there and, really, were it not for the impatience of the smaller Ecksteins, I would have been happy to spend a whole day touring the grounds.

We took a tour conducted by one of the Tower's many Yeoman Wardens (all of whom are retired British military non-commissioned officers), and it was fantastic. Our tour began in the trench around the fortress wall that long served as a defensive moat. Our Warden explained, among other things, how King William I began construction of the White Tower (the structure in the middle of the fortress from which the entire set of buildings take their name) in 1066, the year his Norman army ousted the last Anglo-Saxon rulers. The Normans were not exactly popular among the Anglo-Saxon locals and William figured it would be important to have a fortress here to control the River Thames and the City of London. It's only been 947 years, so perhaps it is a bit early to judge it but, at this point, William appears to have been right.

The tour continued inside the first set of walls at the base of the Clock Tower. Our Warden pointed to the set of residences where he, his fellow Yeoman Wardens and their families reside inside, and then continued with the dramatic history of the building, the most dramatic of which, of course, are the many imprisonments and killings associated with the Tower. Although many people were imprisoned at the Tower -- particularly during the reign of the Tudors -- only a select few were actually executed there, most having been executed on Tower Hill, which sits just north of the Tower.

The tour moved to Traitor's Gate, under the Bloody Tower, up  to the Tower Green and into the St. Peter ad Vincula chapel, which serves as final resting place for so many, including Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Howard (I know, more Henry VIII stuff).

The White Tower served for many years as the royal palace, with several kings and their families, along with their staff, residing there. The White Tower is now a combination of original structural features (including the toilet that my mother-in-law, Lois, thought was still in use -- she may appear to be laughing but this is really her push face), and a series of exhibits discussing the various functions that building took on once it ceased being used as a kings' residence.

Or, so I am told. Soon after we walked into the White Tower, Owen announced that he needed to use the bathroom. I told Keri and the others I would see them later, attempted to take Owen down the same steps we had used to enter the building only seconds before, only to be told we would have to leave another way. One guide graciously offered a "short cut" that led us into an original spiral staircase that was long the building's only means of getting up and down. From there, we had to traverse back and forth several times, ultimately walking through the gift shop which sits in the basement of the White Tower. I will observe here that this particular basement long served as the Tower's dungeon and, I understand, hundreds of people were tortured there over the years. There is something very odd about using that space now to sell trinkets and books, given the horrible things that took place there, even if they did happen hundreds of years ago. (As you can see here, Owen made it to the toilet and, later in the day was able to hoist a cross bow in defense of the Tower. He seems a little too familiar with the weapon for someone who has never used one before. Maybe I need to double check what they are teaching in the first grade these days.)

As we waited for the others outside the White Tower, Owen and I had a long chat -- or, rather a series of questions (his) and answers (mine). As usual, the questions covered a wide range of topics (religion, the origin of the nation state, colonialism, torture, false confessions, taxing power, the rule of law, representative democracy) and forced me to think on my toes. When the others got back, my in-laws had to leave as they had a show tonight they needed to catch.

Keri, Lauren, Owen and I then walked through the two story structure that overlooks the Thames, a series of rooms that King Edward I had built out as his palace. Upon hearing his name, I recalled that I knew a couple things about this king --  he was known as Longshanks, he expelled the Jews from England and he was a brutal conqueror of the Welsh and Scottish people. As these things were going around in my head, I may have said aloud, "Edward I, that guy was a dick." Excellent moment in parenting, I know. Lauren immediately asked what that word meant. (Had I really not said it in front of her before?) I explained it was a bad word and that I should not have used it. I doubt she believes me, and I expect I will hear more about this over the next days and weeks. In my defense, though, he really was a dick. (Speaking of Lauren, as you will see in this picture, she is not the person you want manning your crossbow in a time of trouble. Lauren is many wonderful things, but warrior princess is not among them.)

As I write this, I think back to an earlier post where I thank the good people of New York for, in their free use of profanity, making me look good by comparison. I will note that the people of London have not been so kind as to curse in front of my children, at least not in any way they can understand. Perhaps this is the kind of good behavior that results when your most famous tourist attraction was once a prison and torture chamber.


  1. You are having such an amazing time, and I am enjoying so much reading about your adventures, bathrooms and all. Love from us to all of you.

  2. Just to be clear--not a push face!! Wonderful day with the Eckstein clan!!