July's Book Choice: Tower
Our Book Choice recommendation for July is Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Windmill Books) by Nigel Jones. Here the author discusses his work with Paul Lay.
Despite it numbering among Britain’s top tourist attractions, the Tower of London has had very few books devoted to it. Why is that?
As George Mallory said of Everest, ‘because it’s there’. The Tower is such an ancient and familiar part of the London landscape that we tend to take it for granted. There were a couple of heavyweight Victorian histories around 1900, but since then it’s mainly picture-led coffee table books, with the notable exception of an excellent chronicle by that underrated historian Derek Wilson, published in 1978 to mark the Tower’s millennium. I think I can claim, however, to be the first author to see the Tower as a microcosm of English history. Hardly anyone who features in our ‘island story’ from 1066 to date, from William the Conqueror to the Kray twins, has not been associated with the Tower.
The Tower of London has become associated in the public mind with the late medieval period: the story of the Princes in the Tower; the executions of Anne Boleyn, Thomas More and the Earl of Essex, for example. But many of its most intriguing stories are of more recent vintage.
Absolutely. It is a roll call of inmates since the Tudors that includes Samuel Pepys; Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole; and the Duke of Marlborough. Another military duke – Wellington – was its Constable under Victoria; and its 20th-century captives have ranged from the Irish hero Roger Casement to Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess. A dozen German spies were shot there in the Great War and the last man to be executed on the site, Josef Jakobs, was a German agent parachuted in during the Second World War.
The Tower was founded by William the Conqueror. Why did he choose that site and what was there before?
It was chosen for purely military reasons. The Normans, greatly outnumbered in the conquered capital, built what is now the White Tower to overawe the English and protect London from waterborne assault along the Thames. The site was the south-east corner of the old Roman city walls of Londinium and the foundations of those walls can still be seen in the Tower today, which is why the White Tower was sometimes called ‘Caesar’s Tower’ by those a little hazy about its history – including Shakespeare.
Can you tell us about the way in which the structure developed over time?
Initially it was a simple castle fortress to house a military garrison. Soon a royal palace (now largely vanished) sprang up to the south of the White Tower, which under King Stephen became the principal royal residence in London. All monarchs traditionally spent the night before their coronation there. Under Henry III the Royal Mint and Menagerie was added. Henry’s son, Edward I, the great castle builder, added many towers and walls and it was besieged more than once during civil unrest. It also became the royal VIPs’ prison, the function for which it is best known. Elizabeth I was famously held captive there by her sister Mary, so understandably she didn’t use it as a residence and the palace became disused and was finally pulled down by Cromwell (who also melted down the Crown Jewels so Charles II had to reconstitute them). Its other functions have included the royal treasure house; record office, armoury and observatory and – less salubriously – torture chamber and execution site.
How authentic is the tourist experience today? What parts of the Tower are closed to the public? What goes on there?
The Tower is run by Historic Royal Palaces, who are pretty clued up historically and try to give as accurate a picture of the Tower’s past as possible. On the one hand they try to avoid sensationalism – the exhibition devoted to torture at the Tower is tiny for example – but on the other there are some crass gimmicks. For instance, in the Bloody Tower you get to press an electric button to vote on whether you think Richard III murdered the little princes or not. (He did, by the way.) Because the Tower is the nation’s number one historical tourist attraction, with up to three million visitors a year, tourists get shepherded to the more well-known parts: the White Tower; the Bloody and Beauchamp towers; the Chapel where its victims are buried; and, of course the Crown Jewels. The Tower is still an active military garrison and its barracks are out of bounds to the public, as are the staff’s quarters and some of the interesting towers – the Bell Tower, where Thomas More was imprisoned, for example. However, it is still possible, on a winter afternoon, to find yourself alone in some numinous corner such as the Wakefield Tower, where Henry VI was murdered. It is an eerie and hair-raising experience, where history literally hangs in the air. There’s nowhere else on earth quite like it.
Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London is out now in paperback
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