A Visit to the Tower of London

Last week I marked the half-term holidays by taking my two elder granddaughters to the Tower of London. No, they hadn’t been misbehaving, they have become fascinated with Tudor history and so we took advantage of an overnight stay in South London to travel on the Underground and arrive in advance of the tourist crowds. Actually the chill, gloomy weather and exorbitant entry fees had kept a lot of people away and we managed to find our way through the ancient portals without having to queue.

This gave us a completely uninterrupted view of the crown jewels, it was so quiet we could go around on the slow moving travellator as many times as we liked and get a better look at the regalia than I’ve ever seen before. All the more appropriate since I’ve only recently returned from Golconda with the stories of some of those legendary gemstones still ringing in my ears. I don’t think I’ve actually seen this particular collection since childhood so what did I think? Well, considering it was all re-made after the Restoration, some of the metalwork is of a rather patchy quality, the Black Prince’s ruby is actually a spinel and the legendary Koh-i-noor was ruined by re-cutting. Of course it is not possible to be unimpressed by the huge Cullinan I & II diamonds as gemstones but nowadays they seem (to me at least) to resonate too much with the greed and futility of Empire.

Anyway, we came here not to gloat at our nation’s plunder but to pay our respects to the three of her queens: Anne, Katherine and Jane, young women who lost their heads during what was arguably the most tyrannical dynasty this country has ever seen. Whilst I had probably already grasped they fact that no other British queen has been put to death all the way back to Boudicca (and she actually killed herself in AD61) I had not understood that so few other noble people had actually been executed on Tower Green. The fact that five of the seven were women may have had more to do with keeping the bloody spectacle away from the baying crowds on Tower Hill (where most “regular” executions took place) but it also speaks volumes of the way in which women were propelled into the forefront of the political intrigues of the day.

Jane Grey was 17 or 18 years old when she died while Margaret Pole was sixty seven. Their stories have been told and re-told by scholars so deeply immersed in the complex internecine tides of Tudor history that we have tended to see them as pawns rather than as people. Stand back for a moment and imagine a terrified young girl groping blindly for a block that had been placed too far away from her or an elderly grandmother* attempting to meet her fate with dignity and then being hacked to pieces by an inexperienced executioner.

And I took my little girls to listen to such stories in the very place where these events took place? Of course. Their interest was captured and, whatever else happens, I can be sure that they will take a bit of a “feminist” perspective on history from now on. Take, for instance, the case of Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, put to death in 1542 at the age of nineteen for allegedly having treasonous sexual relations with every man she had ever encountered. The traditional (mainly male) view of her character promulgated over the years was of a scheming, lascivious woman who got no more than she deserved. Come on: talk about victim blaming! She was barely out of her childhood when her greedy relatives placed her in the path of that evil, pustulent old lecher. Extensive contemporary records remain of the painstaking government inquisition into her misdeeds and all they go to prove is that some “fooling around” had taken place in the unsupervised atmosphere of the country estate where she and her cousins grew up. Poor girl.

So we paid our respects to Jane, Katherine and the rather less innocent Anne Boleyn in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula where their remains had been hastily buried all those years ago. Lilah wanted to be reassured that the heads had been correctly reunited with their bodies while Lily was still puzzling as to how she could possibly have missed the 530 carrots which adorned Cullinan I, the Great Star of Africa. The sun even came out briefly for a view of Tower Bridge so it was a wonderful outing which had the girls looking forward to catching up with Henry’s other queens at Windsor & Westminster** and me pondering on the enduring legacy of vain, autocratic and misogynistic rulers throughout history.

Well now I think we may be deep enough into my account of a British Grandmother’s holiday visit to London to have shaken off most trolls or security snoopers. I just have to choose my “key words” extremely carefully so as to defeat the surveillance algorithms and I can actually say what I want to. As the tyrannical new administration on the other side of the Atlantic takes shape a certain amount of day-to-day hysteria is dying down and people are beginning to adopt their preferred position. It happened under Henry, it has happened countless times throughout history and it will no doubt happen again. Nearly five hundred years ago the majority of subjects here looked out at the rising tide of factional hatred and reasoned: “they’ll come for the others first”, “It’s not really that bad”, “it can’t get any worse”, and of course “maybe there’s something in all of this for me”. They did it in Europe then and they are doing it all over the world now. Why on earth do we continue to expect anything different?

I had hoped that the rather distasteful*** Reality-TV mogul would quickly become bored and look elsewhere to satisfy his attention deficiency but it seems he has been given the whole world for his sand box. Personally I now believe that it will get a lot worse before it gets better but that the money trail will lead rapidly and inexorably to his downfall. Far more reprehensible to my eyes are the apologists, the talking heads (who often have the benefit of a decent education) who persist in coming out of the woodwork to offer a “balanced” point of view. There is a seemingly endless queue of people ready to go in front of a microphone to reason that night is day, the earth is flat and that the Emperor is not really naked. Interesting times indeed.

(* I mean elderly by the standards of the day, of course, not to make any personal comparisons)

(** Katherine of Aragon in buried in Peterborough Cathedral, Jane Seymore at Windsor Castle, Anne of Cleves at Westminster Abbey and Katherine Parr at Sudeley Castle)

(*** Only “rather distasteful”? Yes, rather in the way of the neighbour’s horribly spoilt three year old. You wouldn’t want them in your house and you despair of their future conduct but you’re still a long way off of suspecting them of deliberately torturing their pets)

Categories: Britain, London

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