Since yesterday was all about Westminster, today would be dedicated to the City of London, often referred to as just “the City,” or “the Square Mile.” Although the oldest part of metropolitan London, most of buildings in the City are relatively new. The succession of buildings that were once here — the old Roman forum and amphitheatre, the Saxon halls, the dark-beamed wooden houses and shops of the Tudor era — are all long vanished. In their place are the sleek skyscrapers of big business. The City is London’s financial center.
As we emerged from the Monument tube station that morning, we came face to face with the station’s namesake — the Monument of the Great Fire of London.
The fluted Doric column made from white Portland stone looms over the intersection of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill. The inside has a narrow spiral staircase, and there is a viewing platform near the top. The very top is capped by a gilded urn of fire. If the column were to be tipped over on its side to the east, the urn’s flames would be resting on the starting place of the fire, exactly 202 feet away.
That empty patch of Monument Street (marked with an X in the photo below) was once a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane belonging to Thomas Farriner, who made hardtack for the Royal Navy. He extinguished his oven fire when he closed for business around nine o’clock Saturday night. His daughter Hanna checked the oven around midnight, and later swore it was cold. Shortly after that, in the dark pre-dawn of the morning of September 2, 1666, the ground floor filled with smoke, and flames began licking the wooden ceiling beams from a fire in the upper portion of the chimney. Farriner and his daughter escaped by climbing onto an adjoining roof. Their maid was not so lucky. Soon the building was engulfed. Before dawn, a strong wind picked up from the east.
London was a tinderbox. There was little open space. The buildings all abutted each other, and were all made of wood and lath & plaster, many with thatched roofs and straw flooring. Nearby warehouses were filled with timber, oil, hemp, tar, flax, pitch, coal and all manner of handy fuel. The previous July and August had seen a low amount of rainfall, so everything was brittle and dry. If the City were set up by arsonists for deliberate destruction, they couldn’t have done a better job.
As the sun rose, the fire had already engulfed its first church, St. Margaret’s, on the site where the Monument now stands. People were beginning to panic, but London’s Lord Mayor hesitated, at first dismissing it as such a minor conflagration that “a woman might piss it out” (delightfully direct were those pre-Victorians), but he soon had to eat his words. Londoners packed what they could and streamed out of the city.
In the days before professional fire departments, putting out fires came down to volunteers. Every parish church had fire fighting equipment on hand: usually brass syringe-like “squirts,” leather buckets, and massive hooks for pulling down houses. Water in large quantities was often scarce, so the primary strategy for halting the progress of fires was to create firebreaks by pulling down unburned houses and shops. The owners of said structures were understandably reluctant to destroy their perfectly good buildings (even if they were right in the path of the fire), so it was a real test of their civic-mindedness. Bucket brigades were formed to get water from wells and pumps to areas under the gravest threat.
Imagine a volunteer firefighter’s surprise when he looked up and saw that the person passing him the bucket was none other than King Charles II himself. The normally lazy and dissolute monarch stirred himself off his velvet cushions in Whitehall Palace and headed to the City, where he began supervising, issuing orders, working the bucket brigades, and generally demonstrating the kind of leadership he had been unwilling to apply in most other situations. He certainly came out of it looking better than the Lord Mayor.
Fed by strong winds, and creating its own diabolical atmosphere as major fires do, the towering flames spread, unchecked, to the west at a pace of about thirty yards per hour. Thunderous booms and cracks echoed across the city as buildings imploded. By the third day, the fire had reached St. Paul’s cathedral. Only the stone walls were left standing. The lead from the roof ran in molten, glowing rivers down the street like volcanic lava. All the buildings on the north side of London Bridge were destroyed. Dense smoke spread over a fifty mile area.
By the fourth day, the fire’s westward progress caused people to think about protecting Whitehall Palace, and it was even conceivable that Westminster was under threat if the winds continued. The Royal Navy began using gunpowder to blow up buildings between Somerset House and Whitehall. Other firebreaks began finally seeing success as the winds died down. The fire consumed all available fuel. It was completely out by the end of the week, but the ground remained hot to the touch for days afterwards.
The face of London was permanently changed. St. Paul’s was reduced to its exterior masonry walls. What was once a crowded, thriving, essentially still-medieval city was now an ashy wasteland. The lone familiar structure was the Tower of London, behind stone walls upwind and east of the fire, so it was spared. Of the 448 acres within the City walls, 373 acres were wiped out, and 13,200 houses and 87 churches were no more.
Luckily, the Monument that now stands near the fire’s starting place does not commemorate a large loss of life. Fewer than ten people are (officially) reported to have died, including the Farriners’ poor maid. But over 80,000 were now homeless. The very first insurance company, the Fire Office, was founded the next year. As re-building began, Charles II issued a royal proclamation: all new buildings in the City of London were to be of brick or stone. Architect Sir Christopher Wren became the busiest man in England.
The Monument itself (designed by Wren) was part of the rebuilding program, completed in 1677. In the aftermath, it took some time to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Many in the City assumed it was arson perpetrated by the Catholics, and in fact the original Latin inscription on the Monument made some disparaging comments about “popery” that weren’t removed for almost two hundred years, long after the cause was determined to be accidental. More on that in the next entry…
We didn’t linger long at the Monument, but headed east down Lower Thames Street toward the Tower of London. The Tower of London is actually a conglomeration of several towers (20 altogether) and other buildings, built at different times for different reasons. The centerpiece is still the original tower, known as the “White Tower,” the most imposing and impressive building Londoners of the 11th century had ever seen. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror, beginning around 1078 and finished by 1100. Originally located right where the easternmost section of the old Roman wall met the Thames, the White Tower anchored what William intended to be a strong defensive position for his newly-acquired territory. By God, these Normans built castles, not the humble little halls and hill forts that littered the Anglo-Saxon landscape.
Most of the other buildings in the Tower complex were added during major expansions ordered by William III and his heir Edward I from the the early 1200s through the early 1300s. Thick “curtain” walls went up on the west and north, and replaced the crumbling Roman wall to the east. Rings of small fortifying towers were built as added defense. Each ring was separated by open spaces and pathways called “wards.”
The Tower was no longer used as any kind of royal residence by the early 1500s. It became more of a defensive “keep” — a fort, a meeting place, the Royal Mint (until 1812), an armory…and a prison, which increasingly darkened its reputation. Although no great foreign armies invaded England’s shores after William’s 1066 conquest, there were enough civil wars and local rebellions to keep the Tower’s defenses busy for hundreds of years.
As far as “newer” construction and additions, the cluster of Tudor buildings known as the Queen’s House was built in the 1540s as lodgings for the Tower’s chief constable. It was not, as many websites state, built for Anne Boleyn, who would have been too dead to enjoy it by the time it was constructed. A set of Tudor storehouses north of the White Tower were replaced by an army barracks known as the Waterloo Block in the 1840s. Other Victorian-era buildings now line the eastern wall.
There are two chapels, one built into the interior of the White Tower (St. John’s) and one next to the Waterloo Block (St. Peter-in-Chains).
The current entrance for the Tower’s visitors is through the wetsern gatehouse known as Middle Tower. Dating from one of Henry III’s expansions in the 1200s, it was re-surfaced with Portland stone in 1717, and had the coat of arms of George I added above the arch. The iron portillicus is long gone, but the grooves where it once rose and lowered are still visible.
Another defensive feature, known as a “barbican,” also once guarded the approach to the Tower. (The barbican was the “first tower” before you reached the Middle Tower.) The rounded interior of the barbican became home to the Royal Menagerie, and the structure was later known as Lion Tower.
The Royal Menagerie began when the Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Henry III with three leopards in the 1230s. Lions were soon added, along with jackals, owls, a polar bear (who would go fishing in the Thames, attached to his pen by a long chain), brown bears, hyenas, and assorted others. They were housed in wooden pens lining the inside wall of the barbican. James I added a small exercise yard and an audience platform, and the inhabitants of London could view the animals for a small fee. The English climate and the cramped conditions were not conducive to good health for most of these creatures, so there was a pretty frequent turnover, but monarchs did not seem to have any trouble acquiring fresh specimens of exotic beasts, especially once Britain became an empire. (An American mountain lion was described by one chronicler as “an Indian cat from Virginia.”) It was finally decided to move the animals to the newly-opened London Zoo in 1831. The only animals to remain behind are the well-known Tower ravens, who now freely hop around the walls and lawns (their wings are clipped), and retire to a spacious aviary at night.
The Lion Tower was pulled down not long after the departure of the animals. Its crumbled foundation and the pit that once housed the drawbridge gears were still visible off to our left as we approached the ticket takers of Middle Tower. Once we passed through the Middle Tower, we followed the footbridge that crossed the moat. The moat is now waterless, a wide expanse of green lawn marking where it once existed. With the moat behind us, we entered Byward Tower, the true entrance of the Tower of London.
I plugged into my audio tour (available at almost every major site in London, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee — it’s worth it) and headed through one final archway into the Inner Ward.
The White Tower is still quite impressive. The external wooden staircase was designed to be removed in case the defenses were overrun, making entry into the stronghold extremely difficult. The interior was designed to handle all the needs of a medieval king, especially in times of crisis — a council hall, private living quarters, and a thick-walled basement, rumored to be a place of interrogation and torture. (The White Tower basement is off-limits to the public, but there is a torture display in the basement of Wakefield Tower if that’s your thing.)
The three public floors of the White Tower today are occupied by a museum dedicated to armor and weapons. There are multiple suits of armor custom made for Henry VIII (you can trace his weight gain through the years), and every instrument of violent mayhem known to man.
Across the Inner Ward to the south are the riverside defensive wall and the towers designated to be cozier royal quarters when the White Tower accommodations proved a little too spare. Wakefield Tower was built for the use of Henry III around 1220, but his son, Edward I, didn’t take to it, and had his own lodgings, St. Thomas’ Tower, built over the river entrance known as Traitors’ Gate. Lanthorn Tower was designated as the “Queen’s residence,” but it came to be used as quarters for the whole royal family, along with an extensive set of buildings running along the east side of the Inner Ward. The area between Wakefield and Lanthorn was once occupied by the typical “great hall” of a medieval castle (see the previous entry on Westminster Hall), but, like the royal lodgings immediately to the east, was torn down in the mid-1600s.
After the Wars of the Roses in the late 1400s, Wakefield Tower was where feeble-minded Henry VI was imprisoned by the victorious Edward IV. Henry may have been happier here as a deposed ex-monarch than as a ruler, as he cared nothing for power and knew nothing of government. He was content to roam through the Tower gardens in a shabby robe and mumble prayers. (Royal and noble prisoners were kept in relative comfort.) Edward IV was frequently magnanimous to defeated foes, and decided Henry was harmless. Henry was a “guest” of the Tower for several years. But after one too many uprisings in his name came close to toppling Edward, it was decided that the old king had to go.
Edward entrusted the task to his loyal younger brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester. On the night of May 21, 1471, the holy day of the feast of the Ascension, Henry was performing an all-night vigil on his knees in his “oratory” — his personal little chapel built into his quarters. Sometime before midnight, he was brutally bashed over the back of the head from behind and died almost instantly. It was put around that the old king, known to be in fragile health, had succumbed to natural causes. No one really believed it. Some later said the weapon that did the deed was wielded not by paid assassins in the service of the duke of Gloucester, but by the duke himself.
No one was a more dangerous enemy to Edward IV than his other brother, the duke of Clarence. The unstable Clarence betrayed and changed sides on Edward at least twice during the Wars of the Roses, and twice was forgiven. Finally, his increasingly psychotic behavior caused him to be imprisoned in the Tower and sentenced to death. Being the brother of the king, he was allowed to choose the manner of his execution. According to an oft-told story that may or may not be true, he chose to be drowned in a butt (about 108 gallons) of sweet Malmsey wine. The messy sentence was duly carried out in 1478 in Bowyer Tower in the north wall. (A “butt” was a type of barrel. In castles, palaces, and upper-class houses, wine was kept in copious amounts in a “buttery.” Its purchase, storage, and decanting was supervised by the “butler.” [He didn’t answer doors.] The dairy product known as “butter” is named after the barrel it’s churned in.)
Edward IV, tall and fair-haired, was a bold and cunning warrior-king in the mold of his great-uncle (and Henry VI’s father), Henry V. However, he had none of Henry V’s sober judgement or self-restraint. In an era when kings were expected to be a little promiscuous, Edward IV entered the realm of legend. Seriously, the man was a walking hard-on. No woman, married or maiden, high-born or lowly servant, was safe when the king was in the vicinity. He may have even sexed himself to death, as the once vigorous king died from an unknown ailment at the age of only forty in 1483. All that is known is that his overweight body was debauched, exhausted, and thoroughly used up.
The crown should have passed to his twelve-year-old son, Prince Edward, but twelve-year-olds are not capable of independent rule, and need a regent to run the government. Enter the ever-trustworthy Richard, duke of Gloucester, the boys’ uncle, who took his place as Prince Edward’s regent and “Protector.” This would lead to the most notorious event in Tower history.
Gloucester placed Prince Edward and his ten-year-old brother, Richard, duke of York into the fairly luxurious tower next to Wakefield called the Garden Tower. It was for their own protection, of course. The kingdom was still unsteady, and a lot of conniving nobles would be out to do the boys harm. First and foremost among them was the boys’ so-called Protector himself. It didn’t take long for Gloucester to 1) have his dead older brother’s marriage posthumously annulled, and 2) declare his own still-living mother as an adultress (except in the question of his own birth). The two princes were declared bastards from two directions and disinherited. Gloucester was duly crowned Richard III. The two princes were moved to the White Tower, occasionally glimpsed behind the barred windows through the summer of 1483, then never seen again.
They were almost certainly smothered in their beds by assassins on Richard’s orders that autumn. Richard made no attempt to explain their disappearance, public opinion hardened against him, and his inner circle was already making plans to openly or secretly ditch him. I guess Richard had hoped his new subjects would simply forget about the princes. In less than two years, Richard’s stripped, bleeding body was slung over the rump of a horse after the battle of Bosworth and dumped in an umarked grave, abandoned by all. The victor in that contest, Henry (VII) Tudor, started a new dynasty by marrying the princes’ older sister.
In 1674, workmen dismantling an old turret staircase in the White Tower discovered the skeletons of two young boys stuffed into the staircase foundations. Whether or not these are the remains of the two princes is still a hot topic of scholarly debate. (Human remains are evidently not a rarity around the Tower.) I have my opinion, and I could go into both sides of the argument, but that sounds like a fun thing for the reader to do him/herself some rainy afternoon. (It really comes down to how much stock you put in the writings of Sir Thomas More — investigative journalist or imaginative propagandist?)
Some say Richard didn’t do it. Some say his lieutenant, the duke of Buckingham, committed the crime thinking it would please his boss, or independently for his own reasons. Some say the princes were secretly hustled into a safe exile. While Richard III was not the twisted, hunchbacked demon of the Shakespeare play, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, both at the time and through later historical investigation, points to Richard arranging the prince’s permanent disappearance. Forever after, the old Garden Tower became known as “Bloody Tower” (even though they died in the White Tower). Sadly, Bloody Tower was closed for renovation the day we visited.
From very early on, the Tower of London housed official state prisoners, usually those suspected of treason. After the verdict, the guilty party was immediately rowed from their trial at Westminster Hall downriver to the Tower, where they entered via the water entrance under St. Thomas’s Tower known as “Traitors’ Gate,” and awaited their fate, usually the chopping block. This caused the Tower to be permanently associated with executions, although very few took place within the Tower walls. Most state executions took place to the north on Tower Hill.
Only a privileged half-dozen or so got the honor of having their heads lopped off in the Tower itself. There is a beautiful glass sculpture supposedly marking the spot of the execution scaffolding, but it is in the wrong location. Contemporary sources place the scaffaolding immediately north of the White Tower, where the Waterloo Block now stands.
Of all the Tower’s executions, none are more well-known than Anne Boleyn. Said to be witty, spirited, and devastatingly attractive, she was the reason Henry VIII cast aside his first wife (creating the Church of England to do so)…and then was cast aside herself. Like her predecessor, she had failed to conceive a male heir, producing only the future Elizabeth I, and once Henry’s initial lust for her had burned away, he found her a total pain in his ever-widening ass — haughty, demanding, and flirtatious with male members of the court. Henry had her arrested for adultery. A random, low-level court musician was accused of being her lover. He was brought to the Tower, tortured extensively, and confessed to the crime, not neglecting to name a dozen others, including Anne’s brother, adding incest to the list of charges. As the Tower’s torturers worked the poor musician over, it’s a wonder he didn’t name half of London as sharing Anne’s bed.
Cheating on a king counts as treason, and Anne was put on trial. The trial was rigged from the outset. Before it had even begun, a skilled swordsman had already been sent for from France to ensure to first execution of a queen of England would go smoothly. After the inevitable guilty verdict was delivered by the kangaroo court headed by her own uncle (toadying for favor with the king), she impressed everyone in the days before her death with her dignity, cool, and gallows humor. “From here on, I shall be known as Queen Anne Lackhead,” she remarked to an attendant. Anne Boleyn was swiftly beheaded on May 19, 1536, and her body interred in the nearby St. Peter’s chapel.
Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the ditzy and frivolous Katherine Howard, was also executed on the same spot on identical charges in 1542. The only difference was, the charges against Howard were most likely true. (She had been banging around with a courtier named Thomas Culpeper.)
The year before, Henry had sentenced Margaret Pole, the now-elderly daughter of the drowned-in-wine duke of Clarence, to death for the treasonous actions of her son, who was frustratingly unavailable to be executed himself (wisely choosing this time to see the sights of France.) She refused to kneel for her execution, and the axeman had to literally chase the surprisingly spry 67-year-old around the Tower Green, gradually hacking her to death over several minutes. That one probably didn’t go on his resume.
Henry VIII died, bloated and ulcerated, in 1547, leaving three children by three different queens: the devoutly Catholic Mary I (by first wife Katherine of Aragon, divorced and exiled), the shrewd Elizabeth I (by second wife Anne Boleyn, executed), and the devoutly Protestant Edward VI (by third wife Jane Seymour, who died as a result of the birth). Henry’s immediate successor, the sickly, teenage Edward, was dying himself by 1553, and cut his half-sisters out of his will. Mary because of her Catholicism, Elizabeth because of her disgraced mother. He named a Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir (without her knowledge). Stunned when told the news, Grey was coerced into accepting the crown and lasted as queen for nine days before a fickle group of nobles decided to back Mary’s claim instead. The vengeful “Bloody Mary” promptly had the hapless Grey executed at the Tower for the temerity of being crowned queen against her will by her greedy relatives. Blindfolded, Lady Jane Grey spent her last few seconds feeling for the chopping block, asking “What do I do? Where is it?” She was 16.
The subsequent wrangling between Mary and Elizabeth (who was a prisoner in the Tower herself for awhile) is a story for another time, as are many, many other anecdotes regarding the Tower itself, including the one about the cell just below river level that floods with rats when the tide comes up.
OK, one more story. After his capture, Guy Fawkes, famous participant of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and assassinate James I in the name of Catholicism, was held after his arrest in “Little Ease.” Little Ease is a windowless cell in the basement of the White Tower that measures about four by four by four. Its occupant could neither stand up nor lie down, but had to crouch for as long as his captors kept him there. Fawkes’ confession was soon extracted, and led to England living in terror of Catholics for the next 200 years, blaming them for the Great Fire in 1666, among many other crimes. The Tower continued to hold state prisoners as late as the 1950s.
Naturally, the Tower is purported to be the most haunted building in Britain. As I went from place to place, with these stories in my head, I tried to conjure up a shiver or some spooky atmosphere in my imagination. But it just can’t be done on a late spring morning when you’re crushed between hundreds of other tourists.
Here’s a sampling of the ghost stories told about the Tower, mostly by employees who work the night shift: Henry VI appears in his oratory on the anniversary of his murder (you’d think this one would be easy to verify). The two young princes have been seen wandering the grounds in nightgowns. Anne Boleyn, occasionally headless, is frequently sighted near the chapel. The Inner Ward sometimes echoes with the screams of Margaret Pole. Sometimes a tourist gets lucky and snaps a picture in broad daylight with the face of the murdered prince Edward reflected in a display case.
The weirdest story is probably the one about the guard who once attempted to bayonet the apparition of a brown bear near the crown jewels.
Oh, yes, the crown jewels. Judging by the size of the line to see them, the crown jewels are the most-visited exhibit in the entire Tower. And we’re about out of space for one entry in this series. We’ll talk about the crown jewels next time…
[The Holy Bee doesn’t make this stuff up — I am indebted to the books Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones, The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones (presumably no relation), and Stephen Inwood’s three-pound doorstop A History of London. Someone else makes up the ghost stories, I just repeat them.]