Nigel Jones

The building of our history

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Athens, for all its current woes, still has the Parthenon. Rome has the Colosseum, Paris the Louvre, Berlin the Reichstag, Beijing the forbidden city, Moscow the Kremlin and Washington the White House. But where in London is there a structure that sums up and encapsulates the sweep of  English History from 1066 and all that, to the Second World War and beyond?

The answer is certainly obvious to the 2-3 million mainly overseas visitors who flock to the Tower of London every year, making it easily Britain's top tourist attraction. What makes the Tower such a magnet is surely the sheer multiplicity of functions it has fulfilled over the centuries, and the fact that almost everyone who is anyone in English history — from William the Conqueror who had it built, to the Kray twins who were among its last detainees — has a link to this grim, grey fortress on the Thames. It is a rich subject, as I found when writing my new book on its past.

The Normans who founded the Tower were masters at throwing up instant castles to house themselves and overawe the inhabitants of their newly conquered lands. Like an IKEA cupboard, their flatpack timber fortresses could be built in a week, and set in stone later when it looked like their occupation had become permanent. Sited on the remains of a Roman fort tucked into the south-east corner of Londinium's city walls — (Shakespeare, not always an accurate historian, was apparently among those who thought that the White Tower, the Tower's central keep, was built by Julius Caesar) — the Tower's first function, after it was built in 1078, was that of a castle to hold London's Norman garrison.

The later Norman kings erected a Royal palace (now vanished) south of the White Tower, and it became a principal Royal residence where, down to the reign of Elizabeth I, monarchs would traditionally spend their pre-coronation night in vigil and prayer before a triumphal procession, past fountains running red with wine, to Westminster Abbey. In an age of warrior Kings, Henry III was a notably useless ruler, letting his kingdom slide into a ruinous civil war with his barons, but it was during his long reign (1216-72), and that of his more martial son Edward I (1272-1307) that the Tower acquired the shape and outline that it retains today, with its massive inner and outer curtain walls and some twenty lesser towers or turrets.

It was Henry, too, who added to the Tower's roles by bringing his Royal menagerie here and centralising the Royal Mint to strike the kingdom's coinage within its walls. Medieval standards of animal care were not great — so although the first elephant and the first polar bear ever seen in Britain were brought to the Tower, neither creature lasted for long. The elephant's bones ended up as fake Holy relics in Westminster Abbey, while its house was used to hold London's Jews — imprisoned in the Tower during one of Edward I's pogroms.

Despite its range useful roles — the Tower was also variously used as the Royal observatory, public record office, armoury, arsenal and, of course, treasure house — it is undeniable that its dark side is what draws the tourist hordes. Its function as a VIP prison dates back to its earliest days in 1100 when King William Rufus's extortioner-in-chief, Ranulf Flambard, became both its first recorded state prisoner and the first of 32 captives down the centuries to succeed in escaping the fortress. At times, the Tower's dark and light sides ran in tandem, as when the poor, mad feebling of a king Henry VI (founder of Eton and King's College, Cambridge) was imprisoned in rags in the Wakefield Tower literally feet away from where his supplanter, the licentious Edward IV, was bedding his mistresses and carousing with his cronies in the Tower's palace.

Henry VI was one of two reigning kings to be murdered in the Tower (in 1471); the second (in 1483) being the teenage Edward V, older of the two 'Princes in the Tower' who, according to another of the Tower's martyrs, Sir Thomas More, were smothered in their beds. In both cases the killings were almost certainly the responsibility of Richard III, the Tower's pre-eminent villain whose Yorkist dynasty also provided the most bizarre of the Tower's victims: Richard's brother, George, Duke of Clarence, famously drowned there — at his own request, after being given the choice by his brother Edward IV — in a butt of his favourite Malmsey wine.

The House of York were a dynasty, as Francis Bacon observed, 'often dipped in their own blood' — a comment that proved only too true when Edward IV's grandson, Henry VIII, had Clarence's daughter, the aged Countess of Salisbury gruesomely butchered inside the Tower for no better reason than the Yorkist blood that ran in her veins. Henry's female victims beheaded in the Tower, of course, included his second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, alongside his most capable ministers, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

The Tudor century, running from Henry VII's seizure of the throne at Bosworth in 1485, to Elizabeth I's death in 1603, was the era when the Tower reached its nadir as jail and torture chamber, with its rack and axe turned against both Protestant and Catholic martyrs as the winds of the reformation and counter-reformation changed. In that age the Tower was London's Lubyanka, a place of evil reputation which consumed more Tudor statesmen, churchmen and Royal women than died peacefully in their beds. Even those of less firmly fixed religious affiliation, such as the Royal favourites Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex, failed to escape the Tower's long shadow, although Raleigh put his prolonged incarceration before his death to good effect by writing a hefty 'History of the World' and cultivating a herb garden from which he distilled elixirs and aphrodisiacs much in demand among High Society ladies.

Though later centuries gentled the Tower — Samuel Pepys, the Duke of Marlborough and our first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, were among its VIPrisoners to escape the axe — it remained the last way-station for those convicted of Treason well into the Twentieth Century. A dozen German agents were executed in a shooting range in the Tower's moat in the First World War; and a single spy — one Josef Jakobs — suffered the same fate there in the Second World War, the last prisoner (to date) to die in the Tower. The Irish humanitarian and patriot Roger Casement was detained there briefly after landing from a U-boat in Ireland before being hanged at Pentonville in 1916, and another unwanted arrival from Germany — Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess — was held there after flying into Scotland in 1941.

The Kray twins, detained in the Tower garrison's guardhouse for going AWOL from National Service in the 1950s, were following in famous — and infamous — footsteps.

Tower: an epic history of the Tower of London, by Nigel Jones, is published by Hutchinson.