One of the places we really wanted to visit on our recent trip to London was the Tower of London. Kevin’s a medieval history buff, and while the Middle Ages aren’t my favorite era in history (war, famine, disease!), I was eager to learn more about British history.
For the historic insight (and the chance to get ahead of the lines), we booked Context Travel’s Tower of London Walking Tour. I learned about Context a few years back at a travel conference. They run small group tours in major capital cities around the world. All of their docents have Master and Ph.D. degrees in the topics they are sharing, and they are recognized for strong storytelling.
Our Tower of London tour guide, Sarah was one of the U.K.’s esteemed Blue Badge tour guides. She was a wonderful storyteller and she referred to the River Thames as, “my favorite character in London.” She pointed out the contrasts between the old city and the new.
Our group was small. Context caps the tours at six guests each, but on the day we were there, it was just me, Kevin, and two theater lovers from Seattle.
The history of the Tower is closely tied to that of London and the United Kingdom, spanning from the 11th century Norman conquest of England to modern times. But what really stuck out were the stories. Here are some of my favorites:
The center of the community.
I went into our visit expecting the highlight of the medieval fortress to the be prisons and gruesome torture equipment. The Middle Ages was a miserable, war-torn time and I was sure the focus would be on those bloody times. But one of the first things Sarah told us was that this commonly held belief about what you’ll see at the Tower is almost all wrong.
In fact, for hundreds of years the Tower complex (Fact: The site includes several buildings) was the royal palace, the mint, the national archive, and even the royal zoo. While some people were certainly jailed there, and some famously executed (including Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn), it was really a minor part of the complex’s long history.
The palace was built to be large and imposing, both so it could be seen from anywhere in the city and so that guards could watch over the city. Sarah called it the “mothership” of the city.
The Crown Jewels!
Jewelry has never really been my thing… but then again, I’d never seen the Crown Jewels. The Crown Jewels are a collection of jewel-studded crowns and ceremonial objects used in the coronations of every British king and queen since 1660. They are stored in a high-security palace at Tower complex. Sarah told us that some of the jewels had been stolen back in the 1600’s–I immediately imagined the heist scene in The Great Muppet Caper.
For security reasons, you are not allowed to take pictures of the Crown Jewels exhibit–this page on the Tower website has some photos. My favorite was the Sovereign’s Sceptre. It was a wand with a fist-sized diamond at the top, the largest colorless cut diamond in the world.
On Sarah’s recommendation, this was the first thing we did, since the lines get much longer as the day goes on.
For over 600 years, the fortress housed the Royal Menagerie, an eccentric collection of animals from around the world. Over the years, the collection included lions, elephants, monkeys, and even a live polar bear, a gift from the King of Norway in 1252. There are statues positioned around the complex as tributes to the animals who lived there. Seeing the lone polar bear, shackled to the fortress wall was unsettling, as was the elephant peeking his head out of his tiny chamber. Memories of another time, indeed.
Later on, we spotted a fat, black bird, ripping open a ham sandwich on the grass. Sarah identified it as one of the tower’s “guardians,” and shared the Legend of the Ravens.
The and old story says that if the ravens ever leave, the tower will fall and the kingdom along with it. To ward against this, for more than 400 years the palace has held six common ravens on site, their wings clipped, with two kept as spare.
There is a small graveyard on site to memorialize the passing of the Tower’s raven.
I don’t understand the monarchy, British or otherwise. The idea that a nation would support both an elected, democratic government and a dynastic family seems unnecessary in today’s world. Certainly, this is a common American point of view, but I know there are plenty of British citizens that agree.
At one point during the Tower’s Crown Jewels exhibit, they cut to a video from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. She was young, 25 years old. Her young son, Charles, was up in the rafters looking on.
Sarah told us to watch for the Queen to wobble as they placed the heavy crown on her head. You could tell she was trying her best to remain strong, but she looked stiff and, frankly, terrified.
For a fleeting moment, I felt for her. She was born into this. She didn’t choose this life of ceremony and centuries of royal tradition. I can’t imagine what that would be like.
The other interesting stories were that of the Yeoman Warders, also called the “Beefeaters.” There were dozens of these cartoonishly clad gentlemen, leading tour groups and posing for silly pictures (ah hem…)
I figured that these were just employees playing a role and that these were just costumes.
In fact, the Yeoman Warders are enlisted military and the real guardians of the towers, protecting the complex just as they have since the 16th Century. Guards in this elite unit are required to have served in the armed forces with an honorable record for at least 22 years. It’s an honor to serve the country in this role.
The Yeoman Warders live on site with their families in these lovely brownstone apartments. This section of the complex was blocked off from tourists with a sign that said something like, “No entry. Private residences.” Just as I noticed this sign, I watched three ten-year-old girls run right past the sign and climb the steps to this residence. They started beating on the door and hollering to be let in. Our group was horrified–we wondered where the kids had come from and where their parents were.
But after a second, the door opened and we saw an arm wave them inside. The girls were friends of the kids who lived there! It was exciting to see proof of this living breathing neighborhood among all the tourists.
The Tower of London defied my expectations and I’m glad we got to learn these quirky stories about the tower and British history.
Thanks to Context Travel for hosting us on this tour. Photos and opinions are my own.