The Tower of London: 'A Very Great and Most Strong Tower.'

Article excerpt

THE Tower of London is the most popular historic site in the British Isles, welcoming two and a half million visitors a year. The biggest drawing card is the Jewel House, where the Crown Jewels are displayed in all their panoply. In March 1994, a completely new Jewel House, located on the ground floor of Waterloo Block, was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. The Jewels are seen in brilliantly lit glass-enclosed cases in a series of rooms, while visitors are borne slowly past on a moving floorway or "travellator". Above the cases, giant screens project a panorama of the Jewels' history, with the Coronation illustrating their ceremonial purpose.

While the Coronation rites extend back to St. Edward the Confessor in Saxon times, the Jewels at Queen Elizabeth's Coronation, that the visitors see, come from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 or later. The Puritans of Oliver Cromwell's William the Conqueror's Tower, whose stark silhouette has long been a familiar feature of the London skyline, is a microcosm of nine centuries of English history. The symbol of the power of the monarchy, it has never surrendered except to the sightseers who flock to it in their millions and make it one of the British capital's most popular tourist venues.

short-lived regime in the 1650s despised the glittering trappings of monarchy and sold off the medieval Crown Jewels. A few pieces survived and eventually returned to the royal collection.

One passes in succession the Royal Maces, Trumpets, and the Great Sword of State; the jewelled Sword of Offering girt about the Sovereign by the Archbishop; the medieval gold Ampulla and Spoon, by which the Sovereign is anointed with holy oil, the oldest objects in the Regalia; the Coronation Robes; the Crowns, Sceptres and Orbs, among them the great gold St. Edward's Crown made for Charles II and still used at the investiture; the Imperial State Crown made for Queen victoria, thickly set with precious stones and worn at state ceremonies such as the opening of Parliament. The State Crown also displays in its lower cross the large ruby of the Black Prince, which adorned the helmet of Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, and the Stuart sapphire, and in the uppermost cross gleams a sapphire said to be from the ring of the Confessor himself. In a royal sceptre sparkles the Star of Africa, the largest cut diamond in the world.

White granite brought from Caen

Adjacent to the Jewel House is the massive White Tower, the original tower built by William the Conqueror at the end of the eleventh century. The Norman king, who overthrew the Saxon Harold at Hastings, consolidated his triumph by building strong castles throughout England. For London, he chose the site of a former Roman camp on the Thames and in 1078 he confided to Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester the construction of what William Fitzstephen's 12th-century Chronicle would describe as "a very great and most strong Palatine Tower". Unlike wooden Saxon structures, the Tower of London was built of Kentish limestone with dressings of white granite stone brought from Caen.

The White Tower, its Caen stone white-washed, with spired turrets at the four corners, still dominates the surroundings. Over the centuries, additional structures were built until the whole consisted of thirteen towers of the Inner Ward and six towers and bastions of the outer ward.

Previously, the only entrance by land was over a walled causeway, 30 metres wide, leading to the barbican of the Lion Tower. Here prowled the King's beasts, and the Constable, the chief officer of the tower, was paid 14 pence per day, with 6 pence more for chunks of bloody meat, to feed the lions, leopards, bears and wolves.

Palace and prison

Today, the Lion Tower has gone and the beasts were despatched in 1834 to the new London zoo. The entrance is now through the gate of the Middle Tower and across another smaller causeway over the dry moat, drained in 1843, up to the Byward Tower, with guardsmen in scarlet coats and tall black busbies. …