LONDON — One of the beauties of a European trip is the sheer wealth of opportunities to nerd out on history. A visit to the Tower of London ticks all the boxes.
Age? It was built in the 1070s, so that box is ticked. Spectacle? Well, it is the repository of the Crown Jewels, which literally shine and sparkle. Famous names? It was built by William the Conqueror, imprisoned the “Princes in the Tower” and Anne Boleyn, as well as being the site of executions for high treason. Which brings us to the best thing about the Tower — the stories. There are tales of intrigue, betrayal, power and bloodshed at every turn, tales that have inspired novels and plays for centuries.
The first thing a visitor must do is find out when the next tour starts. There will be plenty of time later to wander around and really take in the sights, but one really must get the full history. The tours are free and are held every 30 minutes, and the guides offer a splash of color, both with their stories and their traditional garb. The Yeoman Warders, better known as Beefeaters, were historically charged with guarding the Crown Jewels and watching over prisoners. They have served at the Tower since Henry VII formed the corp in 1458.
The current Beefeaters are retired military who must have served at least 22 years, and earned the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. There are 37 who live at the facility with their families in the 13th-century apartments.
The Beefeaters are as committed to entertaining the crowds as they were to their service, and the historical anecdotes, mixed with humor and excellent storytelling, is the best way to get the full feel of the place. Besides, being on a tour is the only way to get entry into the Tower’s church, St. Peter ad Vincula.
After the tour, armed with all the grisly details of British history, one is free to wander the grounds. The Crown Jewels are a must for the first-time visitor, but expect to wait in line (and it is one of those annoying places where the line continues for quite a while once one gets inside, so don’t be disappointed. There are plenty of historical displays to occupy the time inside). The jewels themselves are spectacular, although I find that seeing them once is enough for me.
Of more interest is the Royal Armoury. Located in the White Tower, the United Kingdom’s Museum of Arms and Armour is the oldest museum in the U.K. and features swords shields and armour dating from the Middle Ages.
On the first floor is the “Line of Kings,” featuring suits of armour from various monarchs. There are six suits of armour built for Henry VIII alone. The exhibition opened after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and has been in the White Tower since the 1880s, and was used to remind the populace of the king’s right to rule.
Also on display is a “Collar of Torment” for prisoners, which, as one can imagine, was designed to make the wearing slightly uncomfortable. It is a reminder of the Tower’s position as a place of imprisonment for some of the most infamous prisoners in English history including the guilty, such as Guy Fawkes who was one of the Gunpowder Plotters; the inconvenient, such as the two princes who stood in the way of the future Richard III’s ascent to the throne; rebels, such as William Wallace the subject of the (bloody awful and historically incorrect) movie “Braveheart”; Henry VIII’s wives Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn (whose ghost is said to walk the tower); and the faithful, such as Sir Thomas More. Even the future Queen Elizabeth I was held there briefly in 1554 by her sister, Mary I, for her alleged involvement in Wyatt’s Rebellion.
For all that, only ten people were actually beheaded there, three of them Queens.
Traitors Gate, built by Edward I to provide an entrance from the River Thames, is named for the heads of recently executed prisoners that were displayed there on pikes. When one looks over the railing at the water gently lapping on against the dock, one is overwhelmed with the fascinating history that seems to be infused in every stone.
The Tower of London attracts two million visitors a year, and each one walks in the footsteps of England’s history.
Entry to the Tower is 21.50 pounds for adults aged 16 and over, and 9.75 pounds for children if purchased online. Family rates are available.