Monday, 29 March 2010

Gather ye (Tudor) rosebuds while ye may (Revised March 2011)

Yesterday on Palm Sunday, the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe held their annual Easter fair. I needed to stock up on the special sugar I use to sprinkle on the cardamom flavoured loaves I hand bake from time to time. Unfortunately there was no sugar on sale. Instead I bought rye bread, several cheeses and some delicious pastries. To make my excursion worthwhile, I decided to use my Royal Palaces season ticket and pop along to the Tower of London.

The Duke of Wellington ordered the moat to be drained in the first half of the 19th century. In more recent years the dry moat has been the setting for a range of activities, including demonstrations of medieval and latter weaponry. It made a perfect vista for me to sit down in front of and scoff the last of my pastries,

From a window of the restored medieval palace, I took a picture of Tower Bridge. If I had had more time, since it was such a fine day, I would have taken the opportunity to go over and see the permanent exhibition held there as well as go up to the high level walkway. Apparently, depending which tower you use to access the walkway, you arrive either by lift or have to climb the many steps to the top. Exploring the Tower of London is quite a work-out in itself if you plan to negotiate the numerous steep narrow stone staircases and walk along the castle walls to pass from one tower to another.

In St Thomas Tower, the bedchamber and chantry of the medieval King Edward I have been recreated to how they might have looked in his time. I was very impressed by the bed; it was truly king size. But then King Edward I was nicknamed Longshanks because of his great height. When Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey was opened up in 1774 his bones were measured. As a result he is thought to have been around 6 foot 2, a similar height to Henry VIII. At 6 foot 4, the 15th century King Edward IV would have towered over both his namesake Edward I and Henry VIII.

The little chantry leading off the bedchamber was where Edward I would have prayed in private. The rich red, greens and yellows of the tiled floor and the multi-coloured stained glass windows echo the exuberance colour scheme in the rest of the King’s private apartments. In a separate audience chamber sits a replica of a medieval throne as well as a green, red and gilt carved wooden screen, separating a small altar from the main room. .
Beauchamp Tower

I would quite happily sling those miscreants who daub local walls with graffiti into the darkest recesses of the Tower and leave them there. By contrast, as a schoolgirl I was greatly moved by some of the inscriptions at the Tower of London, especially one carved into the stone wall of the Beauchamp Tower. It simply read “Marmaduke Nevile 1569.” I had no idea either at the time or since who Marmaduke Nevile was. Clearly he had fallen foul of Queen Elizabeth I. In the same year other members of the Neville family attempted to free Mary, Queen of Scots in their abortive attempt to topple Elizabeth, place Mary on the throne and restore England to the Catholic faith.

In the Bloody Tower, the interior of Sir Walter Raleigh’s prison cell has been staged as it might have looked during his many years of confinement. Sir Walter had been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who had been move than happy to turn a blind eye to his raids on Spanish ships just so long as he ensured she received a generous share of the resulting booty. Unlike Queen Elizabeth, her successor James I was keen to foster good relations with Spain. Thus the hapless Sir Walter found himself imprisoned and later executed in the Tower.

When it came to one of his own favourites, King James was not above manipulating the courts to ensure the condemned man escaped execution, despite being tried and found guilty of capital murder. The king’s favourite, Robert Carr, had fallen madly in love with the young Frances Howard. Unfortunately their romance was hampered by the fact Frances was still married to the Earl of Essex. Robert’s friend, Sir Thomas Overbury thoroughly disapproved of Frances Howard and the feeling was mutual. Attempts were made to force Overbury to accept a diplomatic mission to Moscow and thereby lessen his influence over Robert. When he refused what was in effect a royal command, King James had Thomas imprisoned in the Tower in 1613, where he died a few months later. After several years of rumours as to what had really caused Overbury's untimely death, a number of people were subsequently accused of having plotted to poison Overbury. King James panicked when his one-time favourite, Robert Carr, and his wife were accused of being involved. King James feared he might be implicated in turn if his former favourite became desperate to save his own neck. As king, James was able to have the sentence of death placed upon Sir Robert Carr and Frances commuted to life imprisonment and therefore ensured their future silence. He pardoned them both a number of years later. The other four guilty co-conspirators, including the then Lieutenant of the Tower Gervaise Helwys, were not so fortunate and were executed. Amongst their number was a woman called Anne Turner, who had been in the service of Lady Frances Howard. Anne found the apothecary, Simon Franklyn, who supplied the poisons used to kill Overbury. The poisons were concelaed in tarts and jellies sent to Overbury in the Tower. Anne had started a fashion for dyeing her ruff neck and wrist bands yellow with saffron. As part of her punishment, the judge decreed that she be executed wearing yellow ruffs "so that the same might end in shame and detestation." As a final grim act, her executioner likewise sported her once fashionable trademark yellow ruffs. A tiny wooden walled cell near Sir Walter Raleigh’s relates Overbury’s tragic story and has a table set out with the type of foodstuffs used to murder him.

I once again went inside the Cradle Tower. Unlike last year, I was well aware this time that what I had taken to be ghostly voices chanting was simply a sound recording of a man reciting part of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. It forms part of a small exhibition commemorating the religious martyrs, both Protestant and Catholic, imprisoned in the Tower. Anne Askew was amongst their unfortunate numbers. So severely was she racked by Henry VIII's courtiers (the usual torturers had refused to take part in what was an illegal act even for the time) that Anne had to be carried to her death at the stake by chair. 
Traitor's Gate

The steps leading up from Traitors’ Gate are in a remarkably good condition, given their extreme age. I assume, like so much else in the Tower, they have been restored. The exterior of the White Tower, the original Tower of London, is still being renovated.

Where the scaffolding has been removed, the White Tower is in impressive shape. Henry VIII added the leaded cupolas and the gilded weathervane to celebrate Anne Boleyn’s coronation. Anne would have spent the night before her coronation in her royal apartments at the Tower.

It used to be thought that Anne was kept in the black and white timbered Queen’s House by Tower Green, when she returned to the Tower as Henry’s prisoner only a few years later. However, it has now been established that Anne was confined to the same building where she had spent the eve of her coronation. Not surprisingly, after Anne’s execution, her royal apartments fell out of favour and into disrepair before finally being demolished. Recent archaeological work has established that they once stood, close by the White Tower.

I was able to go inside St Peter ad Vincula, the Tudor chapel where Anne Boleyn, her cousin Catherine Howard and former sister-in-law, Jane Rochford are also buried. So too is the 16 year old Lady Jane Grey, the 9 Day Queen and her husband. During Queen Victoria’s reign, she had the Tudor chapel restored and as part of the process, attempts were made to identify the human remains. I would love to know how the Victorians were able to distinguish between the decapitated earthly remains of Katherine Howard and Jane Grey or Anne Boleyn and Jane Rochford. Any jewellery or clothing left on the corpse would have legally belonged to the executioner, so there was unlikely to have been any personal effects with which to identify them. Moreover, unlike Katherine Parr whose preserved body could be viewed centuries later at Sudeley Castle, the bodies of Henry VIII’s earlier wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, would have been hastily placed in the ground of St Peter’s with no stone to mark the grave and certainly no embalming to preserve the body. Given its proximity to the River Thames, it is likely that the dankness of the grave would have also speeded up decomposition.

Leaving the Tower behind, I walked to Tower Hill underground station. Nearby is a large section of the original Roman wall which once surrounded the city of Londinium. By the wall is a replica statue of the roman emperor Trajan. “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal” was supposed to have been whispered by a slave into the ears of a Roman Emperor as he rode in his triumphal procession. The saying proved all too true for the three tragic Tudor Queens, who ended their brief lives on Tower Green.