The Tower of London

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Today is the  484th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne Boleyn, the ill- fated second wife of  King Henry VIII.   I don’t think either needs any further introduction. I should point out that this is not a date which I usually mark, or would even have been aware of had it not been for my current reading material. I have finally reached the end of The Mirror & The Light, the third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s retelling of the story of the fall from grace and eventual execution for treason of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal and Henry Tudor’s general right-hand-man until he fell out of favour. Cromwell was the common man, a blacksmith’s son, who had risen, under Henry’s patronage, to become the most powerful man in the kingdom bar the king himself. Indeed, that was the problem. The most popular reason proffered for Cromwell’s grisly demise was his role in forging Henry’s disastrous union with Anne of Cleves that ended in annulment after 6 months. Whilst that was undoubtedly an important factor, whispering in the King’s ear were those English nobles of ancient lineage, consumed by envy and contempt towards the lowly nobody who had risen to greatness and who they wanted out of the way.

This isn’t a history blog, nor do I do book reviews, but reaching the final (875th) page on the date of Anne Boleyn’s beheading felt quite poignant and inspired me to have a look at my photos of the single occasion on which I visited the Tower of London, on another sunny day about six years ago.

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Tower Bridge beyond the keep.

In 1070, William the Conquerer decided to show the recently vanquished Londoners a symbol of his power by erecting a fortress on a hill above the city, complete with a tower that would loom menacingly, casting a shadow of fear. Just in case anybody got any ideas. Over the next few centuries, the Tower was expanded and fortified through a concentric design of defensive wall within defensive wall. Within, medieval kings built their regal abodes and locked away their riches and armoury. The Crown Jewels of Queen Elizabeth II are stored there and can be viewed, though not photographed, by visitors. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing them but decided that since I was there I would take a look. I was struck by how blingy these national treasures appeared, almost too shiny and glittery to be real, as if they had come out of a dressing-up box.

On the day of my visit, troupes of colourful Morris dancers jingled and jangled their bells for the audience. Mock medieval tents stood on the lawn where soldiers appeared to be going through some kind of training activity.

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In medieval times, prisoners accused of treason would usually be brought into the Tower by boat, sailing along the Thames and  through the notorious Traitors’ Gate. It must have been terrifying, knowing that almost certainly they would not leave again and that all manner of horrors might await within. It felt quite disturbing to me to look beyond the grille and imagine passing through.

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Although a prison for over 500 years, not all of those incarcerated were kept in dingy dungeon cells. Lavish apartments were comfortable abodes for the weeks, months or years that some English nobles awaited the monarch’s decision as to their fate. Some did get out alive. The ones we know most about are those that didn’t.

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On Tower Green stands a glass memorial which marks the site of the execution block where so many heads rolled. On it is inscribed:

‘Gentle visitor pause awhile: where you stand death cut away the light of many days: here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life: may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage: under there restless skies.’

The memorial is dedicated to all who were sent to their deaths by order of the state, though some names are better known.

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Queen Anne Boleyn; Margaret Pole
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Queen Catherine Howard; Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for nine days

The light and clarity of the glass and the gentle touch of a cushion in place of the block seemed quite fitting in such a sad and gruesome spot where the blood of many was shed, sometimes for reasons of political expediency.

Queues were very long on that hot day, so I decided to avoid entering the more crowded exhibitions which included a display of royal armour from across the centuries. Instead, I joined a guided tour of the Royal Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula, the final resting place of those executed for treason including, amongst many, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and the two beheaded queens. Our guide was one of the beefeaters or Yeoman Warders. Again, photography was prohibited.

Until the 19th century, the Tower had its own zoo; a royal menagerie of exotic creatures; novelty gifts from courtiers or ambassadors, or procured at the Regent’s request. Happily, the real animals are long gone and are replaced by some impressive metal sculptures.

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Get your fake bling here!

There are still some famous animal residents at the Tower of London; creatures of legend, the ravens. There are seven in total, all looked after by the yeoman raven master; pampered, in fact. The legend goes that the ravens protect the Tower, and if they ever leave the Tower and the kingdom will fall.

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I watched a programme about the ravens a couple of years ago and found it intriguing. They really are very spoilt. As they are, like so many before them, prevented from leaving (in this case through the clipping of a wing feather), it seems only right that there is a pay off. I wonder if they would leave if they could. Perhaps we should be hoping not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whalley Abbey,dissolved but not forgotten

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This is the second week of my Easter break from work, and in these strange times all that means is that I’m just not looking at anything work-related for a fortnight. On Monday morning I’ll take up my position at my home desk and work on whatever can be worked on within the limitations imposed by distance and technology. At the onset of lockdown I thought working from home would be easier than the reality has proved, hence my present ‘hard line’ on taking this two weeks’ leave. Still, I’m immensely grateful and relieved that I’m able to continue working and have security and peace of mind where so many others now face uncertainty.

Being blessed with excellent weather, I’ve spent much of my time contentedly pottering outside: sowing, re-potting, pruning and repairing. I’ve also been able to finish a couple of books, both sidelined some weeks or months ago, and am now, after a slow start, just over a hundred pages into Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. This final part of the trilogy which charts the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell has been a long time coming, and I know that I have not been alone in wondering, impatiently, what was taking Hilary so long. I read somewhere that she was finding it hard to write the end; to finally put Cromwell’s head upon the block. Hilary Mantel is a perfectionist, which is the real reason for the gap between Bring up the Bodies and this finale. Having been awarded Booker prizes for instalments one and two, the pressure to maintain that standard a third time must have been immense.

Thomas Cromwell was a key figure in driving King Henry VIII’s programme of dissolution of the monasteries as part of the English Reformation. Henry’s main interest was in the considerable revenue which, confiscated from the wealthiest monastic establishments, could boost his kingly coffers. For Cromwell, apart from wanting to impress his boss, the king, his own agenda was more theological, being strongly in favour of rooting out all things papist.

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All this talk of Tudors and Reformation brought to mind another of my favourite places, Whalley Abbey near Clitheroe. Now owned by the Church of England, only ruins remain of the 14th century Cistercian monastery. More modern (still centuries old) buildings on the site are in use as a spiritual retreat and conference centre. I was first introduced to Whalley about 10 years ago by a friend who was training to be a counsellor and had taken part in a residential course there. She had found great pleasure in strolls among the ancient ruins and along the banks of the river Calder which skirts the grounds. These photographs I took on a summer’s day a few years ago capture the Abbey’s serenity.

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Of course, the Abbey was not always the peaceful location it is today. Established in the late 13th century and a work-in-progress for nearly a century after that, the monastic community had its fair share of controversies and scraps over money with other local religious powerhouses. The founders had relocated to Whalley from their original Abbey at Stanlow on the banks of the river Mersey where a series of unfortunate incidents including flooding, gales and fire damage had led to the decision to move to pastures new. An age of prosperity and calm followed and the Abbey became one of the principal landowners in east Lancashire. Rivalries in the region were fierce where money was concerned, and records dating from the last quarter of the 15th century tell of vicious feuds between the Abbott and the Rector of Slaidburn over tithe payments, with reports of the Rector’s thugs attacking monks.

The church then, as now, enjoyed fantastic wealth, and inevitably some of that was abused as records of lush living and monkish opulence describe. Of course, Abbeys were also places where the sick could receive care and the poor, alms. The rising star that was Cromwell saw an opportunity. In 1535 delegations of ‘visitors’ were sent to the English Abbeys to carry out inventories of their assets and to look for signs of superstitious practices such as promoting belief in the power of so-called relics, a lucrative business in its time. Examples of some of these finds were widely publicised by Cromwell to provide further justification for the dissolution. The Visitors’ report on Whalley was not especially damning, with only one monk apparently conducting himself lewdly, but the Abbott, John Paslew, was accused of selling off some of the church’s gold. Sanctions were placed on the community and records show that Cromwell himself was required to make judgement when the Abbey appealed. He relaxed the sanctions. Nice.

The following year, 1536, saw Abbott Paslew and many of the monks participate in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic rebellion. Paslew was executed for treason. The year after that the Abbey was dissolved. Centuries of private ownership followed before it was bought by the Church of England in 1923. It is a grade 1 listed scheduled ancient monument. To me, it’s just a really lovely place to spend some quiet time.

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I hope to go back to Whalley once some sort of normal life is resumed and spend a few hours just moving slowly around the grounds, bench-hopping, listening to birdsong and blissfully doing nothing much.

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