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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Tower of London

Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, more commonly known as the Tower of London, is a historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames.  It was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England. The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078, and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was used as a prison since at least 1100, although that was not its primary purpose.

A grand palace early in its history, it served as a royal residence. As a whole, the Tower is a complex of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. There were several phases of expansion, mainly under Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I in the 12th and 13th centuries. The general layout established by the late 13th century remains despite later activity on the site.

The Tower of London has played a prominent role in English history. It was besieged several times and controlling it has been important to controlling the country. The Tower has served variously as an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.

Under the Tudors, the Tower became used less as a royal residence, and despite attempts to refortify and repair the castle its defences lagged behind developments to deal with artillery. The peak period of the castle's use as a prison was the 16th and 17th centuries, when many figures who had fallen into disgrace, such as Elizabeth I before she became queen, were held within its walls. This use has led to the phrase "sent to the Tower". Despite its enduring reputation as a place of torture and death, popularised by 16th-century religious propagandists and 19th-century writers, only seven people were executed within the Tower before the World Wars of the 20th century. Executions were more commonly held on the notorious Tower Hill to the north of the castle, with 112 occurring there over a 400-year period.

In the latter half of the 19th century, institutions such as the Royal Mint moved out of the castle to other locations, leaving many buildings empty. Anthony Salvin and John Taylor took the opportunity to restore the Tower to what was felt to be its medieval appearance, clearing out many of the vacant post-medieval structures. In the First and Second World Wars, the Tower was again used as a prison, and witnessed the executions of 12 men for espionage. After the Second World War, damage caused during the Blitz was repaired and the castle reopened to the public. Today the Tower of London is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.

Legend says that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. 

It was Charles II, according to the stories, who first insisted that the ravens of the Tower should be protected. This was against the wishes of his astronomer, John Flamsteed, who complained that the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower. 

Despite their having one wing clipped, some ravens do in fact go absent without leave and others have had to be sacked. Raven George was dismissed for eating television aerials, and Raven Grog was last seen outside an East End pub.

They are fun to watch and seem to always have something to say!

You can also see a fantastic armory at the Tower, which houses armour from throughout British history.

And you can see some of the spoils of war.

And of course, the Crown Jewels!  Wonderful and worth the wait.

If you've been to the Tower of London, you've probably seen most of what I've shown here.

I managed to obtain tickets to something yo probably have not seen - the Ceremony of the Keys.  We arrived at the Tower at about 9:45 PM and waited outside near this sign for the Yeoman Warder to come meet us.  About 20 people see this each day.

Yeomen Warders are the colourfully-dressed bodyguards on duty at the Tower of London. While a Royal Guard provided by the Foot Guards mounts on Tower Green every day at noon, the Yeomen Warders provide a ceremonial guard for this ancient Royal palace and fortress.

One of their main ceremonial functions is the daily Ceremony of the Keys. In this ceremony the gates of the Tower of London are secured each night shortly before 10.00 pm by the Chief Yeoman Warder escorted by an armed guard of four men.

 After locking the gates, the Chief Yeoman Warder is challenged by a sentry bringing his rifle into the on-guard position. He allows him to pass after recognising the Chief Warder as the bearer of Queen Elizabeth's keys by saying 'Pass, Queen Elizabeth's keys, and all's well'.

 The Chief Yeoman Warder and his escort are met by a ceremonial guard on the Broad Steps near the White Tower, which then presents arms. The Chief Warder concludes the ceremony by raising his Tudor bonnet and proclaiming 'God preserve Queen Elizabeth', to which all present reply 'Amen'. The keys are then carried by the Chief Yeoman Warder to safekeeping, whilst the Last Post is sounded. The ceremony has taken place over the same piece of ground, in war as well as peace, for about 700 years.

What a great experience - we couldn't have asked for a better conclusion to our Tower of London experience.

Tomorrow I'll show you something interesting we saw at a cathedral that I bet none of you have ever seen.

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  1. That Tower is such a storied place. I cannot wait to bring my sons to see it someday.

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