The Tower of London and Westminster Abbey

While in London we visited two UNESCO World Heritage Sites there: The Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey. Both are major tourist attractions and of great historical significance.

The Tower of London is situated at the southeast corner of the City of London, on the River Thames and close to the Tower Bridge. The core of it, the White Tower (pictured), was built by King William I (1066-87) in order to control London. Since then two concentric walls have been built around it, and a number of buildings within the inner wall, producing a complex looking more like a fort than a castle. This has had many functions over the years, including as a royal residence, a mint, a prison, a menagerie, a record office, an armory, and a treasury.

Most of these functions have now been shed, although famously the Crown Jewels are kept in the Waterloo Block (pictured) to the north of the White Tower (they won’t let you take pictures of the jewels themselves, for reasons of security). The Tower’s function as a menagerie is continued with the residence of a group of captive ravens, the result of a superstition (no older than the Victorian era, alas) that the Crown will fall if the ravens ever fly away. And its function as an armory is remembered by an extensive display of arms and armor in the White Tower: pikes and guns on the walls, and suits of armor perched on the backs of wooden horses (my friend Malcolm Mercer pointed out that these horses, each one of them different and handmade in the nineteenth century, merit further study).

No post on this blog would be complete without some heraldry. The arms of the Board of Ordnance, which was responsible for supplying munitions to the armed forces from the sixteenth century until 1855, may be seen in several places.

This is my favorite part of the Tower of London: an austere Romanesque chapel dedicated to St. John, in the White Tower and dating from the late eleventh century.

I had forgotten about another chapel in the inner ward: the freestanding church of St. Peter ad Vincula, which dates from 1520. Unfortunately they don’t let people take pictures inside it. It is probably most significant for being the burial site of people executed in the Tower, such as Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Lady Jane Grey.

Many people imprisoned in the Tower, however, were executed elsewhere. One such was Thomas Abel, chaplain to Henry VIII’s first wife Queen Catherine, and conscientious objector to Henry’s Reformation. Abel was imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower, on the western inner wall, and eventually executed at Smithfield in 1540, but not before inscribing a rebus of his name on the wall of his cell (pictured). Many other prisoners did the same thing, and some of their inscriptions are minor works of art; it is safe to say that standards of graffiti were much higher in the past.

I was surprised to learn that the Kray brothers were imprisoned here in the 1950s.

I must record my profound thanks to my friend Malcolm Mercer, who works for the Royal Armouries and who took time out of his day to show us around. (The Royal Armouries takes care of the arms and armor on display in the White Tower; a charitable trust called Historical Royal Palaces governs the rest).

Westminster Abbey is located near the Houses of Parliament in the City of Westminster, slightly upriver from the City of London. Prior to the Reformation, the building served as the abbey church for a Benedictine monastery that had been founded by King Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066 and who is buried within. Since Edward died without issue, a struggle ensued for the throne, which was ultimately won by Duke William of Normandy, who was crowned king of England in the church on Christmas day in 1066. This established a precedent: all subsequent monarchs except Edward V and Lady Jane Grey have been crowned there (and those two would have been had they managed to stay on the throne longer). The current fabric is largely a product of the thirteenth century: King Henry III (reigned 1216-72) rebuilt it in the newly fashionable Gothic style – dig those flying buttresses! – largely to honor Edward to Confessor, who had been canonized as a saint in 1161. Henry III was the first English monarch to be buried within the church, to bask in the sanctity of St. Edward, a custom followed by some thirteen of his successors.

As everyone knows, Henry VIII dissolved all English monasteries in the 1530s, and Westminster was no exception. But he founded six new dioceses in the Church of England, and five abbey churches were reemployed as cathedrals, one of which was Westminster (the others: Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, and Peterborough; the new diocese of Oxford got the chapel of Christ Church College as its cathedral). Westminster lost its diocesan status under Edward VI in 1550 although the main priest in charge of it is known as a dean, a memento of the time when it was a cathedral. The church is now designated a Royal Peculiar, that is, a church not subject to diocesan control but directly subject to the monarch, a status shared by a few other places like St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, or the two chapels in the Tower of London noted above.

Poets’ Corner. From David Carpenter, The Glory of Westminster Abbey (Dean and Chapter, n.d.), 47.

The really interesting thing about Westminster Abbey, though, is its status as a national mausoleum. It’s not only kings and queens who are buried or memorialized there, but over three thousand other people, many of them quite notable. Exploring the place is somewhat like visiting the National Portrait Gallery, as you thrill to recognize certain big names. One famous grouping of these is at the so-called Poets’ Corner, located in the south transept. (Westminster Abbey forbids photography, so I have scanned in some images from books that I have.) The tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer is the ultimate reason for this, even if Chaucer (died 1400) was interred there only incidentally to his retirement at the abbey (one could purchase a lease on a residence within the monastery, and live with the monks without taking vows). But many memorials, some very beautiful, to everyone you ever read in English class have been added over the years.

Tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. From Edward Carpenter, Westminster Abbey (Jarrold Publishing, 1993), [5].

Another grouping of memorials may be seen near the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton, which is found on the northwest corner of the quire – this has attracted a number of memorials to scientists like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (while we were there, they were preparing a place for the interment of the ashes of Stephen Hawking). Not far away from this, in the north choir aisle, are numerous memorials to musicians like Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Elsewhere in the church, memorials to prime ministers, politicians, military officers, physicians, historians, and many others may also be discovered.

Grave of the Unknown Warrior. From David Carpenter, The Glory of Westminster Abbey (Dean and Chapter, n.d.), 19.

Perhaps the most famous is that of Britain’s grave of The Unknown Warrior, who was buried with great ceremony on November 11, 1920 just inside the west entrance.

From Westminster Abbey: The Monuments. Photographs by Joe Whitlock Blundell (John Murray, 1989).

From Westminster Abbey: The Monuments. Photographs by Joe Whitlock Blundell (John Murray, 1989).

From Westminster Abbey: The Monuments. Photographs by Joe Whitlock Blundell (John Murray, 1989).

Of course, not all of the memorials represent famous people – or rather, many of them might have been moderately well-known in their day, but they are now known only to specialist historians. Herbert Westlake once wrote that:

The visitor to Westminster Abbey will do well to remember that many of those who are commemorated within its walls were scarcely deserving of the honour which ordinarily attaches to such commemoration. The Abbey records show instance after instance of the burial of, or the erection of a monument to, those whose chief claim to distinction was the ability or willingness of their heirs to pay the fee demanded. Moreover, even where the verdict of history has justified such commemoration, it is not to be thought that the often prodigious size of a monument is any criterion of the greatness of him whom it commemorates.

These monuments, largely put up during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, can indeed be large, and their style can clash violently with the architecture of the church itself. Nonetheless, some of them are interesting in their own right. And I must say that I’m glad that, apart from the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and some other Parliamentarians, who were removed following the Restoration in 1660, Westminster Abbey is not in the habit of disinterring people who are no longer politically palatable. As nationally important as the place is, it remains a Christian church, where peoples’ mortal remains are not gratuitously disturbed.

Henry VII’s Chapel, looking northwest, with banners, crests, and stalls of the Knights Grand Cross of the Bath. From Edward Carpenter, Westminster Abbey (Jarrold Publishing, 1993), [13].

Essential to a visit to Westminster Abbey is a stop in the early sixteenth-century Lady Chapel. This was a trend in the late Middle Ages – a special chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually built as an addition on the eastern end of a church. Westminster’s is an architectural marvel, perhaps the finest example of late Perpendicular gothic, including pendant fan vaulting, in England. It was built by King Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), not only in honor of the Virgin but also as a projected home for the tomb of his predecessor King Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71) who, by the early sixteenth century, was widely recognized as a saint. But for various reasons only Henry VII himself ended up buried there, along with his queen Elizabeth of York, while Henry VI remained at Windsor. Thus is the chapel generally known today as “Henry VII’s Chapel.” Since 1725 it has also had another purpose: it has acted as the chapel of the Order of the Bath. This organization was founded (allegedly refounded) by King George I as a means of keeping the membership of the Order of the Garter limited and exclusive, and as a way for the prime minister to reward his political supporters. The “Bath” of the order’s name does not refer to the city in Somerset, nor does it confer upon its members the right to view the queen while she is taking a bath (a friend of mine claims he once overheard a tour guide saying this). It was simply a medievalist reference to the ceremony for the creation of a knight, which involved ritual purification. (I do not know if a bath is formally prescribed for new members today, who are largely senior civil servants and military officers.)

Apparently the quadrennial service of the Order had taken place a couple of weeks before our visit, attended by Prince Charles in his capacity as the Order’s Great Master. One problem with having an order that is not as exclusive as the Garter is that not everyone can fit in the chapel! There are a limited number of chapel stalls, more than there are Knights Grand Cross of the Bath. So only the most senior Knights Grand Cross can get their own stalls, and sometimes one must wait a long time between being created a GCB and getting one’s own stall. When a stall does open up, a GCB will get it during the quadrennial service, at which time his heraldic banner and a three-dimensional wooden carving of his crest are hung above it, as is customary with orders of chivalry. (The lesser grades of the Order of the Bath, Knights Commander and Companions, get no recognition at all. I don’t know if they’re even invited to the quadrennial service.)

Be that as it may, Westminster Abbey is a great place to visit. I regret to say that it now costs twenty pounds to get in as a tourist (I can remember when it was four!), but it’s still worth it.

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