Playing With History in London
It was an historic day in ways I never anticipated.
I had been in London a few days enjoying the usual suspects Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard, St. Pauls Cathedral, Hyde Park, the National Gallery, a city tour via a double-decker bus, London Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, 10 Downing Street, an evening play in the theater district.
|For some reason I hadnt visited the Tower of London, and there hadnt been
time for Westminster Abbey. So, on my final day, I planned to spend a few hours at the
Tower, maybe an hour at the Abbey a nice, relaxed day with lots of free time to
wander, maybe even make a side trip to Harrods and the Hard Rock Café for an obligatory
Harrods and the Hard Rock, happily, remain unknowns. Theyll have to wait. Thats because I spent the whole day touring the enthralling Tower and Abbey.
Thanks largely to Shakespeare, much of London and Englands history is told in his canon of plays. When Shakespeare was starting his career in the 1580s, the Tower was infamous as a fortress, prison for high-ranking citizens, and a place of sudden, violent death. The Tower figures prominently in several plays, including "Henry VI, Part III" and, most memorably, "Richard III." But the Tower, as I quickly learned, is much more.
I joined a tour given by "Beefeaters," the popular name for wardens outfitted in regal navy and red Tudor outfits. With them and on my own I spent endlessly fascinating hours touring the Tower.
||A major highlight was the White Tower, the central keep begun in 1078 by William the
Conqueror. The largest structure of its day, William built the White Tower as a military
stronghold, his residence, and a means to impress his new English subjects. It even
contained St. Johns Chapel, one of Londons oldest churches. The White Tower
remained a royal residence until the 1500s when it became the notorious prison for
Englands most important "enemies," many of whom were executed, including
Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Edward V, and the Duke of York. Today the White Tower is the
location of the Royal Armoury, Britains impressive national museum of arms and
Other Tower of London highlights included: Bloody Tower, where Sir Walter Raleigh was held prisoner and where Richard III is said to have murdered young princes Edward V and Richard in 1483; Beauchamp Tower, a jail fabled for inscriptions carved into its walls by prisoners; Tower Green, where two of Henry VIIIs wives, including Anne Boleyn, were beheaded; and the Duke of Wellingtons Barracks, where the truly bedazzling Crown Jewels are exhibited.
Jewels usually dont impress me, but only someone truly jaded can fail to be wowed by treasures like the Royal Sceptre, which contains the 530-carat Star of Africa, along with trinkets like the Imperial Crown of State and the Queen Mothers Crown.
Nowhere else does Londons sometimes bloody history of heraldry seem so passionately alive as at the Tower. Unlike prisoners who were uneasily dragged to the Tower, I had to drag myself away after several hours. I wanted to continue my history lesson at Westminster Abbey.
The Abbey is an architectural wonder where English sovereigns are coronated and some of the countrys most famous monarchs, poets, scientists and statesmen are buried or memorialized, including Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling. Among them, too, is Ben Jonson, buried upright in accord with his request for a 2-by-2 foot grave.
|Its believed the first church on the site along the Thames River was built in
the 7th Century before being replaced by other churches and finally the Abbey, started in
1050. Over the centuries the abbey has proven a Mecca for travelers and more recently for
The abbey is a cluttered hodgepodge of memorials, glass ceilings, tombs, sculptures, plaques, panels, statues, and stonework that includes carved figures of dragons and griffins. Following my morning at the Tower, the most personally impacting Abbey sights were the vaults of monarchs and the honored, many whose histories and deaths were intricately laced with the Tower. For example, the buried here include the two young princes reportedly murdered by Richard III.
History is not only preserved, but also served at the Abbey. The Coronation Chair, for example, has been used for crowning all but two English monarchs since 1308. Royal weddings are held here. A hole in the Royal Air Force Chapel from a German bomb that exploded during World War II has been deliberately left unrepaired. More recently, funeral services for Princess Diana were held at the abbey.
Lessons of English history were on my mind when I left the Abbey at closing time. It was just a short walk to Leicester Square, location of the official half-price theater ticket booth. The night before I had bought a ticket for a play starring John Malkovich. This night, scanning the availability list, my eyes focused on a notice for Richard III. A few hours later, luck of luck, I was sitting dead center in the fifth row viewing the drama about Englands most despised monarch. Surely Richard IIIs notoriety is largely due to Shakespeares telling of a conjectured story, one where Richard announces, "I am determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days. Plots I have laid, inductions, dangerous, by drunken prophecies, libels and dreams."
It was a day I could have never prophesied, a day when history intermingled with reality. It was a day where I learned Londons history is ever present.
Click here to plan your own trip to London.