Learning About Legacy at the Tower of London
© Copyright 2020 by Ashley Weaver
I shiver and look over my shoulder at the unseen eyes watching me and the precarious wind raises goosebumps on the back of my neck. My aunt widens her eyes at me in mock fright as our “beefeater” tour-guide attempts to shatter the heavy silence with another tale about the Tower of London’s origins. A woman under a bright red umbrella mildly winces at his words, which makes me certain I’m not the only tourist who feels like they were being watched by an unseen specter.
Just as gloomy, but much more ancient, with everybody driving on the opposite side of the road and speaking in accented voices—each dialect slightly different from one another—the cloudy skies and threatening rains of England reminded me of an inverted version of my Washington home-state.
The moment we set foot into the Kensington Close hotel, a real-life bellhop greeted us and offered to take our bags inside. Never had I met a real bellhop before and was relieved be he unburdened the twenty-pound duffel bag from my throbbing shoulder. Once settled, my aunt and I left a message for my mother in one of the traditional red phone booths that littered London streets, letting her know that we were safe and sound.
My first ride on the underground train, known as the London Tube, introduced me to a day of historical and imagination overload. The underground smelled musky and hot from the tube steam and the grind of metal on rubber. Before the automated English woman’s voice warned us on our exit to “mind the gap, please,” we stayed on the “Circle-Line” to Victoria Station and then on to Tower Hill where the infamous former London prison awaited.
Walking up the concrete steps and out of the station, we noticed a monstrous sundial opposite us in a granite courtyard. It mapped a timeline spanning at least two thousand years of London history and was a phenomenal piece of the city’s hidden sights. Only looking up from it did I realize that the Tower of London loomed right ahead of us! Much larger than I had initially pictured, the aged stone fortress towered above a deep grass-covered chasm where a moat once surrounded it. The spires of the White Tower which had once held the dungeon—and now ironically hosted the gift shop—were littered with thin slits where archers had once fired arrows at oncoming enemies.
The “Beefeater”, or member of The Queen’s Royal Guard, who led our group through the tower grounds had a very dark sense of humor, which I quite enjoyed, given the setting we were in. Once inside, we passed under the “Bloody Tower” built in the year 1225 where the still-surviving portcullis stood. The first Queen Elizabeth had given this tower its name since it was in this structure where the two famous young princes had met their grisly fate. Across the courtyard was “Traitor’s Gate” where two of King Henry VIII’s wives passed through, never to return.
We all crammed into the small room where the teenage “Nine-day Queen,” was imprisoned right before her brutal execution and the feeling that rests upon me becomes sympathy, rather than fright. When my foot found its way onto the landing, the faded graffiti from past prisoners entered into my view. The etched engraving of a faded name, “Jane,” took its place beside concourses of etched names and messages that embellished the walls. All in caps, the plain name looked piteously adolescent in the midst of striking calligraphic names and messages scrolled on the walls by the professional scribes of wealthier prisoners. Nevertheless, the bold encasement of the text made it overpower the rest of the lightly scribbled messages in the light of the 21st century sun. The name stared back at me, daring my curiosity to ask more questions.
The guard informed the uniformed group that this was an engraving made from the Lady Jane herself right before she was taken to Tower Hill to be beheaded…a destination that was unfortunately only a stone’s-throw away from the dwelling where my feet are planted. I felt the curiosity that had bubbled inside of me when I had first entered the Tower begin to resurface. What had happened to this Jane person and why did I care to learn about someone I don’t even know?
Cobblestones awkwardly jutted into the arcs of my feet as I strolled past the White Tower’s grassy courtyard, filled with enormous black ravens, all of whom were living proof to the prophecy made by King Charles II hundreds of years ago, which then rang again in my ears: “When the ravens leave, then the Tower will fall, and the world will plunge into chaos.” There they remained, never to be forsaken like the lives of those at the fortress who had met their unfortunate end.
As we headed up to Tower Green, a gray, infinitesimally grooved ruined wall stood off to my right, marking how old the Tower of London truly was. It was the crumbling, nearly nonexistent pieces of life that made history seem almost myth-like. What I could not see, I did not necessarily know; nor, even if informed, could I possibly comprehend the true nature of how something used to exist.
Up on Tower Green, the square up across the cobblestoned street from the White Tower, a clear blue glass sculpture of a pillow replaced the old scaffolding where so many prisoners—queens, dignitaries, and falsely or truthfully condemned violators of the law—were beheaded. An inscription encircled the surrounding glass table that held up the sculpture, dedicating a moving elegy to all whom had met their untimely fate.
It took a trip like this to teach me the value of remembrance. When I leave this earth, what contribution will I leave with humanity? Will I be remembered more for my death instead of my life, like those who Great Britain has introduced to me thus far?
These thoughts encircled my brain as I continued down the cobblestoned street that lay within the perimeters of the Tower of London. Across the way a tower housed a tiny cell about the size of my mother’s walk-in closet; the entrance a stone archway short enough that even my 5-foot tall frame had to squat down in order to pass through.
Inside, over to the right of the cell, was a small room that was reconstructed to look like the miniature chapel that was once used for the previous woman whom had inhabited it 500 years prior. On the back wall a description was written about whom the cell had belonged to. This had been the place where Anne Askew, a Protestant, was imprisoned by King Henry VIII of England for professing her Protestant beliefs against the church and refusing to turn Catholic. As punishment, she was stretched on the rack for her beliefs until nearly dead, but she never faltered in her conviction, nor loosed her tongue to reveal the fact that the king’s new wife was Protestant as well. By the time her torture had finally come to an end, the young woman was so weak that she had to be carried to her execution in a chair, and then was burned at the stake as a heretic.
To know that you are on the brink of death and have no escape—to know that you will die a martyr—I can scarcely imagine what was possibly running through her head. She went submissively to her death after tribulation. Through caring about a cause higher than her life, she left behind a legacy of what she felt was good and right.
I thought of how the legacies of people who passed through this place are inscribed upon the hearts of its tourists just like those of the souls both living and dead who have walked this earth before me. I thought about how, whether we realize it or not, legacies constitute the world. King Tutankhamen left behind a legacy important enough for his tomb to be sought after thousands of years after his death. Adolf Hitler left behind a legacy disturbing enough for history to recognize him as one of the greatest tyrants of the century. Joseph II of Austria must have left behind a legacy embarrassing enough for him to tell the undertaker to inscribe his epitaph: “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.”
As I passed under the Bloody Tower, the courtyard came further into view, hailing entrances to other towers and prison cells along the way. The White Tower, then clearly visible, stood in the midst of the courtyard behind a massive ruined wall of fading stone. Beyond the wall lived the infamous ravens of the Tower of London. After hundreds of years, they still remain—and so enormous in size, they are not hard to miss.
We soon entered the chapel across the churchyard that separated the tour group from the beefeaters’ living complexes. Inside lay a couple of sarcophagi with carved effigies of dignitaries and archbishops resting atop of them. Our guide said that during the most recent excavation (before the year 2008), the remains of over three thousand bodies were discovered under the floorboards.
The rest of the time was ours to explore the towers on our own. Inside the Jewel Tower, home of the crowned jewels and the coat of arms of kings and queens of old, I watched a recording of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and noticed that everything worded and mentioned in the ceremony had to do with submitting unto God. Such words sent a calm and grateful thrill through my own Christian heart.
The White Tower held the armory and different devices used to torture prison victims. The executioners ax and block sat peacefully behind a glass case while we perused the rest of the “equipment”. My stomach turned over a few times and the air became thinner the further into the room we meandered. My camera died after entering the room and did not work again until we had exited. Strange. How eerie that a room that just held the devices would cause such an uneasy feeling when the actual dungeon lay a few floors below us.
Although the room of torture devices made me uneasy, it was no preparation for our way up to the prisoners’ quarters. The stairs. One could easily get disoriented when climbing up the narrowest stairs in the world with nothing to support their balance except for the stair in front of them; no ventilation because there are no windows, only two or three arrow-slits on the way. It was difficult to tell where you started and where you would end. My aunt was on the verge of turning back a couple of times…and so was I.
But what we saw upon reaching the landing was worth the climb. On the top floor, the graffiti on the walls left by former prisoners was vivid to behold. A guide did not have to inform us that prisoners had a lot of time on their hands. Some of the wealthier prisoners had hired their own craftsmen to carve their messages into the stone.
One etching stood out to me among the rest, spelled “IANE”. Upon further scrutiny, I noticed it was from a photograph I had seen from one of the rooms back on ground-level; the possible signature of the Lady Jane Grey. It would not have fun to be her. She was married to a Dudley (a few of the family who were doomed to be executed by a monarch’s order), made queen at fifteen—so the catholic Mary I would not be queen—for only nine days before both she and her husband were imprisoned and then beheaded.
The changing of the guard began at 3:00. Each day a new password was exchanged between guards to get through the gates. This was a spectacle. Each guard, trimmed in red and wearing his iconic English black furry hat, came into the middle of the square barking orders and stomping their thick military-issued boots. Watching this, I began to think that maybe these guards never being allowed to move was a myth.
Although this revelatory day occurred over twelve years ago, my visit to London’s ominously enlightening Tower of London remains an historical dirigible in my memory.
Everything tells a story. From the barely discernable contours of fading pieces of cold, lifeless stone from a ruined castle to the definable grooves of an armchair that gives a living, breathing body rest.
Too many people live life with the mindset that they are going to die, so they think why they should live with ambition, passion, or heart? They may not be recognized as a great ruler or someone who changed history; however, it is a pure fact that every living soul makes an impact upon another. It is all around us; one only has to open their eyes to see it and ask, “What happened?” If not, then why are we here?
Ashley Weaver is a graduate student in the final semester of her master’s program in English Education. A fan of historical fiction, she enjoys travelling to receive further writing inspiration. Her former work has appeared in Bottom Shelf Whiskey, Fabled Collective, and Fabled Journal. She reads as many books as she can in her spare time and her independent book reviews can be found on her website: ashleyweaverauthor.com.
my stories/articles have appeared in a couple different journals, I
have only been paid once.