Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tower of London

The Crown Jewels, artifacts from Britain’s goriest events in history, the Yeoman Warders commonly known as Beefeaters, and the legendary ravens make a visit to the Tower of London a full day and memorable experience. With so much to see and explore within the walls of this medieval fortress, I was glad that I had arrived at the historic Tower of London by mid-morning and had not over-scheduled my day of sight-seeing with plans to go to other venues.

On that November day, the sparse number of visitors made it possible for me to linger in the Tower’s Waterloo Block – home of the Crown Jewels. This is the main draw attracting tourists to the Tower. Normally, visitors to this astonishing collection whisk by the display of the Crown Jewels on a moving walkway in a mere 28 seconds. The day’s low attendance made it possible for me to go back for a second, and then a third look at the gems. The gems captivated my attention and delighted me with their radiance. There were thousands of gems. I read that among the Crown Jewels, the Imperial State Crown alone has mounting of 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 5 rubies. The total number of gems on display equals some 23,578 in assorted crowns, scepters, and other royal settings. Also, some of the largest cut diamonds in the world were on display. The value of each was unimaginable.

In contrast to the beautiful gems, the Tower of London is known as a grim place of for past centuries of imprisonment, torture, and death. In the courtyard, a memorial marked with a crystal pillow offered solemn tribute to those beheaded for their alleged crimes against the Crown. Shocking best describes my reaction to the display of torture instruments like “the rack” and block and ax used for beheadings. Even more shocking was the response to a visitor poll. An interactive display asked visitors to select a “yes” or “no” response to the question of whether torture in the modern world is acceptable. The counter registered a close vote favoring “yes”, a surprising outcome.

Also, ever present are the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) who traditionally guarded the Tower since the 17th century. Their role is quite different today. These ex-servicemen provide group tours and entertain visitors with captivating tales of pain, treachery, and torture with a hint of humor. When dismissing our group, the gentleman who led the tour offered a suggestion with a devilish smile. He said, “Now ladies, be sure when you see the Crown Jewels, you compare the carets of your diamond ring given to you by your husband with that of the size diamonds found among the Crown Jewels.” There were a few groans from the husbands in the group.

On this day the Yeoman wore bright scarlet and gold Tudor costumes. This marked the special occasion of Prince Charles’ 60th birthday. In honor of this royal birthday, the Honorable Artillery Company assembled on the Tower Wharf and fired a Royal Gun Salute. Following the pageantry of the salute, the Yeoman changed into their daily garb - dark blue Victorian uniforms.

Keeping with a tradition dating back to the time of Charles II, ravens lodge at the Tower of London. Legend says that if the ravens were ever to leave the Tower, the fortress and the kingdom would fall. The ravens are protected by royal decree and can be seen wandering the grounds or perched on window ledges. Their wings are clipped to keep them within the fortress walls.

In addition to what I described, the Tower of London includes an impressive display of arms and armor, jousting costumes and lances, remains of a royal residence, the armory, mint, and more. It offers a day packed with history and amazing stories of England’s nobility.

November 14, 2008

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