Saturday, December 20th 2013
Some months ago we bought a combined ticket for all of London’s Royal Palaces and today we thought we had better use it to pay an oft-postponed visit to the Tower of London and see one of Britain’s most famous treasures, the Crown Jewels. I had seen this priceless collection of bejewelled artifacts twice before. The first was when I was brought to London and to the Tower as a child, and the second, when an American friend paid a flying visit to London and we spent no more than a few minutes in the Tower, and were whisked past the famous display on the moving walkway.
There can be few collections , whether of jewellery or art or anything else, whose importance and value are beyond computation and are nevertheless on permanent display, except at those times when they are being used. Given that we can at least see them, it would perhaps be churlish to complain that we are not allowed to take photographs in the exhibition but such is the case and so the photos below are of other things. Happily, some of those give me far more pleasure than pictures of the jewels would have done.
We started bright and early, knowing that the Tower was likely to become crowded later, especially on a Saturday. On reaching the City, however, we decided to break our journey to have breakfast. While looking for breakfast, we passed in front of the Royal Exchange and took a moment or two to photograph a large sculpture currently residing there. It was installed in October and is the work of Lorenzo Quinn. This version (the artist has made several) is in aluminium and is entitled Hand of God. There is no mention of who the human figure might be. Perhaps it is humanity or an alter ego of the artist. Whoever he is, he looks rather depressed.
Our mood was soon lifted by discovering that the Crosse Keys was open and serving breakfast. This pub is well worth a visit just to admire the splendid interior. In fact, this almost made me forgive them for the quality of the breakfast, whose “porridge” consisted of a carton containing oats and pieces of fruit swimming in lukewarm water.
The size of the premises suggests that this was not always a pub, an impression supported by the standard of the fixtures and fittings and the large oval ceiling dome or skylight over the staircase leading to the toilets in the basement.
Over the entrance is a clock supported by three figures and these give a clue to the original owners of the building. One of the figures looks much like one the traditional putti or cherubs used to decorate classical style buildings, while the other two, unusually, are wearing hats. You may also notice something slightly odd about their facial features, which have a slight, though not very convincing, oriental cast. Chinese putti!
The mystery is solved when we read the helpful information panels on the wall telling us that this was once the headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, designed by W. Campbell Jones and opened for business on October 22nd 1913. Founded in 1865, the corporation is today part of the HSBC Group.
In its time, the Tower of London has served as a prison, a place or torture and execution and a royal palace. We tend to think of it as a stout building, made to resist attack from outside and to foil escape from within. However, it is less a building than a complex, as large as some small villages, and includes plenty of open space. Unsurprisingly, it is visited not only by people but also by birds, such as the pair of crows visible in the photo. These are of course not the only corvids whose presence may be noticed here, as we shall see in a moment.
The Tower of London is, of course, hard by the Thames, and time was when one could arrive here by boat. The famous, if sinister, Traitor’s Gate is still visible and was once the entry point for prisoners of high profile. Since 1894, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge have co-existed in a kind of visual symbiosis, the design of the bridge being intended, not to imitate but at least to fit in with that of the Tower. On a slightly hazy day like today, the bridge seems to float in the background, as dramatic in its own way as the Tower.
The Tower is a place for the display of historic weaponry and materials of war. This highly decorated article was made for the Knights of Malta, the gun in the 17th century and the elaborate carriage in the 19th.
The Crown Jewels are kept, appropriately enough, in the Jewel House. The collection is in fact quite small and a couple of medium sized rooms suffice to hold it, with plenty of space to allow visitors to circulate. Much more more space is dedicated to accommodating the huge queues that form during peak periods. Fortunately, because we were early, we could walk straight in, see the jewels and walk out again.
The Crown Jewels are where history, politics, tradition, and a good dose of mythology meet in a glittering heap. As well as various royal crowns, sceptres, orbs and other ceremonial implements, there is gold plate – dishes and tureens and the like. Many people no doubt regard these objects as beautiful but my reaction is somewhat different. Royalty needs to impress not merely by showing its wealth, but by showing a level of wealth far beyond that attainable by anyone else. Its crowns and regalia not only have to contain the richest gems but have to contain them in huge quantities and concentrations. Caution, good taste, common sense, aesthetic considerations and the principles of good design are cast aside. The result is, to use a phrase in vogue, “over the top”; it is exaggerated and yes (in my opinion, at least) vulgar. Were these gems made of glass or produced by Swarovski, we would laugh at the pretentiousness of it all. Only the awe produced in us, on one hand, by gemstones dug from the earth and, on the other, the mystique of royalty befuddles us into thinking that what we see here must be beautiful and admirable. It is a rerun of the emperor’s new clothes.
After viewing the Crown Jewels we went to look at the Royal Armouries. Here there is a huge collection of weapons, ordnance and armour, mostly from Tudor times. Today, the Armouries are arranged as an exhibition but originally it would have been where weapons and the materials of war were stored. That is not all, however, because it is clear that as well as acting as a storehouse it was also used to impress distinguished visitors.
The most striking pieces on show are the weapons and suits of armour of rich individuals, such as the king of the day. Equally impressive, if by mass alone, are the displays of weapons and armour that would have been issued to the common soldiers.
Much of the exhibition consists armour, both for people and for horses. If there is one symbol of the insane selfishness of war it is surely the war horse: a peaceful vegetarian animal, enslaved by humans and thrust into the madness of war to be killed or maimed for reasons it can never understand. If people want to kill one another for the usual pointless and avoidable reasons, so be it, but to involve animals in the slaughter is an obscenity beyond obscenity.
One of the moist startling displays was easily missed, placed to one side in a dimly-lit case. Peering within I found myself staring into the face of Henry VIII! No, not his real face, obviously, but a vivid likeness. It was one of a set of masks which were made to fit into the suits of armour on display so that important visitors to the armoury would see exactly what the king looked like as he rode onto the field of battle. The artist has captured a living likeness and I felt as if those eyes were consciously staring into mine.
As well as weapons and armour, other objects caught our attention, such as the decoration pictured above. It is part of a bell ordered for a monastery by the King and Queen of Prome (today Pyay, Burma) and given to the Tower in 1874.
As a fortress designed to resist attack and siege, the Tower of London is built of massive masonry with thick walls, narrow archways and spiral stone staircases. Sometimes, as on the left, you have to go up steps to access a staircase to go down! On the right is what is called a garderobe. This Norman French word originally designated a room or building used for the storage of clothing. A cognate word in English is wardrobe, which was originally also a room but has become an item of furniture. The word garderobe, however, came to have a secondary meaning, as may be guessed from the view on the right. Yes, it came to designate a privy or toilet. These were sited on external walls because the “product” was allowed to fall to the ground. There was no sewer, much less a flush system.
Most of what we come to see at the Tower of London presents in the form of inanimate objects but one of the Tower’s most famous features is alive, the Tower ravens.
According to the well known legend, both the Tower and the kingdom will fall if the ravens abandon the Tower. In the past, Common Ravens, the species present in the Tower, were numerous and appeared in the Tower precincts naturally. Numbers declined, however, largely owing to human activity, and it became necessary to maintain a captive population in the Tower.
The minimum number considered necessary is six but a seventh raven is kept “in reserve”. Why do the ravens stay in the Tower grounds? The most obvious answer is because the feathers of each raven’s right wing are severely clipped (cut short) to make flight impossible. I find this sad. It is claimed that the ravens can fly enough to reach their perches. In fact, according my own observations, they cannot fly in any meaningful sense of that word. At best they can jump, aided by the unclipped left wing, but then fall to earth again, spiralling towards the right. Imagine living your life with a canon ball chained to your ankle and you may gain some idea of what life is like for the ravens, except that they are deprived of flight, something we humans do not possess and cannot imagine losing, so their plight is worse than that.
Despite having their wings clipped, at least one raven has been known to abscond, never to be seen again. I can only applaud his determination and hope he enjoyed a happy life in freedom. Ravens have also had to be “sacked” because they engaged in behaviour that made their presence in the Tower precinct undesirable.
Ravens can recognize one another perfectly well in the natural state but we monkeys find this difficult to do so the Tower ravens have been given rings of different colours to make them easier to recognize.
On the positive side, the ravens seemed well cared for and fed with a suitably varied diet. Their feathers are glossy and they appear well groomed except for the clipped wing.
If we have difficulty in distinguishing one raven from the other we also have difficulty deciding which are male and which female. According to one of the Yeoman Warders, this raven, who kindly posed for several photographs, was first thought to be male and was named Merlin. Later, it was discovered that “he” was in fact female and she was renamed Merlina. She is a most beautiful bird, strong and elegant, and intelligent as are all the corvids. But for the clipped wing, she would be enjoying an enviable life.
Not very far away from the Tower is the small church of St Olave, on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane. Built in the md-15th century, it escaped the Great Fire of London when the approaching flames were stopped by a change in the direction of the wind, but was gutted by bombs in the Second World War. The name Olave refers to King Olaf II of Norway who fought with Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014 and was later canonized.
It is quite a pretty church inside with several points of interest. It had been decorated for Christmas with a Christmas tree and a creche under the alter.
I always look at the pulpit when visiting a church as some of them are beautifully designed and decorated. This one stands on a pedestal rather like a communion chalice and is accessed by the usual staircase. It is luxuriantly carved with festoons of fruit and flowers, punctuated by cherubs’ heads.
One of the finer monuments in the church is one to the Bayninge brothers, Paule (died 1616, aged 77) and Andrew (died 1610, aged 67). Both acceded to the rank of Alderman and Paule was also Sheriff. I imagine that they are pictured here in their robes of office. The sculptor has presumably achieved accurate likenesses of each man, who differ not only in facial features but also in build. Another intriguing difference is in the feet: Paule (on the right) has his robe completely covering his shoes while Andrew has his cloak tucked up revealing his shoes. Such touches bring life to a work of art which is also a memorial.
As you would expect in a church of this age, there are a number of memorials of important parishioners, benefactors, and past vicars. There is a plaque on the wall commemorating 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys but the one I found most moving was this one, to the memory of Reverend John Letts. Rector of the parish for 20 years, John Letts died suddenly in 1857 while visiting his son in Leicestershire, where he was buried. The memorial tablet was erected by Letts’s wife but what struck me particularly was that it also memorializes five of their children – Charlotte, Amy, Sarianne, Viola and Egerton – who had gone to the grave even before their father. We know that child mortality was high during the 18th and 19th centuries but memorials such as these bring that fact home to us and make it real.
On the way home, we paid a short visit to the Church of St Mary-le-Bow. The original church on the site was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and a replacement was designed by Christopher Wren. The Wren church was itself virtually destroyed by bombing in 1941. It was rebuilt and is today a Grade I listed building. The most obvious indication of its modern origins is the design of the stained glass windows. Their style is decidedly modern. The scale of this church distinguishes it from the smaller, cosier St Olave’s.
St Mary-le-Bow, or rather its bells, have a symbolic importance. It is claimed that a Londoner is a Cockney if, and only if, born within the sound of Bow Bells.
The churchyard is now paved over as a public square. In the centre stands this fetching monument to Captain John Smith, “Citizen and Cordwainrer 1580-1631”, as the inscription tells us. A sailor, soldier, explorer and author, Smith is credited with founding the first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, in North America.
I am not sure if or when we shall visit the Tower of London again but I can say that the ravens fascinated me and that I enjoyed my close encounter with Merlina.