London Mithraeum

Seven feet below Bloomberg’s European headquarters lies a piece of ancient history. Discovered by chance in the early 1950s whilst examining a London bomb site, archaeologists stumbled upon the remains of a temple to the god Mithras dating from the 3rd century. Lead archaeologist William Francis Grimes (1905-88) claimed the discovery “was in the nature of a fluke” since no one was expecting to find anything more than the remains of buildings destroyed during the Second World War. Now, over half a century later, the carefully preserved London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE is open to the public along with displays of remarkable Roman artefacts found on the site of one of the UK’s most significant archaeological revelations.

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The Mithraeum in 2004 when reassembled at Temple Court

It is with thanks to the software company Bloomberg that the Temple of Mithras is in such a publicly accessible space. On discovery, the temple was originally dismantled and repositioned nearby, losing architectural detail through the inaccurate reconstruction. In 2010, when Bloomberg took over the site, they were determined to take responsibility for the Roman monument and return it to its original position. Liaising with conservation specialists, the temple was once again dismantled and recreated in the form of the original ruin as it appeared at the end of the excavation in October 1954.

Built in approximately CE 240, the Temple of Mithras would have stood on the east bank of the River Walbrook, which now flows underground. Landing in Kent in CE 43, the Romans, under the leadership of the emperor Claudius (10BCE – 54CE), succeeded in their conquest of Britain. Shortly afterwards, they chose the banks of the River Walbrook as their main settlement due to its proximity and easy access to the River Thames. This area they named Londinium.

According to geoarchaeologists, the topography of the land was very different from its present state. The City of London was once a wooded area and the River Thames was much broader than it is today. Nonetheless, the Roman settlers were quick to build up their city with stone structures, including a forum or marketplace, an amphitheatre, public baths and temples. Whilst these earlier structures would have been constructed predominantly from timber and mud bricks, the later buildings of the 3rd century were much grander and made of stone, for instance, the Temple of Mithras.

As those who visit the London Mithraeum discover, the temple was not particularly big, measuring 18 by 8 metres. Although only the foundations of the building remain, archaeologists have determined to a degree of certainty the appearance of the original temple. Stretching almost the length of the Mithraeum is the nave, where it is believed temple rituals were conducted. Either side of the nave are two aisles (north and south) where presumably a congregation of around 30 sat. Separating the congregation from the central nave was a low sleeper wall, the majority of which still remains. Seven-disc shapes along these walls indicate where stone columns would once have been.

The Temple of Mithras faces in a vague eastward direction with an entrance at the west end. Opposite the entry steps is a rounded apse that would most likely have featured a statue of the god Mithras. A stone head was uncovered in 1954 that may have been part of this statue.

Throughout the Roman world, there are 100 known remnants of mithrea, the majority of which are a similar rectangle shape, however, there appears to be no evidence that the temples contained windows. As a result, lamps or torches would have been the only available light sources. Four small holes behind the statue plinth in the rounded apse may once have held lit torches.

Little else can be gathered from the temple remains other than it was one of many buildings in the area. A stone relief found close to the temple’s site was inscribed “Ulpius Silvanus”, which could potentially be the name of the original founder or, at least, someone who lived nearby.

Today, the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE provides visitors with a multisensory experience, which uses light and haze to construct the shadows of the seven missing columns whilst the sound of footsteps, chanting and whispers echo the rituals of centuries ago. After the mysterious display, the lights go up so that the ruins can be seen more clearly.

Whilst it is impressive to view the architecture of ancient buildings, the London Mithraeum leaves as many questions open than it answers. Why was the temple built? Who was Mithras and why did people worship him?

Almost everything that is known about Mithras is the result of historians’ interpretations. Mithras was a Roman deity but his exact origins are unknown. Mithraism as an ancient religion appeared in the first century BCE and continued to flourish into the first few centuries CE. It is believed, perhaps due to the size of the mithrea, that the religion was worshipped in small groups rather than as a mainstream belief.

Statues and carved imagery discovered during excavations represent Mithras as a young man wearing a Phrygian cap. In a scene known as a tauroctony, Mithras is typically shown killing a bull while surrounded by other figures and animals. The meaning behind these figures are widely debated amongst scholars and, as there are no written documents about the religion, no one will ever be able to determine the exact truth. There was, however, evidence of ancient graffiti on the walls of the excavated temple. These inscriptions have helped to paint a hazy picture of the ceremonies conducted in the Temple of Mithras. Latin words taken from graffiti scratched into the wall of a Mithraeum beneath the church of Santa Prisca in Rome make up the script of the chanting heard at the London Mithraeum.

Mithraism is often referred to as a “mystery cult” since the majority of their practices were kept secret from the rest of the world, hence no books. Apart from archaeological evidence and graffiti that suggests the members of the cult consumed chicken, wine and honey, and that their ceremonies involved incense and smoke, little else is known.

Some scholars believe that Mithraism merged with Judaism to create Christianity, whereas others suggest it was eradicated by the latter. Saint Paul, who is often referred to as the first Christian, was born in Tarsus, a major centre of Mithraism. It is, therefore, possible that Paul moulded the laws and rituals of Mithraism into Christianity. This, however, is merely speculation.

“It was in Tarsus that the Mysteries of Mithras had originated, so it would have been unthinkable that Paul would have been unaware of the remarkable similarities … between Christian doctrines and the teachings of Mithraism.”
“The Jesus Mysteries” by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999)

The Temple of Mithras in London, or Londinium as it was then called, was abandoned by the early 5th century due to the collapse of the Roman government across the empire. For a century or so, the land along the River Walbrook remained uninhabited, resulting in the collapse of buildings, a build-up of debris and soil, and a gradually rising ground level. This is why the remains of the temple are so far underground. By the time the area was reinhabited, the temple was hidden from site and Mithraism was forgotten with Christianity becoming the more predominant religion in the country.

Since the return of the population to Londinium, the city has expanded and been built upon, ultimately altering the landscape forever. St Paul’s Cathedral became one of the major places of worship after it was founded in 604 CE. With new buildings on the rise, including the Tower of London, which William the Conqueror (1028-87) was responsible for, no one questioned what may have been around beforehand.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 added more debris to the land, hiding the Roman remains further underground. By the time the World War II bombings destroyed most of the buildings on the site in 1941, the street level was at least 9 metres above the earliest Roman deposits.

It is in part due to the build-up of debris that the remains of the Temple of Mithras survived. The waterlogged nature of the soil along the Walbrook valley, which contained very little oxygen, was excellent for preserving archaeological architecture and artefacts. When the initial excavations began in the 1950s, many items made from organic materials, such as wood and leather, were unearthed – items that rarely survive. In preparation for the construction of Bloomberg’s headquarters, further excavations took place, recovering more Roman finds than any other site in the City. In total, over 14,000 artefacts were recovered as well as 63,000 pieces of pottery and three tonnes of animal bone.

As well as the Temple of Mithras, the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE displays a variety of the artefacts discovered beneath the feet of Londoners that once belonged to Britain’s Roman ancestors. Each object provides an insight into the lives of people in Londinium from the things they treasured to the things they wore and consumed. Digital tablets allow visitors to choose objects to explore in more detail.

Whilst the excavated animal bones are not on display, they suggest the types of creatures the Romans may have eaten, for instance, chicken. Nearby, the remains of workshops and a bakery were discovered, revealing further insight into the daily lives of inhabitants. Within the displayed artefacts are hooks and weights, which are the remains of ancient weighing methods. These may have been used in the bakery or similar shops.

The remains of buildings, including the Temple, help to explain the architecture of ancient constructions. Floors appear to have been tiled or in some cases decorated with mosaics, and roofs were composed of clay tiles (tegula). Overlapping tiles made the roof more durable and waterproof, an architectural feature that was often used in ancient Greece and Rome.

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Hypocaust Diagram

The Romans were a long way off the central heating Londoners have today, nonetheless, they had their own methods of heating their homes. Roman architects used a system called hypocaust in which the floor was raised above ground level to create a space for hot air produced by a furnace to flow underneath.

Buildings were entered through thick, wooden doors, a fragment of which miraculously survives. This fragment is made from panelled oak and it is believed that one of the large iron keys discovered on the site may have been used to lock this particular door.

As mentioned, objects made from organic material, such as the wooden door, do not often survive. Other organic items that withstood the test of time are leather shoes, wooden combs and wooden writing tablets. The latter would have been coated in wax and etched into with iron styli, many of which have also been recovered.

Metal items are more durable, therefore, it is unsurprising that iron styli, iron knives – one with an ivory handle, copper bells and copper alloy brooches have survived in abundance. Brooches would have been used to hold garments together by both men and women and were probably nothing much to look at in comparison to the elaborate brooches that are made today. An amber carving of a gladiator’s helmet that is thought to have been worn as a pendant for decorative purposes, since amber was a precious and treasured material.

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Domitian, AD 81 to 96. Silver denarius

The most prevalent artefacts from the Bloomberg site were Roman coins of which over 700 were discovered. Similar to present-day money, coins featured the profile of the reigning emperor. The majority of these coins were manufactured during the reign of Emperor Claudius, however, the rest have been identified as other rulers, for instance, Emperor Domitian (51-96 CE), the last member of the Flavian dynasty.

Interestingly, many of the recovered items were produced elsewhere rather than locally, suggesting that the Romans brought their possessions with them or traded with other countries. The quernstone used in the bakery or mill to grind grain was produced from stone sourced in Germany. Glass objects have been identified as Egyptian and some of the brooches came from central Europe. Mediterranean lamps were popular and it is thought the Roman Empire bought their olive oil from Spain.

Samian pottery was popular throughout the empire and many examples have been excavated in London. Also known as terra sigillata ware, the bright-red, polished pottery was made of clay and impressed with designs. Animals were a common feature in Roman art and some fragments of pottery and stoneware feature images of British hunting dogs, wild lions, deer, eagles and bulls, possibly representing Taurus. The bull also had a strong connection to Mithraism.

Londinium only had a population of 10,000 during the first couple of centuries, which is a mere handful compared with the 8.8 million that have made London their home today. Thanks to the discovery of the Temple of Mithras and the enormous range of artefacts, it is possible to imagine what the life of these first inhabitants may have been like. Many items were discovered at the bottom of an ancient well, implying that the Romans threw a lot of their things away rather than adopting the make-do-and-mend attitude that was popular many centuries later.

Unfortunately, no matter how much is discovered, historians will never know for sure the accuracies of their speculation, however, the findings remain an interest to the public. The London Mithraeum provides the opportunity to imagine life in London 2000 years ago as well as discover an ancient religion. Although visitors may leave with more questions than they arrived with, it is worth taking the time to appreciate and explore the remains of our ancient ancestors.

We may never know who Mithras was nor why he was worshipped, then again, who knows what may be discovered in the future? If the Temple of Mithras was hidden under the City of London for almost two millennia, what else could be hiding beneath our feet?

The London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE is free to visit, but to guarantee entry you are advised to book in advance. Opening hours are Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 – 18.00 and Sundays 12.00 – 17.00.

Hitting the Right Note

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Situated in North-West London, the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1822, is the oldest music school in the United Kingdom. With the aim to promote knowledge, taste, skill and new music to whoever wished to pursue it, Lord Burghersh, 11th Earl of Westmorland (1784-1859), a composer, organised the establishment with the help of the harpist Nicolas Bochsa (1789-1856). Situated in Tenterden Street, Mayfair, the new academy was open to both boys and girls aged between 10 and 15 years who boarded at the school during term time. With William Crotch (1775-1847) as the first Principal, pupils were expected to focus on their music studies from 7am until 9pm.

Today, the Royal Academy of Music can be found in Marylebone Road, City of Westminster where it relocated in 1911. Right next door, a smaller building contains the Academy’s museum, with permanent and temporary galleries and exhibitions that explore unique instruments and the history of one of the leading UK conservatoires.

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Although known as the Royal Academy of Music, for the first eight years of its existence, the institution had not officially been recognised by the royal family. In 1830, just days before his death, King George IV (1762-1830) signed the Academy’s Royal Charter, and his successor, William IV (1765-1837) continued to support the school by establishing four King’s Scholarships.

The opportunities and cosmopolitan ethos of the Royal Academy attracted a growing number of students, including, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), who later became the school’s Principal, and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. To this day, famous names are emerging from the Academy and past students include the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle (b.1955), Sir Elton John (b.1947) and Annie Lennox (b.1954).

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Franz List playing at the RA by Oswald Barrett

During the latter half of the 19th-century, the Royal Academy of Music began to struggle as rival institutions began to crop up in London: the Guildhall School (1880) and Royal College of Music (1882). Despite suffering a chronic financial crisis, Principal Bennett, whose conducting baton can be viewed in the museum, helped to turn the situation around. This was helped further by a visit from the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) who received Honorary Membership of the Academy shortly before his death.

Due to the centenary of the emancipation of women in 2018, the Academy’s museum focused on the lives of female students, professors and musicians connected with the school in a temporary exhibition Hitting the Right Note: Amazing Women at the Royal Academy of Music, which ended on 18th April 2019. Although this exhibition concentrated more on the physical way these women have been portrayed, it contained an eye-opening history of the Academy from the point of view of women.

Music has always been enjoyed by both men and women alike, however, from ancient times to the 15th century, musicians tended to be slaves, servants or prostitutes, forced to entertain the rich in order to make a living. As a result of this, during the 17th and 18th centuries, respectable women would never be seen performing outside the home. Women were even banned from playing the organ in churches or singing with the choir. It was not until the 19th century that it was no longer deemed immoral for a woman to perform on stage. The number of female opera stars increased rapidly, eventually ousting male castrati.

Yet, when it came to playing instruments, women were expected to only play the piano in the privacy of their own homes. After the industrial revolution, however, the production of pianos increased meaning that “ordinary” working class people could also learn to play. Middle-class ladies, not wanting to be seen playing something “common”, began taking up other instruments instead, particularly the violin.

The Royal Academy of Music was slightly ahead of its time, admitting an equal amount of male and female students from the get-go. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the Academy began training older, professional musicians. The Academy was also the first establishment to admit women on orchestral instruments, beginning with Julia de Notte and Adria Moore on violins in 1872.

Earlier in 1844, the Royal Academy of Music had welcomed Kate Loder (1825-1904) as their first female professor of harmony. Born with perfect pitch, Kate won the King’s Scholarship at the age of 13 and had the opportunity in her final year at the Academy to play G Minor Concerto to its composer, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47).

At the age of 18, Kate became the first female professor at the Academy as well as the youngest female elected to the Philharmonic Society a year later. Unfortunately, her marriage to Henry Thompson (1820-1904) in 1851, put an end to her teaching career.

The exhibition included a number of women who had strong connections with the Royal Academy of Music. Two of these women have been honoured with busts, including one made by the American- British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). These were Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) and Dame Moura Lympany (1916-2005).

Myra Hess enrolled at the Academy as a piano student when she was only 12 years old. By 17, she had given her public debut and become one of the most famous pianists in Britain. Her fame today, however, stems from her wartime contributions. During the Second World War, Hess proposed that live music should be performed in the empty National Gallery, whose treasures had been removed in order to avoid damage during the Blitz. Five days a week, classical lunchtime concerts were performed, providing music and food for the people of London. In total, 1698 concerts were performed, 146 of which Hess participated in herself.

Dame Moura Lympany, on the other hand, studied at the Academy much later than Hess. With a full scholarship, Lympany was a student from 1929 until 1934 after which she became a notable concert pianist. She was the first person to make a complete recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes and, in 1940, she gave the British premiere of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D Flat.

Like Myra Hess, some of the other women who studied at the Academy had musical roles during the Second World War. Elizabeth Poston (1905-87) was one of the performers in the National Gallery concerts, however, her war legacy goes much further than that. In 1940, Poston joined the BBC Music Department and within three years had been promoted to European Music Supervisor. Part of her role involved sending coded musical messages to the Polish resistance on the continent. This code system was known as Jodaform, which had been devised by Czesław Halski, who became a student at the academy after the war. Well-known Polish tunes and folksongs were given different meanings and it was Poston’s job to play the correct piece of music to signify whether there was to be an air-drop in Poland or any other form of activity.

The exhibition displayed items belonging to a handful of the women who had passed through the Royal Academy of Music. On loan were Janet Craxton’s (1929-81) oboe reeds, many of which she collected from famous oboists. Craxton was an oboist herself, in fact, one of the leading players of her day. She was the only daughter of Harold Craxton OBE (1885-1971) who was a pianist and professor at the academy.

Also on loan were a snare drum, drum sticks and practice pad belonging to Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), the virtuoso Scottish percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, yet has taught herself to “hear” using other parts of her body. The snare drum was the first instrument Glennie owned. She has since gone on to amass one of the largest percussion collections in the world.

Hitting the Right Note mentioned many firsts for the Royal Academy of Music beginning with the first female violin students (1872) right up until the first female timpani student (1954) and saxophone student (1980). Surprisingly, the more major firsts have occurred more recently and go to show how difficult it has been for professional female musicians. A breakthrough transpired in the mid-20th century when Florence Hooton (1912-88) became the first cellist to play on national television. Yet there were still many milestones for female musicians to reach.

In 1984, Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949) became the first woman in history to conduct a complete concert at the BBC Proms. Born in Cuba, Martinez studied in New Orleans until she earned a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Academy. Her secret dream was to conduct, however, women were rarely given the opportunity. Nonetheless, her determination saw her achieve her goal.

The violinist Clio Gould (b.1968) reached another milestone for women when she became the first woman to lead a symphony orchestra in London. Shockingly, this feat did not occur until 2002 when she played with the Royal Philharmonic. Gould has since performed with a number of other orchestras but specialises in contemporary solo repertoire. She is currently a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum has two floors devoted to the history of string instruments and the piano. The Academy owns some 250 string instruments of which only a handful are on display to the public. Amongst the collection is a Renaissance lute, a Parisian five-course guitar, and a British-made piccolo violin. With instruments from various eras and countries, the String Gallery helps visitors to understand the development and styles of music over time.

One of the first instruments visitors see on entering the String Gallery is Kai-Thomas Roth’s three-stringed double bass which he made using maple wood in 2006. Despite being a fairly new instrument, it is based on the baroque three-stringed bass, which itself was based on a double-bass produced by Domenico Montagnana (1687-1750) in 1747. Montagnana was working in Venice at the same time as the violin virtuoso and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), therefore, it is likely Vivaldi or members of his orchestra had instruments made by him.

Intriguingly titled an English guitar, the convex lute-like instrument with six pairs of strings belongs to the cittern family, a Rennaisance term for wire-strung instruments plucked by a plectrum. This is one of the surviving pieces from John Preston’s (active 1724-98) workshop and was produced around the time that guitars were becoming popular. Interestingly, this style of guitar was most popular with females who considered it to be elegant and easy to play.

One of the most beautiful instruments in the Strings Gallery is the 19th-century lacquered green Irish harp. Decorated with shamrocks and a gilded winged female bust representing the figure of Hibernia, this harp was made by John Egan, an Irish “Maker by Special Appointment to His Most Gracious Majesty George IV”. Tuned in E-flat major, this harp is extremely rare, being one of only two known surviving harps in the style.

“Violins are the lively, forward, importunate wits, that distinguish themselves by flourishes of imagination, sharpness of repartee, glances of satire and bear away the upper part in every consort.”
– Richard Steele, The Tatler, 1710

The String Gallery could not be complete without the instruments that make up the majority of professional orchestras: violins. These, of course, are not just any string instrument, they have been made by some of the most famous violin makers to have existed. Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) and his pupil Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) created some of the most wanted stringed instruments, which are now part of grand collections, for instance, this one, rather than being played.

The Nicolo Amati violin of 1662 is a well-preserved example of his largest and most favoured instrument. Known as the “Grand Amati”, this violin demonstrates Amati’s greatest achievement. With exemplary purfling (ornamental border), broad black strips of ebony have been inlaid around the edge of the instrument to reinforce the delicate curves of the outline. There are still traces of honey-brown varnish on parts of the maple wood body.

The 1709 ‘Viotti ex-Bruce‘ violin by Antonio Stradivari is one of the best-preserved examples of his workmanship to have survived. It was produced during his “golden period” when Stradivari was at the height of his powers. The dramatically figured maple wood was covered with a deep red varnish, the majority of which remains on the body due to preservation. The violin has been named after Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) who once played for Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93). Viotti was a fan of Stradivari’s instruments, however, his collection had to be sold to settle his exorbitant debts. The last owners were the Bruce family, hence Viotti ex-Bruce, before it was acquired by HM Government.

Also on display is another of Stradivari’s instruments, the “Archinto” viola of 1696. During his long and productive career, Stradivari did not produce a large number of violas and, today, only ten survive. The slender corners and purfling evidence the influence Amati had on his pupil, however, there are some elements that are unique to the maker. Stradivari fashioned his violas with cello-like peg boxes and is varnished in such a way that the instrument appears to change colour when viewed from different directions.

“A man of brains is like a virtuoso who can give a concert all by himself. Or he is like a piano which is in itself a small orchestra.”
– Schopenhauer, Maxims, 1851

The Piano Gallery shows the evolution of keyboard instruments from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. The gallery contains several instruments from the piano, harpsichord and virginal families that are kept in playing condition, however, visitors are not permitted to touch the keys. Gallery assistants, however, are more than happy to give a demonstration of the different sounds and explain how the instruments changed over the years.

Unlike the piano, which is believed to have been first created by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in the early 18th century, whose complex mechanism involves hammers, which strike the strings to provide dynamic notes, virginals and harpsichords create sound by plucking strings with a plectrum. A couple of models demonstrate these differences.

Typically, the instrument visitors are drawn to first is the “Model A” Grand Piano produced by Steinway and Sons. Made in 1920, the Steinway is almost 100 years old, yet it is still regarded as a “modern” piano. Steinway has become synonymous with pianos of this calibre and is usually the most sought-after in the world. The company was established in New York in the 1850s by German immigrant Henry E. Steinway (1797-1871). Along with his sons, Theodore (1825-89) and William (1835-96), Steinway’s unique pianos were produced from one piece of wood, which supposedly enhances the sound of the notes. Also, Steinway ensured that little energy is lost through the vibration of the strings, therefore maximising the generation of the sound.

If approaching the instruments in chronological order, the first is a polygonal virginal or spinetta made in Italy some time between 1600 and 1650. A virginal is a type of small harpsichord and is the earliest string keyboard instrument to survive. They are dated back as far as the 16th century, evidenced by their presence in paintings from that time. Virginals were built without stands, implying they could be moved from place to place for performances.

Although the newest instrument in the room, Arnold Dolmetsch’s (1858-1940) clavichord is a copy of a much older instrument from the 17th or 18th century. Dolmetsch built copies of almost every kind of instrument from the 15th century onwards, which has helped musicians and historians to understand those that are now lost. Whereas a harpsichord uses a bird’s quill to pluck the strings, a clavichord produces sound by striking the brass or iron strings with a metal blade known as a tangent. The vibrations caused by this produce the sounds, however, they are not very loud. It is thought clavichords were primarily used for practice rather than performance.

“The harpsichord has its own peculiar qualities … precision, clearness, brilliance; and compass.”
Francois Couperin, The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, 1716

Virginals and clavichords were more suitable for domestic settings, as were most harpsichords. A fine example is a harpsichord produced by Jacob Kirkman (1710-92) in 1764, which would have been familiar to the likes of Handel (1685-1759). Although a harpsichord may have a pure brilliance of sound, the dynamics are less modifiable in comparison to a piano and, therefore, not so good for public performances.

The Gallery has a number of grand pianos that progress through the years, revealing how the design and mechanisms were gradually improved. As the pianos became more modern, pianists were able to mesmerise their audiences with their playing, just as Franz Liszt did during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music.

Music was no longer limited to royal courts, churches and domestic settings, instead, people could listen – for a fee – in concert and recital halls. Pianos became physically large to emphasise their importance within orchestras and solo performances. Whilst older pianos were produced almost entirely from wood, piano makers began to use metal tubes or bars to increase the potential sound of the strings.

For some visitors, the temptation to try these instruments for themselves may be great, so they are relieved to know that they can play a particular, upright piano in the String Gallery. There are also a couple of ukeleles for the curious to try.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum is the ideal place to visit for anyone with an interest in music. Not only is it fascinating to look at all the precious instruments, but the history of the Academy is also worthwhile reading about. Throughout the year, the museum holds various exhibitions, however, they are all free to enter. Whilst there, why not check out the music shop at the front of the building, which contains a huge number of sheet music amongst other things.

Many of the collections displayed are Designated and the Museum itself is Accredited, chartermarks of quality awarded and administered by Arts Council England (ACE). The Museum opened in 2001, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Jewish Britain

Founded in 1932 by Professor Cecil Roth (1899-1970), Alfred Rubens (1903-98) and Wilfred Samuel (1886-1958), The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. Featuring objects from all areas of Jewish life, the museum in Camden, London explores the public and private lives of communities throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. With both temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum focuses on Jewish traditions and ceremonies, and the history of Jewish life in Britain: Judaism: A Living Faith and Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

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Mikveh

Before visitors reach either of the two main galleries, they are introduced to the oldest exhibit in the museum. Built into the floor is a mid-13th-century mikveh, which had been discovered by archaeologists on a London building site in 2001. A mikveh is a type of bath used for ritual cleansing as part of many ceremonies and Jewish traditions. For instance, in Judaism, menstruation is regarded as unclean, therefore, women must visit the mikvah once a month. Men, on the other hand, can have a ritual cleansing before holy occasions, e.g. the Sabbath or an annual festival. The bath is also used prior to marriage, after childbirth and as the closing stage of converting to Judaism.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world that is still practised today. The religion can be traced back over 4000 years, as far as the biblical land of Israel. Jewish societies consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, who established the belief in one God – a belief now shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As recorded in the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon (c.990-c.931 BCE) built the First Temple in Jerusalem in approximately 960 BCE, which became a religious centre for Jewish people. Centuries later in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into captivity. For the first time, the Jews were moved out of Israel.

Eventually, the Jewish population returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, however, it resulted in a similar fate. In 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who were in power at the time, resulting in many Jews fleeing the land of Israel in search of safe homes elsewhere. Thus, Judaism began to spread around the world.

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The main teachings of Judaism can be found in the Torah, the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Bible: Genesis (Bəreshit), Exodus (Shəmot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bəmidbar), and Deuteronomy (Dəvarim). These contain 613 commandments that form the basis of the religion. Although Jewish customs have altered over time as they spread themselves out over the world, all Jewish communities use the Hebrew language of the Torah during prayers and celebrations.

On entering Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors come face to face with a Torah scroll attached to 19th-century silver rollers. Scrolls such as these are the most precious object within any Jewish community and are used regularly during services in the synagogue. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the parchment scroll reads from right to left and would have been written by a scribe with a special quill and ink. After production, the scroll is considered to be holy and must not be touched with bare hands. In order to help people read the tiny script, they may use a yad (pointer) to keep their place.

The Jewish Museum owns a large number of Jewish objects from various locations and centuries, however, many of them are used for the same purposes despite the variation in their design. Take, for example, the ornaments that decorate the tops of the Torah rollers. These rimmonim, which literally means pomegranates, are all styled to resemble the fruit. Pomegranates are an important symbol in Judaism due to the misconception in rabbinic tradition that the fruit contains 613 seeds – the same number of commandments. Despite being inspired by the pomegranate, the designers have interpreted this in unique, contrasting ways. Whilst a 19th-century rimmonim from North Africa may be made of wood and decorated with paint, another may be silver and contain a number of bells.

Other objects of various design include spice containers and kiddush cups. Spices, which are used during ceremonies on the Sabbath, are kept in special, decorative containers that are shaped to resemble towers, often inspired by local architecture. An example from Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany contains illustrations and gems as well as elaborate silver metal work. Similarly, the kiddush cups are also used on the Sabbath and are usually made from silver. An example from 19th-century England, however, was made from the shell of a coconut and carved with biblical scenes and Hebrew verses.

The life of an Observant Jew involves praying three times a day, including the Shema, the most important prayer. In order to say the Shema, which takes place in the morning and evening, a tzitzit (tassels) and tefillin (small boxes) must be worn, and a mezuzah (decorative scroll case) attached to the doorpost. These are items that remind the Jews of God’s presence and examples can be found in the museum.

When a male child is born, he is circumcised at eight days old and named during the ceremony. Baby girls, however, are given their names during a ceremony at the synagogue. The children are brought up to follow strict Jewish rules, for instance, only eating food that is kosher (fit to eat) and to attend the synagogue for the main Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. Later, at the age of thirteen, boys celebrate their barmitzvah (son of the commandment) and, at twelve, girls become batmitzvah. After these ceremonies, they are considered adults and, therefore, are expected to take responsibility for their own faiths.

Marriage ceremonies must also be performed as written in Jewish law. Wedding ceremonies take place under a huppah (canopy), a sheet supported by four poles, and the ketubah (“written thing”; marriage contract) is read and signed. This outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to his bride.

Even with death, rules must be followed precisely. The body must be buried as soon as possible – cremation is a big no-no because the body is the “temple of the soul” – and relations must remain at home for a mourning period of seven days (shiva). Due to Jewish customs, the dead are never forgotten. Every year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a memorial prayer is said and a candle is lit.

The main Jewish community centre in the synagogue is where not only prayer and worship occur, but education, celebrations and social events too. Originally based on the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural appearances of synagogues have altered over time and vary from place to place, however, some things remain consistent. In Britain, synagogues should be built facing east towards Jerusalem and it is forbidden to display images of God within the building.

Another common feature is an Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, and a ner tamid (eternal light), which hangs above it. The Jewish Museum owns a beautiful example of 17th-century Ark that is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. Made from walnut, it is decorated with marbled paintwork and Jewish symbols. A Hebrew inscription at the top reads, “Know before whom you stand.”

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A model of the interior of a synagogue helps visitors visualise Jewish services. This exhibit is child-friendly and people are encouraged to find the Ark, the ner tamid and the bimah (a desk that the Torah scrolls are read from).

Within Judaism, there are different religious groups who follow a mix of traditions. In Orthodox synagogues, the rules are strict: men and women are not allowed to sit together and may be separated by a mechitza (screen); the rabbi is always male. In Reform and Liberal synagogues, however, people are free to sit wherever they choose and, in some instances, the rabbi is female.

Whilst it is the centre of Jewish religion, not all worship takes place in the synagogue. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created the world in six days and “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The Jews call the seventh day Shabbat (the Sabbath) and believe it is a time of rest for everyone. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating what he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday night. During this time, families and friends come together to relax and pray, often sharing a meal. The museum has set up a table with important objects and place settings so that non-Jewish visitors can get a sense of the peaceful atmosphere that is felt during this time of worship.

As with any religion, there are several Jewish festivals throughout the year. Most of them, at least by name, will be familiar to visitors, however, what they involve and the objects used may not. In the winter, while the majority of the world is preparing for Christmas – a holiday Observant Jews do not partake – Jewish societies are celebrating Hanukah, the winter festival of light. This festival observes the spiritual survival of the Jews under Syrian Greek rule in 165 BCE. Jewish practices were banned and the Greeks began worshipping their own idols in the Temple. In retaliation, a group of Jewish rebel warriors known as the Maccabees fought back and reclaimed the Temple. Naturally, much of the Temple had been damaged, however, the Maccabees were able to find enough oil to keep the menorah (candelabrum) alight for one day. Yet the menorah did not burn out as expected; it lasted for eight days by which time more oil had been sourced.

The Jews remember this miracle by celebrating an eight-day annual festival, which involves candle lighting and prayers every evening. Hanukah lamps, similar in style to the seven-branched menorah in the synagogue, have eight candles to represent the eight days the Maccabee’s menorah stayed alight. Also at this time, children receive gifts and everyone feasts on oily food, for instance, doughnuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes).

In the early spring, the Jewish celebrate Purim in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue followed by fancy dress parties, plays and plenty of food and drink.

One of the most important Jewish festivals of the year is Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus. The well-known story recounts the experience of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt then, after God sent ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free them, were led across the Red Sea by the prophet Moses. The Torah states that this story must be told to each generation, therefore, an eight-day festival is given annually for this purpose. During this time, people eat matzah, a form of unleavened bread, as a reminder of the flatbread the Israelites ate on their journey out of Egypt. During this period, leavened bread (hametz) or any food containing yeast is forbidden.

The history of Jews in Britain begins in roughly 1066 following the Norman invasion, which put William the Conqueror (1028-87) on the throne. The largest Jewish community settled in London, however, the law forbade them from owning land. Many Jews became moneylenders, which was a position that was forbidden to Christians at the time. Despite this, a Jewish name, Manasses, appears in the Domesday Book, a land survey commissioned in 1086.

More Jews arrived in England after the first Crusade, which took place between 1095 and 1099. This was the first attempt by Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. As a result, the Jewish community in London grew and by 1130, the Great Synagogue was founded in the Jewish quarter of London. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jewish population and in 1144 the first European blood libel occurred in Norwich. By 1190, Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, however, many decided to commit suicide instead.

Despite King John (1166-1216) granting Jews the right to live in England, he made their lives difficult by imposing huge taxes on their communities. In 1218, Henry III (1207-72) ordered that all Jews should wear a badge (sound familiar?) and attempted to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1278, hundreds of Jews were accused of coin clipping resulting in the execution of more than 200 people.

By 1290, Edward I (1239-1307) had decreed that all Jews should leave England and have all their property confiscated. Nonetheless, there were still Jews in the country by the time the Tudor monarchs were on the throne. In fact, Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) most trusted physician was Rodrigo Lopez (1517-94), a Portuguese Jew (although he had converted to Catholicism). Unfortunately, he was later accused of treason and hung, drawn and quartered in 1594, an execution that was witnessed by a massive crowd who mocked him for being a Jew. It is believed that Lopez was Shakespeare‘s inspiration for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It was not until 1656, with England being ruled by parliament, that Jews began to be welcomed back by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), although more for economic reasons than anything else. Nonetheless, the Jewish community once again began to grow, first with an influx of Sephardim Jews (from Spain and Portugal), shortly followed by Ashkenazim Jews (from Germany and Poland).

The end of the 18th-century saw Jews spread over all areas of society. They were particularly popular within the theatres as both performers and managers. Plays were often performed in Yiddish, a language spoken by most Central and Eastern European Jews. Plays ranged from comedies to tragedies, featuring folk tales, stories based on true life and adaptations of Shakespeare. The museum has a number of theatre posters on display as well as the opportunity to dress up in some of the clothing worn at the time, including a top hat.

Of course, Jews still faced discrimination, as did anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. In 1753, the “Jew Bill” allowing Jewish immigrants to become British subjects was repealed due to public outcry, however, protests during the 19th-century changed this. By 1874, Britain had its first Jewish-born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), although he had converted to Christianity as a child.

Although Jews were finding acceptance in Britain, they were not so lucky in other European countries. In Russia and Poland, Jews were severely restricted in terms of occupation and housing, therefore, many were living in poverty. Due to the violence targetted at them, over two million Jews left their homes to seek a better life, 150,000 of whom arrived on British soil.

Those who already had relatives in Britain were able to move in with their families, however, the majority of the migrants were complete strangers, starving and penniless. As a result, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up in London to provide food and a safe shelter for the immigrants whilst they searched for jobs and homes. The museum has an example of a deed box that Jews were invited to place their valuables for safekeeping.

The Jewish Museum explains how the new arrivals gradually began to fit into British society. Jewish schools and hospitals were set up as well as synagogues, which helped to make the Jews feel more at home in this foreign country. By the outbreak of World War One, the Jewish communities were as patriotic as the rest of the country and as many as 50,000 Jews served within the British armed forces.

War is difficult for everyone, but the Jews who joined the British ranks had another challenge on their hands. Britain was on the same side as Russia, the country many Jews had fled from. This caused friction within Jewish communities, however, the soldiers were welcomed back as heroes. Some of the Jews who fought in the war also received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

The 1930s brought more European Jews to England due to the growing power of Nazism in Germany. 10,000 children arrived via Kindertransport, which the Museum had a temporary exhibition about at the beginning of the year (2019). As everyone should know, thousands of Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany due to the policies of party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Holocaust caused the death of 6 million European Jews and it is estimated that in total, 17,000 million people fell victim to the Second World War. A survivor’s account of his time in a concentration camp is the main focus of a small exhibition within the museum.

“We are all human beings, whatever colour or race we are, everybody deserves respect.”
Ann Kirk, Kindertransport refugee

The Jewish Museum may not be on many people’s radar, however, it is an important museum to have in London. Non-religious people tend to shy away from things labelled “Jewish”, not due to discrimination, but because they think it is something only for Jewish people. This museum, however, is for everyone. It provides an eye-opening history of the Jewish religion as well as a shocking record of Jewish life in Britain. Whilst the Holocaust plays a large part in Jewish history, there is so much prior to that of which the majority of the British population will be unaware. There is information in this Museum that will never be taught in schools. After all, it is the winners that write the history books and the Jewish rarely were.

The Jewish Museum can be found in the heart of Camden Town, a mere 3 minutes walk from the underground station in Raymond Burton House, Albert Street. Opening hours are between 10am and 5pm on weekdays, except Friday, which closes at 2pm ready for the Jewish Sabbath. The entry fee is £7.50 for adults, £5.50 concessions and £3.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 16.

The Tower of London

A royal palace for kings and queens, a zoo, a prison, and now a tourist attraction, the Tower of London has a long and colourful history. With the mighty White Tower at its centre, the fortress has seen many changes throughout its 1000 year existence. Today, the Tower is home to the Yeomen Warders, an unkindness (that’s the collective term, honest!) of ravens, and the Crown Jewels, attracting over three million visitors a year. Being the best place to visit to discover the history of British royals, it is no wonder Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London has become such a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The history of the Tower of London begins with the invasion of the Normans in 1066. As nearly everyone knows, William the Conqueror (1028-1087) defeated Harold Godwinson (1022-1066) at the Battle of Hastings, crowning himself king at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day later that year. One of the first things William I did as king of England, was to order the construction of a castle on the banks of the River Thames, then withdrew to Barking Abbey “while several strongholds were made ready in the City to safeguard against the fickleness of the huge and fierce population.” (William of Poitiers)

With stone imported from Caen, France – William’s native land – an immense building of a height of 27.5 metres (90 ft) was completed by 1100, the first structure of its kind on British soil. From here on, several buildings were added, demolished, rebuilt and perfected until it resembled the impressive castle that can be seen today.

It takes more than one visit to see everything the Tower has to offer and, whilst the entry fee provides access to all public areas, it is best to plan in advance what sections to see, bearing in mind that some areas will be more popular than others. The busiest building within the grounds is, of course, the Waterloo Barracks: the home of the Crown Jewels.

In 1649, King Charles I‘s (1600-49) reign ended with his head lying separately from his body outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. For seven years, the King and Parliament had been involved in a long and bloody civil war, with Parliament coming out on top. With Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) as Lord Protector, the late King’s possessions were sold and the Crown Jewels were destroyed with the instructions to “melt down all the gold and silver and sell the jewels to the best advantage of the Commonwealth.” The only items to survive this destruction were three 17th-century ceremonial swords and a 12th-century Coronation Spoon.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a new set of jewels was created for the new king, Charles II (1630-85). Since then, the splendid collection has grown to an impressive 140 items, the most recent being made for Queen Elizabeth II’s (b.1926) coronation in 1953.

Until 1649, the Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia were kept at Westminster Abbey, however, after Charles II’s coronation, his new regalia was safely stored in the Tower of London. Here, in the Martin Tower – supposedly named after a bear who was once kept there – the Crown Jewels were placed on public display for the first time in 1669. Today the jewels are kept tightly secured, yet in those days, for a fee visitors could touch and hold them.

Although new jewels have been made for all the monarchs who followed Charles II, those used during Coronation ceremonies are the same items that were produced in 1661. These include the Orb, which is placed in the monarch’s right hand, and the Sceptre, which was transformed in 1910 to include the Cullinan I diamond, also known as the First Star of Africa, which weighs an impressive 530 carats. Despite their age, they remain in near perfect condition; the orb still contains the majority of its original 17th-century gems, including most of the 365 rose-cut diamonds.

The orb, a hollow gold sphere, represents the sovereign’s power and is topped with a jewelled cross to represent the Christian world. The sceptre is also made of gold and represents the sovereign’s temporal power. Like the Orb, the sceptre is also topped with a cross representing Christ, however, during the coronation ceremony, the monarch is also presented with another sceptre, surmounted by a dove, which represents the Holy Spirit.

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One of the most important items in the Crown Jewels collection is St Edward’s Crown. This is the crown that was placed upon Queen Elizabeth II’s head at her coronation. The crown was made for Charles II back in 1661, however, it was modelled on a much older crown, which has sadly been lost. It has been named St Edward’s Crown after King Edward the Confessor (1003-66), the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. It is thought that a couple of the pearls adorning the crown may once have belonged to Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

At the end of a coronation ceremony, St Edward’s crown is traditionally exchanged for the Imperial State Crown, which the current Queen still wears at every State Opening of Parliament. The crown contains 2868 diamonds (who counted them?) as well as 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 5 rubies and 273 pearls, making it a rather heavy headpiece.

“Really tired after wearing the crown for three hours … it hurt my head as it is pretty heavy.”
George V, 1911

As previously mentioned, the White Tower sits in the centre of the Tower of London and remains Europe’s most complete and preserved early-medieval secular building. When it was completed in 1100, it was the tallest building in London and a complete contrast to the wooden houses nearby. Today, the White Tower showcases the Royal Armouries collections, the 350-year-old Line of Kings exhibition and an interactive room in which visitors can pretend to be soldiers from the past.

The White Tower is entered via a wooden staircase that leads to a door well above ground level. This style of entrance is a 12th-century security feature; if under attack, the stairs could be easily removed, thus preventing the enemy from entering the building. Although the current stairs were constructed in 2015, the traditional carpentry techniques echo the original Norman entry.

The original purpose of the entry hall is unclear, however, its size would have made it a great space for communal dining and entertaining. On the floor above are a suite of chambers where the kings and family may once have resided. These chambers lead on to the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, which is believed to have been the king’s private place of worship.

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The White Tower was not used as a place of residence for long; by the 14th century, it had become a military storehouse and many of these items remain there today. The Line of Kings, thought to be the oldest exhibit in the world, displays the armour each monarch is thought to have worn in battle or in training. This includes armour for young princes and horses, the latter being demonstrated on life-size wooden horses.

The most famous suit of armour once belonged to the formidable Henry VIII (1491-1547), which had been specifically made for him and his wide girth in 1540. Despite the amount of metal used, it was designed so that he could move easily and, supposedly, in comfort. Unlike earlier suits of armour, which had a purely functional purpose, Henry’s was decorated with gilt borders designed by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), emphasising his importance as the king.

As well as being a place of residence and storehouse, the White Tower served as a prison for state prisoners. The first prisoner to be held at the tower was Ranulf Flambard (1060-1128), the medieval Norman Bishop of Durham, on charges of embezzlement. He was also the first prisoner to escape from the Tower. After befriending his guards, Flambard persuaded them to bring him casks of wine, which they were welcome to drink with him. On one occasion when the guards had drunk too much, Flambard used the ropes that tied the casks together to abseil down the wall of the White Tower.

Whilst the legend of Flambard’s escape is amusing, there are darker stories regarding the prisoners in the White Tower. Within the basement, it is believed some prisoners were tortured, including the famous Guido Fawkes (1570-1606) who was discovered trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Under torture, Fawkes revealed some of the other Catholic Gunpowder Plot conspirators, including the leader of the group, Robert Catesby (1572-1605). After this confession, Fawkes was scheduled to be hung, drawn and quartered, however, he died on route to his execution.

Those interested in the huge amount of prisoners and executions that took place at the Tower of London are drawn towards the so-called Bloody Tower. Originally named the Garden Tower, this was the prison or “secure home” where Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618) stayed on and off for many years until he was executed on the orders of James I (1566-1625). During his stay, he wrote most of his book History of the World and conducted scientific experiments in the gardens next to the tower.

The most famous legend regarding the Bloody Tower, for which it earned its name, is the incarceration and death of the “Princes in the Tower”. Historical records state that the soon to be Richard III (1452-1485) locked his nephews – the 12-year old King Edward V (1470-c.1483) and the 9-year old Richard, Duke of York (1473-c.1483) – in the tower. Depending on whose account you read, this was either for the boys’ protection or to remove them from Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s pathway to the throne. What happened to the boys afterwards remains a mystery, however, mostly due to Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) historical play Richard III, it is believed that the boys were murdered.

In 1674, two skeletons were discovered under the staircase leading to the Chapel of St John. Charles II, the monarch at the time, believed them to be the bodies of the murdered king and prince and reburied the bones in Westminster Abbey. Later, in 1933, the bones were forensically examined and confirmed to belong to boys of roughly 10 and 12 years old, thus the murder case was concluded. Yet, there is still not one hundred per cent proof that these bones are the remains of Edward and Richard, however, George V (1865-1936) forbade anyone from reexamining the boys.

So, the mystery of the Princes in the Tower will never be resolved, however, the legend creates a good story. Discovering that the bodies are not who they are believed to be would put a damper on the Bloody Tower’s notoriety. After all, their Uncle Richard was discovered under a car park in Leicester, thus debunking the tradition that his remains had been thrown into the river.

Other buildings that make up the Tower of London are also associated with prisoners and executions. The Wakefield Tower, which now contains the history of torture methods, once held 200 prisoners of war after the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. The Beauchamp Tower in the inner defensive wall takes its name from Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (1313-69), who was imprisoned there at the end of the 14th century. As well as Thomas, the Beauchamp Tower held many prisoners throughout the years, which is evidenced by the graffiti that remains scratched into the walls.

The final prisoners at the tower were the notorious London gangsters Ronald (1933-95) and Reginald Kray (1933-2000) who were held in 1952 for failing to report for National Service. Whilst this is an interesting fact, it tends to be the terrible Tudors that draw the biggest crowd.

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During the reign of the Tudors, which began in 1485 up until 1603, countless prisoners were imprisoned within the walls of the Tower. Even Elizabeth I was imprisoned during the reign of her sister Mary I (1516-1558). Many of these prisoners ended up on Tower Hill where they lost their head (if they were noble) or hanged (if they were “ordinary”). In total, an estimated 440 people were executed on that site.

Within the Tower’s grounds is an Execution Site Memorial sculpture that recalls the deaths of the comparatively few executions that took place on Tower Green (an area of grass rather than a physical tower – something which confuses foreigners). On this site, ten people were executed including three English queens. These were Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn (1507-36) and Catherine Howard (1523-42), who had been accused of adultery; and Lady Jane Grey (1537-54), a 16-year old who had been queen for only nine days before Mary I took the throne from her.

Despite the Tudor’s ill-fame, very little evidence remains of their lives at the Tower. Many buildings that the Tudor’s erected or refurbished have now been demolished, including the Great Hall and palace that Henry VIII modernised in order to celebrate the coronation of his new wife, Anne Boleyn. By 1660, the palace had fallen out of disuse and plans were made to demolish it and build new storehouses and offices.

Remains of the older, medieval palace still exist as the towers that make up parts of the Tower’s battlements. These are St Thomas’s Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower, which Henry III (1207-72) and his son Edward I (1239-1307) built during the 13th century. At this time, monarchs did not stay at the Tower for long, for instance, it is recorded that Edward I only stayed for 53 days of his lengthy reign, however, the palace was still fit for royalty.

The room believed to be Edward I’s bedchamber has been reconstructed using details discovered in inventories, accounts and artworks. The four-poster bed is positioned close to a fireplace, the only source of warmth in the palace at that time. From his bed, the king would have been able to look out of the window, which was directly over the river Thames – the outer wall had not yet been built.

The Wakefield Tower was used as Henry III’s private lodgings between the years 1220 and 1240. The throne room has been reconstructed but lacks furnishings, which at that time would have often been dismantled and transported wherever the king went throughout the country.

On the upper floor of the Wakefield Tower is a small chapel complete with stained glass windows. A plaque on the floor states that King Henry VI (1421-71) died in that very place, where he was being held as a prisoner during the War of the Roses. The circumstances of his death are disputed, however, in his honour, the Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses has been held here every year since 1923 on the evening of his passing, 21st May. This ceremony is attended by representatives from Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, both of which had been founded by Henry VI.

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View from the Battlements

Visitors are able to walk along the mighty Battlements between the Towers, which provides stunning views across the River Thames and a clear sighting of Tower Bridge. By peering over the edge of the wall, a steep drop can be seen, ending in a grassy area, which would have been filled with dirty water, once upon a time. In roughly 1285, Edward I reclaimed some land from the Thames and built an Outer Ward. Between this wall and the existing buildings, he developed a moat to strengthen the Tower’s defences.

Throughout the Tower’s history, it only ever “fell” once. In June 1381, a poorly-armed bunch of peasants infiltrated the fortress walls, attacked Archbishop Simon Sudbury (1316-81) and beheaded him on Tower Hill. Whilst it seems unlikely that a group of poor people could successfully attack a castle, it helped that someone had left the gates open!

The Peasant’s Revolt was sparked by an increase of compulsory taxes, which many people could not afford to pay. King Richard II (1367-1400), who was only fourteen at the time, had fled to safety with his royal household, however, the rebels were not angry with the king and, in fact, remained loyal to him. Their target was the aforementioned Archbishop of Canterbury who also acted as the King’s Chancellor and tax collector, thus responsible for the peasant’s anger.

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Traitor’s Gate

Since this event, the defences and security measures have been increased and no one has been able to breach the walls. The only way the enemy could enter the Tower was via Traitor’s gate on their way to prison and, inevitably, their death. The gate and archway were erected by Henry VIII’s Master Carpenter James Nedeham (d.1544) in 1532 as part of the king’s refurbishments in honour of his new queen, Anne Boleyn. Ironically, Anne was later brought through this gate on the way to her imprisonment. The gate may once have been used for merchants to deliver produce to the tower, however, with the number of prisoners arriving by boat, the traders’ gate quickly became known as Traitor’s Gate.

Those traitors who were deemed important enough to have a private execution on Tower Green came through Traitor’s Gate like everyone else, however, they spent their remaining days in relative comfort. After their deaths, they were buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, the Tower’s parish church, which already existed when William the Conqueror first proposed the construction. Prisoners such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), are all buried in the church, however, until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), their graves were unmarked.

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Billy the Warder, in action

Whilst visitors are allowed to enter the Chapel of St Peter, they can only do this as part of the Yeoman Warder Tours. Tours begin at regular intervals by the entrance and last roughly an hour, ending in the chapel. The Yeoman Warders provide an entertaining version of events that occurred at the Tower and can answer any questions visitors may have.

Yeoman Warders are recognised by their navy blue and red tunics, breeches and Tudor bonnets, which is their “undress” uniform when they are on duty. To become a Yeoman Warder, they must have at least 22 years of military service experience, reached the rank of Warrant Officer and received the Long Service and Good Conduct Award. They must also be between the ages of 40 and 55 years old on their appointment at the Tower.

“Halt, who comes there?”

Not only do the Warders assist the day-to-day running of the Tower of London and the thousands of visitors, but they also retain the traditions that have been a part of Tower life for hundreds of years. Every night, at precisely 9:53pm the Yeoman Warder’s perform the Ceremony of the Keys. Taking it in turns, one warder is given the task of returning the Tower’s keys to the monarch’s representative – the Resident Governor. On hearing footsteps, a sentry cries, “Halt, who comes there?” to which the Yeoman Warder replies, “The keys.” This is followed by the phrases “Whose keys?”, “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” and “Pass then, all’s well.”

The Tower of London is so steeped in history, it is impossible to take in everything in one visit. As well as the various towers and Crown Jewels, there’s the Mint and Records Office and Fusilier Museum still to explore. Also, look out for wire sculptures by Kendra Haste (b.1971) that represent some of the animals that once lived at the Tower. Animals were given as gifts from other countries, such as a polar bear from the king of Norway in 1252 and an elephant from the king of France in 1255.

Sadly, the animals did not survive for long due to their unsatisfactory living conditions, however, the menagerie continued to grow. It was not until 1826 that the animals were finally dispatched to what would become today’s London Zoo. The only creatures that remain are seven ravens, although Charles II did try to get rid of them once.

“These ravens must go!” Charles said.
“But, Sire, it is very unlucky to kill a raven,” replied Flamstead, “If you do that the Tower will fall and you will lose your kingdom, having only just got it back!”

Legend says, so long as six ravens remain at the Tower, it will not fall. So, look out for the seven ravens (one spare) who receive honours in the form of 170 grams of raw meat per day, and the occasional crisp left by messy visitors.

The Tower of London is open until 16:30 every day and tickets can be bought on site or online, the latter being cheaper (£22.70 for adults). Bearing in mind the number of things to do at the Tower, it is recommended that you arrive during the morning to give yourself time to see the highlights.