Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.

Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509)

The oldest painting in the exhibition is a portrait of Henry VII by an unnamed Netherlandish artist. Henry was born in 1457 to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Lady Margaret Beaufort. His mother was a descendant of the Lancastrian king Edward III (1312-1377) and believed her son had a claim to the English throne. After defeating the Yorkist king Richard III (1452-85) at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry seized the crown. The following year, Henry married Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). The marriage united the York and Lancaster dynasties and put an end to the War of the Roses.

This portrait was produced after the death of Henry’s wife. The inscription along the bottom reveals it was painted on 29th October 1505 by the order of Herman Rinck, who worked for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (1459-1515). Art historians suspect it was given as part of a marriage proposal to the Emperor’s daughter Margaret of Savoy (1480-1530). The proposal was unsuccessful, and Henry passed away four years later. Henry’s eldest son Arthur (1486-1502) predeceased him, and his second child was a girl, Margaret (1489-1541), so the throne went to his third child, Henry.

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47)

Painted in circa 1520, this portrait of Henry VIII pre-dates versions by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who started working for the king in 1535. The artist is unknown but probably came from the Netherlands. Henry’s pose and the gilded corners suggest it was one of two companion paintings. The missing half was most likely a portrait of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).

Henry was only 17 when he succeeded his father to the throne. He immediately married his brother’s widow but divorced her in 1533 after failing to produce a son. This event involved rejecting the Catholic Church and establishing the Church in England. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (1501-36), also failed to produce a male heir. Rather than divorce Anne, Henry ordered her execution.

Edward, Henry’s only legitimate son, was born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour (1508-37). Unfortunately, Jane died two weeks after the birth, and the king remarried for the fourth time. Henry disapproved of his new wife’s physical appearance, and the marriage remained unconsummated. He divorced Anne of Cleves (1515-57) in 1540 and married Catherine Howard (1523-42). After accusing Catherine of adultery, Henry had her beheaded and married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr (1512-48). When Henry died in 1547, he only had three legitimate children, Edward, and two daughters from his first two wives, so Edward succeeded the throne.

Edward VI (reigned 1547-53)

Born at Hampton Court Palace in 1547, Edward was Henry VIII’s “most noble and most precious jewel”. He was only nine when his father died, so reigned with the assistance of his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (1500-52), and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-53). Unfortunately, Edward never reached the age of majority, so never ruled the kingdom on his own. He caught a chill in 1553 and passed away at the age of 15.

Several portraits of Edward were painted during his childhood, including this one, completed the year before he became king. By this time, William Scrots (active 1537-55) was the court painter, but art historians believe one of his students completed this particular image. The colours have faded significantly over time, resulting in an unfinished appearance. The background was originally blue, and Edward wore a luscious red coat, befitting a future king.

Lady Jane Grey (proclaimed 1553)

Shortly before Edward VI passed away, he named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1536-54), as his heir. Jane was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister and was married to Guildford Dudley (1535-54), son of the Duke of Northumberland. They, like Edward, were Protestants and could carry on the Reformation in England, unlike his Catholic half-sister Mary. When Edward died, the Duke of Northumberland immediately seated Jane on the throne, but Mary and her supporters protested. Nine days later, Mary took the throne from Jane and threw Jane and her husband into prison for treason. After a rebellion in Jane’s favour, Mary had the nine-day queen beheaded.

Although the artist is unknown, analysis of the panel reveals Jane’s portrait was produced long after her death. It probably belonged to a series of paintings of Protestant martyrs, but it is impossible to tell how good a likeness it is because Jane’s portrait was never taken during her lifetime. Damage to the artwork suggests the painting may have been subject to an attack at some point in history, most likely by a rebellious Catholic.

Mary I (reigned 1553-58)

Mary (1516-58) was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She became the first crowned Queen of England at the age of 37 and restored the Catholic faith across the country. Those who refused to conform to the faith of the queen faced execution. As a result, she became known as “Bloody Mary”.

One year into her reign, Mary married Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who thus became a joint ruler of England. Despite this, Philip spent most of their marriage in Spain, and they produced no children. Miniature paintings of both Mary and Philip were produced to celebrate their union. They were given as gifts to notable courtiers and allies. Mary’s portrait is based on a larger painting by the Netherlandish artist Anthonis Mor (1517-77), which was commissioned by Philip’s father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)

When Mary I died childless, her 25-year-old half-sister inherited the throne. Elizabeth (1533-1603) was the child of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. As queen, Elizabeth re-established the Church of England, once again removing Catholicism from the realm. Yet, she reigned in relative peace, except for the failed Spanish Armada in 1588. With Elizabeth’s permission, English explorers discovered new lands and established foreign trades, which brought new cultures to England.

Elizabeth remained unmarried, despite several marriage proposals. With no children and no legitimate siblings, the question of succession was ever-present. Elizabeth was also the first woman to rule alone without the help of a man, which was another reason some wished to find her a husband. Several portraits of the queen were painted, possibly to attract potential suitors. Instead, the portraits asserted Elizabeth’s power, despite being female.

This artificially staged portrait, known as The Ditchley Portrait, was requested in 1592 by Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), who lived in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. Lee had recently retired from the role of Queen’s Champion but had fallen from grace after choosing to live with his mistress, Anne Vavasour. Painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), the painting marks the occasion of the queen’s forgiveness of Lee. This is symbolised by stormy skies that retreat into the background, as though banished by the queen.

At the time of painting, Elizabeth was 59 years old, but, ignoring her mortality, Gheeraerts portrayed her as an iconic “Virgin Queen”, wearing the youthful clothing of an unmarried woman. She stands on a map of England, signalling her control over the nation. Her feet point toward Oxfordshire, where the painting was produced. On the right-hand side, the artist includes a sonnet about the sun, symbolising the monarch. Lee is the assumed author of the poem, in which he refers to Elizabeth as the “prince of light”.

James I (reigned 1603-1625)

The Virgin Queen died, and so ended the Tudor Dynasty. In 1603, her cousin, James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), acceded to the English throne, uniting England and Scotland for the first time. With James I came a new royal house, the Stuarts, whose rule resulted in significant changes across the country, not least civil war.

James I is perhaps the most scholarly of all past British monarchs. He wrote poetry, prose and arranged for the translation of the “King James” Bible. He and his wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), were patrons of visual arts, including architecture. The Queen’s House, next to the National Maritime Museum, was intended for Anne, although she passed away before its completion. The king and queen also enjoyed the theatre, especially plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who completed over half of his works during James’s reign.

Unlike his predecessor, James did not enjoy sitting for portraits. As a result, there are not many paintings of the first Stuart king. This portrait of James I wearing the robe of the Order of the Garter was painted by Dutch artist Daniël Mytens (1590-1648) in 1621. The inscription above his head reads, “Beati pacific”, which means “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Mytens included this in the painting to indicate James I’s peaceful reign.

Despite the king’s aim to be a peacemaker in Europe, he narrowly escaped death in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He also accrued significant debts during his reign, which turned some of his supporters against him. James and Anne’s eldest son, Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612), predeceased his father at the age of 18. Following James’s death, the throne passed to the next eldest son, Charles (1600-49).

Charles I (reigned 1625-49)

Charles I carried on his father’s patronage of the arts and became one of the greatest royal collectors of paintings. He employed painters, such as Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), to produce portraits of his growing family. Despite suffering from physical disabilities as a child, Charles overcame his issues to establish a successful marriage with Henrietta Maria of France (1609-69) and produced six children who lived beyond childhood.

The majority of the famous portraits of King Charles I are in the Royal Collection, but the National Portrait Gallery owns one by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). It is fairly formal in comparison to grand paintings by Van Dyck, and historians believe it may have been a study for a larger painting at Hampton Court. Charles had commissioned Honthorst to produce a mural-like painting of the king and his wife as the Roman gods, Apollo and Diana, with other notable people as other deities.

Despite his eye for art, Charles was less adept at politics. He spent excessive money buying paintings, which he paid for by placing heavy taxes on the population. When Parliament complained, Charles dismissed them, which prompted the Puritanism movement within the Church of England. Many openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the king, which led to increasing civil and political unrest. Eventually, civil war broke out across Britain between the king’s supporters and the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The war came to a dramatic end with the execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House in London on 30th January 1649.

Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England 1653-58)

Charles I’s death resulted in a republic, which lasted until 1653. During this time, Parliament argued about how to govern the country. These disputes resulted in the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Cromwell had been one of the leading men during the civil war, which made him a natural choice for the protector of the realm.

Unlike the previous monarchs, who wore glamorous, ornate clothing, Cromwell was a puritan and refused any decoration. His portrait, based on an unfinished version by Samuel Cooper (1609-72), depicts Cromwell in shining armour, emphasising his position as Lord Protector, rather than a king. The dull background colours befit his purist ways and pious religious beliefs, which rejected anything ostentatious and unnecessary.

Cromwell died in 1658, and despite his wishes, his funeral effigy was crowned as though a king. His son, Richard (1626-1712), briefly took on the role of Lord Protector, but he had very little political or military support. Parliament began to crumble, and the only way to save the country from ruin was to re-establish the monarchy.

Charles II (reigned 1660-85)

Charles I’s eldest son, also called Charles (1630-85), was invited back from exile to become king in 1660. Life under Puritan rule had been difficult, so the people rejoiced to see the return of the monarchy. Charles reopened theatres, which Cromwell had shut down, and allowed women to act on the stage for the first time. Charles also established the Royal Society to encourage scientific enquiries into the workings of the world.

Despite his warm welcome, the first few years of Charles II’s reign were challenged by events beyond his control. In 1665, the Great Plague caused over 70,000 deaths in London and neighbouring cities. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated 436 acres of the capital city. Eighty-seven of London’s 109 churches were destroyed as well as approximately 13,200 houses.

Charles II’s portrait, attributed to the English artist Thomas Hawker (d. 1699), depicts the king towards the end of his reign. He was around 50 years old but still looked striking in his royal clothing, which matched his charming personality. Many considered Charles as a party-goer, although he could often be cynical and lazy. Events during his childhood and the execution of his father greatly affected the king, and he tried not to make the same mistakes as Charles I. He wanted to make his people happy, providing them with many sources of entertainment. He held a certain degree of popularity with the public and felt at ease with “ordinary people”.

Despite his attempts to be a good king, Charles received criticism about his numerous mistresses, including actress Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn (1650-87). Charles had fourteen illegitimate children but failed to produce an heir with his wife, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). When Charles died in 1680, none of his children had the right to the throne, so it passed on to his younger brother James (1633-1701).

James II (reigned 1685-88)

Within months of James II’s accession, a rebellion was led against him by Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Despite defeating his nephew, the public distrusted James for his Catholic beliefs. Since the reign of Elizabeth I, Britain had been a Protestant country, and the population was not happy to reintroduce Catholicism.

James’s first wife, Anne Hyde (1637-71), with whom he is pictured in a double portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), was also a Catholic convert, but she did not receive the same hatred as her husband because she died before he became king. The portrait was painted when James was still the Duke of York. He met Anne while in exile on the continent and promised to marry her after getting her pregnant. The wedding took place in secret shortly after the coronation of Charles II, which upset many people. Not only was Anne Catholic, she was a “commoner”.

Anne and James’s first son, Charles (1660-61), died before his first birthday from smallpox. They went on to have seven children, but only two girls, Mary and Anne, survived infancy. Anne passed away shortly after the birth of their youngest child, Catherine (1671-71). In 1673, James married another Catholic, Mary of Modena (1658-1718). By the time James became king, all their children had died in infancy. At this time, James’s only heirs were Anne’s daughters, who had converted to Protestantism, but the birth of a son, James Francis (1688-1766), caused widespread anxiety throughout the kingdom. The public did not want another Catholic king.

To prevent Catholicism from prevailing, Parliament invited William of Orange (1650-1702), the husband of James’s eldest daughter, to invade England. William met little resistance, and the king, fearing for his life, fled to France. This Glorious Revolution resulted in the joint reign of Mary II (1662-94) and William III. They agreed to sign a Bill of Rights to make England a constitutional monarchy. This meant they had some power as head of state, but Parliament was entitled to make decisions about running the country.

Mary II (reigned 1689-94)

Mary and William reigned as joint rulers until Mary died in 1694. William spent the first couple of years in Ireland fighting against the Jacobites, who wanted James II returned to the throne. While he was away, Mary proved a wise ruler, establishing many charities, including the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich. The painted hall at the hospital features allegorical paintings of Mary and William on the ceiling, which are still much admired today.

Jan van der Vaart’s (1650-1727) portrait of Mary is based on an earlier painting by Willem Wissing (1656-87), which was produced when Mary lived in the Netherlands. Van der Vaart altered Mary’s dress to resemble royal robes and added a crown and sceptre in the background.

Unlike her husband and sister, Mary was a tall and healthy woman but contracted smallpox in 1694. After isolating to prevent the spread of infection, Mary passed away at Kensington Palace, aged 32. William was devastated but agreed to reign alone as King of England. Sadly, he no longer resembled the happy man who reigned with his wife; instead, he felt like “the miserablest creature on earth”.

William III (reigned 1689-1702)

William III’s equestrian portrait was painted after Mary’s death but honoured the king’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland four years earlier. William also fought in the Nine Years’ War (1688-97) against France, which he eventually lost to Louis XIV (1638-1715). Despite this, the French king recognised William as the King of England, which gave him an ally against the Jacobites.

Towards the end of William’s reign, England was at peace with France, but this came to an end with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). England and France were again on opposing sides, but William was less involved in the physical fight. Instead, William broke his collarbone after falling from his horse, which had tripped on a mole’s burrow. The wound caused complications, resulting in pneumonia, and William passed away in 1702.

William and Mary had no children, which meant they had no heir. Traditionally, the next eldest brother had the right to the throne, but the Bill of Rights signed at the beginning of William and Mary’s reign agreed that England could only have a Protestant monarch. As a result, the crown passed to Mary’s sister, Anne (1665-1714).

Anne (reigned 1702-14)

Although Anne had several health problems, she had a successful reign as Queen of England. During her reign, England was victorious in the War of Spanish Succession and negotiated peace in Europe through the Treaty of Utrecht. When Anne succeeded the throne, she was crowned the Queen of England, but in 1707, following the Act of Union with Scotland, she became the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was the Principal Painter to Mary, William, Anne, and the next monarch, George I. Kneller produced this portrait of Anne in 1690 before she became queen, when she still looked young and slender. Later portraits of the queen depict her as a much larger woman, and she was known to suffer severe bouts of gout. She relied on a wheelchair to move around or a sedan when at royal events.

One of Anne’s claims to fame was having seventeen pregnancies within seventeen years. Sadly, only five resulted in live births, all of whom tragically died young. Only Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700), reached double figures, but he passed away from unknown causes at age eleven. On the fourteenth anniversary of her son’s death, Anne suffered a stroke, which rendered her unable to speak. She passed away a month later on 1st August 1714 and was buried beside her husband and children in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Once again, a monarch had passed away without an heir. Determined to keep the Catholic Stuarts from the throne, Parliament looked for distant, Protestant relatives of the queen. They traced the family tree back to Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the eldest daughter of James I. This made Elizabeth’s daughter, Sophia of Hanover (1630-1714), the heir presumptive to the throne of Great Britain, but she too died in 1714. As a result, her son, Georg Ludwig (1660-1727), was crowned George I of Great Britain. Anne’s death resulted in the end of the Stuart dynasty, and George’s coronation marked the beginning of the Georgian era.

To be continued…


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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.

line-of-kings

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.

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