The Tower of London’s bloody history

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IMG_0616The ominously named Traitors Gate is where Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn entered the royal palace where they were imprisoned and eventually beheaded. And that is only a few of the bloody events that occurred here.

The Tower of London is more than just a tower–in its long history, it’s been an armory, a prison, a royal residence, a mint, a torture chamber, home of the Crown Jewels, and a place of execution. And at one point, it was practically a zoo.

Commonly known as “Beefeaters,” the royal guards (and tour guides) have to earn their positions through many years of military service. They live with their families on the outer grounds of this famous tourist destination. Our guide (pictured at left) shared many gruesome tales of revenge, power, jealousy, and greed.

Lady Jane Grey was still a teenager when she was beheaded here. And once, when a traitor fled, his grandmother was sentenced to death in his place. Not one to give up easily, granny attempted to flee but was eventually overtaken by the executioner with an ax. But perhaps the saddest story involved the two young princes who were murdered there by their own custodian who had gotten used to the power and didn’t want to give it up to the king’s heirs when they became of age.

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The palace was doubly protected: first, by outer walls flanked with archers, and second, by a moat, which also served as the palace’s sewer system. The idea was that the Thames would rush through the moat, cleaning it out. But the moat was deeper than the river, and the waste tended to sink to the bottom where it stank up the neighborhood. (Because even royal poop smells bad.) So I suppose that even though it was not an intended form of protection, the odor might make an enemy think twice before storming the gates.

On display are numerous suits of armor from throughout the ages, a sort of military fashion show. Henry VIII’s was indeed larger than the rest. I shudder to think of the poor creature who had to carry Henry when he was fully decked out. The heaviest set of armor weighed about 300 pounds, which certainly doesn’t make for a quick getaway. When I think how hard it was for me to stand up after I fell wearing snow skis, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for a king in full armor to get vertical again once he’d toppled.

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It became the custom for foreign states to present monarchs with gifts of animals. Which is fine if it’s a parakeet or a hamster. But the palace became home to about 280 animals, including an elephant, baboons, three leopards, and a polar bear. The lions had their own tower, until one of them bit a soldier. Then the whole menagerie was relocated to Regents Park. Wire sculptures appear in various spots around the palace to commemorate this strange era of zoo-dom.

The IMG_0621sole permanent animal residents today are the ravens because of a prophecy connecting the tower’s ability to fend off attacks with the presence of six ravens. (But they keep seven just to be safe.) The ravens are allowed to roam the grounds, but their wings are clipped so they can’t fly over the high walls. We got to observe Marilyn, one of the ravens, enjoying an afternoon snack that she scavenged from a trash bin and then defended from a curious pigeon.

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