Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tower of London

The first time I visited London we got very close to the Tower of London, but had no time to tour it. On my recent trip there in May, I was determined to tour this most famous and infamous of castles. We took the Big Red Bus tour there, which afforded us views of some of the nearby sites that are nearly as dramatic as the Tower. 

The "Tower" is actually a complex of several buildings surrounded by two sets of defensive walls. It takes its name from the  White Tower, which was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror. Other kings added on to the castle complex, mainly over the 12th and 13th centuries. 

It's likely William built the tower as a symbol of his dominance over England. It would have "towered" over the other structures in that part of London as well as being clearly visible to anyone traveling on the Thames. It was also intended to be the royal residence and had amenities such as four fireplaces, latrines built into the walls, and a chapel.

The royal palace aside, the Tower is probably best known as a prison, as it functioned in that capacity for over 800 years. Individuals detained here include such royal figures as the "princes in the tower" (Edward V and Richard, sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville), Elizabeth I (before she was queen) and Sir Walter Raleigh. To the north of the Tower is Tower Hill where over 112 people were executed. 
I bypassed the more gruesome aspects of the tower as a prison and also decided not to wait hours in line (in the pouring rain) to see the other main attraction of the tower, the Crown Jewels. Instead, I went in pursuit of evidence of another use of the tower, as a menagerie.

We know that during King John's reign, lions were kept there and in 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II presented John's son Henry III, with three leopards. Since lions and leopards were often confused in that era, the gift may have been commemorating the three gold lions  featured on the royal standard, which first appeared during Richard I's reign. (Richard was John's older brother and ruled for a few years before him). 
In my medieval romance The Leopard, my hero and heroine visit the leopards in the Tower, and my heroine, tender-hearted Astra, is immediately filled with pity for the poor beasts, confined to their dark, gloomy cages. It's likely the animals housed there did not receive the best care. 
In addition to the lion skull above found at the tower (and now housed in the Natural History Museum of London), the skulls of 18 mastiffs were discovered. The huge dogs were probably used to control the big cats when their keepers moved them or cleaned their cages. 

In addition to the "royal lions/leopards", the menagerie housed various other big cats, as well as a lynx, bears, jackals and hyenas. A polar bear resided in the Tower for a time and was allowed to fish in the Thames while secured on a long chain. That must have been a sight to see! An elephant also lived there briefly, although the poor animal quickly expired, either from the cold temperatures of London or perhaps because it was given red wine to drink. 

In the 1700's the menagerie became a zoo, open to the public. It housed all sorts of big cats, as well as baboons, monkeys, birds and wolves. In the early 1800's the menagerie was closed and the animals moved to the London Zoo.

Although the whole concept of the menagerie seems cruel to us now (and like Astra, I think I would have been appalled even back then), it does show the human fascination and sense of awe with which we regard wild beasts and our intense urge to identify with them.

The creature most associated with the tower is not a big cat but a bird--the raven. There are six ravens that live at the tower and the story is that if they ever leave the Crown will fall and London with it. Although it sounds like ancient folklore, the tale probably dates from the Victorian era. 

Ravens have been associated with castles and royalty for centuries. Two years ago on my trip to Wales, I visited Castell Dinas Bran, which has been variously translated as Raven's Fortress. Fortress of Ravens or Raven City Castle. 

Part of the thrill of traveling and visiting historic sites is the amazing sense of walking along the very corridor or climbing the very tower that some king or queen did. I feel as if the ancient stones should be able to tell me things, whisper stories to me about the past. 

I want to imagine the pageantry and spectacle of knights facing off in full armor, banners flying, their huge destriers snorting and pawing the ground.

It's the reason we're drawn to productions like The Game of Thrones, which bring to life a harsh, raw world that is also gloriously vivid and alive. 

Of course, I don't want to think about the grim realities involved with all that pomp and pageantry. Or the petty, stupid wars and all the lives they cost. Or the suffering and social inequalities and cruel injustices of that world. 

The Tower and other sites like it are best viewed through the mists of time, where we can parse out the beauty and drama and ignore the disturbing realities. 

That's why I write historical romance rather than straight historical fiction. I want the happy ending, good to triumph over evil and justice to prevail. 

My latest book, Lady of Steel, features some gritty parts. My hero is hardened and scarred by his experiences on Crusade, and my heroine has been brutalized by her cruel husband. Despite their intense attraction to each other (they make love during their first meeting), their journey to love is fraught with mistrust and misunderstanding. Eventually they find their happy ending, but not before being challenged and tested in many ways. 

I love bringing the medieval world to life and using the color and intensity of the time period to paint a vibrant tapestry. But what I love most of all is being able to balance the darkness and the violence of that time period with beauty, joy and happiness and to imagine a world where things are as they should be.