5 Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About The Tower of London
Last week I visited the Tower of London for the first time (I probably went on a school trip aged 7, but that doesn’t count.) It’s one of those places that Londoners rarely visit unless they have friends over, but here are some historical gems I learned from being a tourist for the day…
1. The Chapel Royal is pretty romantic
The Chapel Royal, while probably most famous as the final resting place of Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard along with Lady Jane Grey, is also a site of great romance.
You just have to look up…
The ceiling was installed in 1520 under Henry VIII’s direction and is made from Spanish Chestnut as a poignant gift to his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon. We often forget, what with the five others that followed her, that Catherine and Henry were very much in love and this ceiling was placed there so while in prayer here, they could both gaze up at this symbol of their love. Well, at least until 1527 when Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn.
2. A Polar Bear Was Kept There
You may have heard that the Tower of London, amongst many things, was a Royal Menagerie. In fact the animals only left the tower for their new home in Regent’s Park (which became London Zoo) in 1832 while the first recorded animals given to the Tower were three lions in 1235.
One of the most exciting was a polar bear, a gift from the King Haakon I of Norway in 1252. The bear probably got the best deal, he arrived with his own trained Norwegian keeper and was allowed to go fishing in the Thames. There are records of crowds gathering on London Bridge to watch this daily display; the bear bounding into the Thames to feast, almost dragging the his keeper in with him!
Not to be outdone, King Louis IX gave an Elephant 3 years later;
“An elephant was sent to England by the French king as a present to the king of England … the people flocked to see the novel sight … The beast is about ten years old possessing a rough hide rather than fur, has small eyes at the top of its head, and east and drinks with a trunk.”
– Matthew Paris, monk of St Albans Abbey 1255
Today the animals are remembered by ghostly wire sculpture dotted around the grounds.
More animal facts:
- Kings James I has a nipple designed so sick lion cubs could be bottle fed.
- Snakes were wrapped in blankets and kept on a stove to keep them warm.
- An ostrich died after swallowing a large nail. Apparently visitors – believeing the birds ate iron – used to fee them pieces of metal.
3. Executioners Should’ve Had a ‘No Alcohol’ Policy
It’s an irony of the Tower that it’s most famous for something it was never designed for; a prison. Originally a fortress for keeping people out, it became the most notorious jail in London, possibly the world, and being ‘sent to the Tower’ was tantamount to a death sentence.
With that, one of the most famous executioners was a man called Jack Ketch; Part-time Butcher, part-time executioner and full-time alcoholic. He is remembered as one of the most incompetent figures in history for reasons about to become clear…
Our story starts with James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, who is more famous for his death than anything he achieved in life. On 15 July 1685 having the misfortune of being sentenced to death (for trying to depose his Uncle King James II) he also was unlucky enough to have Jack Ketch as his executioner.
Mr Ketch was barely able to mount the steps of the scaffold he was so drunk, so despite receiving a big bag of coins and a request to “strike true Sir, strike true.” from the Duke, when the axe came down it missed his head, falling between his shoulder blades. It took a further 4 strokes with the Duke screaming in pain, his right arm hanging off, and the crowd looking on in abject horror before Jack finally finished off the Duke with his butchers knife in his pocket.
James Scott is also the only known person to have had his head sewn back on, his body (complete with head nearby) was found under the alter in the Chapel Royal, next to the three Queens.
4. The Kray Twins dropped by
The infamous East London gangsters were held briefly in the Tower when they were called up for military National Service in 1952 and failed to report for duty. They were locked in the twin turrets of Waterloo Barracks overnight, it doesn’t appear to have frightened any sense or compassion into them…
5. The Yeomen have great craic.
Free with an admission ticket, the Yeomen Guided Tour is definitely the highlight of the visit.
Our guide, Matt Pryme, was knowledgeable and managed our group of around 60 really well. I have to admit his one-liners had me chuckling along with the American tourists;
Matt – “Let’s have a vote, who wanted to hear about torture?”
Yeoman – *roar of approval*
Yeoman – “and who wants to hear about unicorns and kittens?”
Audience – *deathly silence. A sheepish child raises their hand*
Yeoman – “Torture it is then! To be fair, I only know one story about unicorns and kittens. It’s about a unicorn. That tramples a kitten.”
*Small child looks horrified*
Find out more about visiting the Tower here.
Admission is £25, but you can pre-book online for £23.10
Also if you happen to live in the borough of Tower Hamlets and have a library card, you can visit for £1! More info here.