The Tower of London's deep, dark history casts a long shadow. Founded by William the Conqueror on the banks of the River Thames almost a thousand years ago, the building has been a royal residence, execution site, prison, armoury, home to the Crown Jewels, and -- with its history of animal keeping -- even a forerunner of London Zoo.
Even when you can't pay a visit to the Royal Palace, which currently has no statement regarding its re-opening, its endlessly fascinating past can throw up plenty of Horrible Histories-style stories to entertain (and educate) the kids. But are they all true? And what facts about the Tower of London are left out of most guide books?
The legend of the Tower ravens is world-famous. If the birds should ever flee, then the Tower will fall... and with it the Crown. The tale is said to go back to the time of Charles II, who supposedly demanded that six of the birds should be kept at the Tower at all times. Oddly, though, there's no strong evidence of ravens existing at the Tower before the late 19th century. The story about the Tower crumbling if the birds should ever leave seems to have been invented during the Second World War. It's even been put to the test. For a brief period in the 1950s, the Tower was entirely without ravens, but the Kingdom did not fall.
The Tudor period saw some of the most famous events in the history of the Tower, such as the beheadings of Lady Jane Grey, Queen for nine days after Henry VIII's son Edward died, and Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife. But surprisingly, it was the 20th century which saw the most executions at the Tower. During the First World War, 11 German spies were shot within the moat. Another, Josef Jakobs, was executed in 1941. In earlier times, the majority of executions took place on nearby Tower Hill, rather than within the fortress grounds. In fact, more people were killed within the Royal Palace in the 20th century than all the preceding centuries put together.
Next time you visit the Tower of London, look out for a small niche on the left-hand wall as you enter the main gate (Byward Tower). The hole contains a mysterious wooden hand like you might find on a tailor's dummy, though more skeletal. It's creepy. This peculiar feature carries no plaque or sign and is not mentioned in the guide books. Even the Heritage Site press office describe it as "not one of our official exhibits". Get your kids to invent their own theory.
The Great Escapes
Although regarded as an impregnable fortress, the Tower of London has been captured on several occasions. Its record as a prison also carries numerous blemishes. Since the time of William the Conqueror, some 40 prisoners are known to have absconded. Their methods to leave the Tower include smuggled-in ropes, bribing the guards and even cross-dressing -- the latter was accomplished in 1716 by the Earl of Nithsdale, who managed to bluff his way out while dressed as a lady even though he had a beard. The most recent escape was in living memory. In 1945, Private LC Wheeler, locked up awaiting court-martial, was able to walk out of the Tower after striking his guard.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the Tower of London is protected solely by the yeoman warder guards (popularly known as beefeaters). This very public face of the Tower's security are certainly tough -- all have long, distinguished military records. But as the home of the Crown Jewels and the former Royal Mint and Royal Armouries, the Tower has always needed many layers of protection. To this day, the building is protected by serving military personnel with live weapons. Members of the Tower Guard can be seen on sentry duty outside the jewel house, but many more are housed on-site in a regimental barracks. Suffice it to say, there's no way you're making off with the jewels.
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