London is a city that embraces the medieval and the modern. The White Tower, or as we know it, the Tower of London, stands as a proud legacy of England’s history amid the sparkling silver skyscrapers of London’s financial district. We stayed in South Kennsington within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrods’s Department Store, and the legendary Buckingham Palace, home of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Usually, you can only visit the outside of Buckingham Palace. The palace opens the rooms which are used for events involving foreign dignitaries only for a few weeks during the summer when Her Majesty is at her summer residence, Balmoral, in Scotland. We just happened to be there the first day the palace was open for visitors. We were able to see the Queen’s Mews where the carriages and horses are kept. The gold carriage is the most ornate as it was built in the 1700s and the one used to carry monarchs to their coronation, but the glass carriage is the one that caught my attention. The glass carriage is the one that famously carried Lady Diana Spenser to her wedding to Prince Charles. I remember watching that wedding on the TV when I was in middle school. I remember being a Diana fan, angry with Charles for cheating on her, and crying as I watched her funeral years later. It was an incredible treat to see the glass carriage used in her wedding.
As we continued to the rooms open for visitors, I was in awe of the sheer opulence of the palace. As a fan of the arts, I was fascinated by the long hallway hung with paintings of the masters. Her Majesty’s art collection is stunning. What was even more intriguing was the museum aspect of the palace. Queen Victoria’s presence is infused into Buckingham palace. Although the original house was completed in 1705, and the palace renovated by George III and IV, Queen Victoria was the first monarch to live there. Her throne is still there. Many people do not know that Queen Victoria was an artist, and you can still see her sketchbooks on display at the palace. Even a couple of her gowns and some of her jewels have been carefully preserved. Queen Victoria is remembered as one of Great Britain’s greatest monarchs with an entire era named after her, the Victorian Era. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is her great, great, granddaughter, while Prince Charles and Prince William continue the royal line. The history of Great Britain’s monarchs and traditions is infused into every fiber of the palace. Walking through Buckingham Palace is not just about royal opulence. Every part of it weaves the story of the royal family and Great Britain through time.
Our next stop on our royal journey was St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s has existed for centuries, but was raided by Henry VIII for any treasures it possessed, mistreated during the Civil war, and finally lost in the Great fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding it, and in 1711, it was finally declared finished. Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture is unique and beautiful even to my untrained eyes. St. Paul’s is a huge cathedral with a choir area, a baptismal font and a lengthy black and white checkered floor. It has some characteristics of Roman Catholic cathedrals, but it is not. It is a main cathedral of the Church of England. It is distinctive in that it does not have the statuary and colorful paintings that are common to the Roman tradition. Instead, the beauty is built into modern embellishments that are cleanly elegant. The cream colored masonry is embellished with an almost simple geometric elegance. This is the cathedral where Admiral Nelson who was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar is entombed and memorialized. This is where many of Great Britain’s military heroes are buried and remembered. In the lower level of the cathedral all around Nelson’s tomb, were smaller tombs and memorials all with poppies laid nearby in remembrance. Great Britain has had her share of wars. The wars, and those who served Queen and country are remembered. In addition to being full of war memorials, St. Paul’s has been a place of celebration. Queen Elizabeth II has had two jubilee celebrations at St. Paul’s. Diana and Charles were married there. As I walked down the long black and white checkered aisle towards the choir and the altar, I have to admit that I felt a thrill realizing that I was walking the same steps Diana did on her wedding day. For a moment, I turned into a middle school girl and I wanted to squeal! (I restrained myself with some effort.) My excitement received an eye-roll from Jim, but I think the Diana fans out there will understand.
We continued our historical and literary tour by going to the Tower of London, this time going back in time long before Queen Elizabeth II. As a fan of the British Royals, and British literature, I have always wanted to visit the Tower. For me, understanding British history is crucial to understanding British literature. Besides, the real stories of royals and the Tower are better than fiction. Seriously, writers couldn’t make up better or more intriguing stories than those of the War of the Roses and the Tudor monarchs!
The White Tower, or Tower of London, was commissioned by William the Conqueror, and was under construction 1075. It initially served as a stronghold. During its centuries of history, it has been a royal residence, a prison, and a place to keep the royal jewels. The Tower is a fortress comprised of several buildings with a green in the middle. Much of what would have been needed to survive during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance could be produced within the fortress walls as it more like a small village rather than a lone building.
The Tower is also a place of intrigue. There is small marker in a staircase doorway which was at the heart of a classic, ages old, “who dun it”. The marker is where the two sons of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, brothers of Elizabeth of York, and the rightful heirs to the throne, were believed to have been imprisoned and killed. Historical mystery ensued. Who did it? Richard III Plantagenet, who is famously vilified by Shakespeare, may have ordered the boys’ deaths, or perhaps it was his wife, Queen Consort Anne Neville. The children were taken from Elizabeth Woodville, the widow Queen, and her daughter, Elizabeth of York, and conveniently disappeared in the Tower under the care of Richard III in 1483. Richard then claimed the crown as Richard III even though he was considered a usurper by many.
Skeletons of two children were discovered in box at the bottom of an enclosed, unused stairwell when the Tower was under renovation in 1674. Were they the skeletons of the princes? We may never know for certain, but historians believe that they might very well be, and King Charles had them buried at Westminster. Whatever the case, Richard III was later killed in battle by Henry VII, who then married Elizabeth of York joining the houses of York and Lancaster, ending the War of the Roses and starting the intriguing Tudor reign. Today, the old staircase and entrance are open with a small sign designating that this is where the Princes in the Tower are believed to have been found.
The Tower has become most famous as a prison during the Tudor period. Jim and I got to see the infamous “Water Gate” or “Traitor’s Gate”, the gate to the fortress that was used to bring high ranking prisoners by water during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. Jim and stood on the green where Ann Boleyn, and her younger cousin, Catherine Howard, two of the six wives of Henry VIII, were beheaded. Interesting that although Anne Boleyn was was seen as a homewrecker, and called a whore by the English people for her displacement of Good Queen Katherine of Aragon, it seems sentiment has changed. There is a memorial on the green where Anne, and other high ranking nobles were executed, almost as an apology. There is a small marker in the nearby chapel where she is buried near the altar. Later, Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, was brought through the Water Gate when her sister, the Catholic Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary, and her advisors thought the Protestant Princess Elizabeth was plotting against her in the 1500s. Elizabeth succeeded the throne after her sister Mary, and used the Tower as a prison as well. When you tour the Tower, you can still see the etchings by the people who were kept as prisoners. Some of the people must have had a long stay at the Tower as the etchings are often intricate.
Today, the Tower is used to house Her Majesty’s royal jewels. The crowns still used today as well as the crowns, orbs and scepters from previous monarchs are housed there. All the golden tableware used for a monarch’s coronation is also kept there. Many Americans think Hollywood or the women on the Housewives shows are glamorous. They have nothing on Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. The jewels within the crowns and scepters are beyond any dreams I could imagine. When visiting the crown jewels in the Tower, people are asked to get on a people mover, or conveyor belt that moves people along the eye popping row of spectacular jewels. You won’t see any pictures of the crown jewels here as photos and videos of the crown jewels are strictly prohibited. The jewels are the private property of Her Majesty the Queen, so she is entitled to make the rules. Jim and I adhered to that rule because we believe we must honor the rules, customs, and traditions of the people and places we visit. We were told by one of the men who was a Beefeater, that all who work in the Tower are military or retired military, and many of them live in the fortress. Hence, it would be a bad idea to even think about stealing any of the Queen’s jewels. Again, I felt surrounded by history. As we viewed the Tower from across the Thames later, it seems a castle standing regal in a forest of modern silver skyscrapers. That is London, a celebration of tradition, old and new.
After we toured the Tower of London, we walked across Tower Bridge to the New Globe Theater to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Theater was popular during the Tudor monarchies, particularly during the Elizabethan Period. Elizabeth I, and her successor, King James Stuart, of King James Bible fame, were patrons of Shakespeare. The New Globe Theater is built very near the original Globe, and even nearer to the the remains of the competing Rose Theater. It was strange experience to walk down the street to see a large marker in an apartment parking lot to designate the place where the original Globe stood. We had dinner at the Swan, which is within the theater. It is a theater in the round open to the sky in the middle. There are no microphones that we could see at the Globe. It was an incredible experience as a lover of all things Shakespeare and Elizabeth I to see a play at the New Globe. If you visit London, the New Globe Theater is a must. The play was at times poignant, and sometimes funny. I found it fascinating that there was much gender bending within the roles. Falstaff, for example, was played by a woman. Prince Hal and Hotspur were also played by women. Why not? During the Elizabethan period, all the roles, even the female roles, were played by men. Interesting take on that tradition.
London is a tapestry of people, history, and some of the best stories. Explore! Go see where real stories took place and history happened. God save the Queen!