Even in daylight, the Tower of London is a brooding, sinister presence that looms over the River Thames like some kind of ancient, malevolent old gargoyle. A tidal wave of blood was shed within walls that are still to this day ingrained with the fear, terror and final agonies of scores of victims over the centuries, from English nobility to German spies.
The Tower has served as a royal residence, a menagerie, repository of state jewels, and a place of torture, imprisonment and, of course, judicial execution. Originally inaugurated in 1066 during the reign of William the Conquerer, the complex actually referred to as ‘the Tower’ comprises no less than twenty one different towers, turrets and keeps. At one time, it was encircled by a long since vanished moat.
The main entrance for most of the platinum chip prisoners was through the water level barrier now known as Traitor’s Gate. For the likes of Anne Boleyn, that gate was the antechamber to her inevitable doom. Even back then, the place had such a ghastly reputation that the mere mention of imprisonment there was enough to unhinge the bravest man or woman. And, indeed, most of the titled heads that passed through that gate never left it alive. Often as not, their severed heads were displayed on spikes, as a ghastly warning to others.
No less than three Queens of England perished in that awful place; Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey, the hopelessly betrayed ‘Nine Day Queen’ who was a pathetic casualty of the overweening ambition of her parents. Each of this trio of ill starred femmes fatales was given what was perversely considered to be the ‘privilege’ of a ‘private ‘ execution on Tower Green. Most judicial victims were decapitated on the scaffold at nearby Tower Hill, which had large scale public access.
Murder and torture were endemic to the Tower and it’s grim role as the gatekeeper of London; from the horrific murder of the Little Princes to the torture of Guy Fawkes, to the executions of the likes of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The Tower of London was the ultimate symbol of royal authority for centuries; to gain control of London, you had to hold the custody of the fortress. It had- and still has- a symbolic value out of all proportion to its true scale. But it’s grisly reputation reached a bloody apogee with the farcical show trial and execution of Anne Boleyn in May of 1536.
The second wife of Henry VIII soon fell out of favour with her loathsome, oafish spouse. He had admired her headstrong character and fierce intellect prior to their marriage, but these were not qualities he expected her to continue to exhibit as his Queen. His once volcanic ardour cooled and his eye began to wander in the direction of Jane Seymour. And, ultimately Anne’s inability to produce a male heir lit a powder trail that culminated in her last, fateful walk on the morning of May 19th, 1536.
Anne Boleyn was actually tried and condemned within the precincts of the Tower itself, after she had already been imprisoned there for almost two frantic, fearful weeks. The trial was a farce, engineered to produce the outcome that the brutal Henry had already mandated for the woman he had once loved. As a final ‘mercy’ to her, he very graciously consented that she should be beheaded by an expert French swordsman, rather than being burned at the stake. Ever the optimist, Henry had sent to France for the swordsman long before the trial had even begun.
It was an untypically fine and sunny day when Anne Boleyn took her last, short walk to the scaffold on the morning of May 19th, 1536, after two almost sleepless days and nights. Her courage and dignity in those last minutes moved even her bitterest of foes to tears. With no admission of guilt on her lips, the first Queen of England to be executed died quickly, and as cleanly as the whole ghastly ritual would allow.
A little more than five years later, she was followed to the same scaffold by her cousin, Henry’s fifth Queen, the young, skittish and naive Catherine Howard. There was no swordsman for the terrified young girl; just the headsman with his axe. Legend has it that she asked for the headsman’s block to be brought to her on the night before she died, so that she might practice how to place herself on it. In any event, she was so weak with fear that she could hardly stand, something hardly to be surprised at. Together with Jane Grey, both women’s truncated skeletons now lie within the confines of the nearby chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest little place on earth’.
Much of what can currently be seen of the Tower would be instantly recognised by any of its conga line of distinguished victims. With its incredibly rich, intricate and blood soaked history, the Tower of London is renowned as one of the most haunted places in the world, a veritable smorgasbord of paranormal presences from across the ages. Even on the sunniest of days, a palpable vibe of barely suppressed terror hangs in the air above it like a funeral shroud. For lovers of history, a visit here is an absolute must.