The Tower of London

The Tower of London

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.

Traitor's Gate; the world literally ended here for a whole raft of titled heads over the centuries

Traitor’s Gate; the world literally ended here for a whole raft of titled heads over the centuries

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’.

Visitor's entrance to the Tower complex

Visitor’s entrance to the Tower complex

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.


Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

This short piece is mainly for the benefit of my American friends who might be thinking about coming to visit northern Europe in the near or distant future. Whether you’re on a cruise, or just working through some self devised itinerary, these are five of the great buildings and attractions of the continent that I would argue deserve your attention. They are not listed in any particular order of preference; the impact of each upon the individual is too damned subjective for such a superfluous kind of batting order. But each is uniquely compelling in it’s own way…

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli is the jewel in the crown of Scandinavia’s most boisterous and exuberant city; a shimmering, ethereal, twenty three acre wonderland of a theme park that dates back to the 1800’s. Here, a Chinese pagoda towers above a lake where a giant pirate ship provides the perfect grandstand for the twice nightly midnight fireworks each week in summer.

A wondrous maze of fountains, fairy tale lights and fun fair rides, Tivoli was beloved of the immortal Hans Christian Andersen. It’s also the place where one Walter Disney got the idea for his own, subsequent string of theme parks. He visited Tivoli in the 1930’s, and fell in love with the place. Chances are, you will too.

Geiranger Fjord, Norway

God blessed the twelve thousand miles of Norwegian coastline with an almost obscene level of beauty, and most people agree that Geiranger Fjord is pure, platinum chip scenic porn.

Sailing between the silent, towering, pine carpeted walls of rock is an incredible adrenaline surge. The silence is almost deafening You’ll see meadows in forty shades of electric green. Butterflies and jagged, snow capped mountains. Cows grazing by water so still that the scenery is reflected to mirror like perfection. There are vibrant, splashing streams that tumble down the mountain sides, and gaunt wooden stave churches, some of them hundreds of years old, scattered about a landscape that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Petrodeverts Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

A monumental, swaggering statement in gold, gilt and marble, Petrodeverts was the summer palace of the Tsars of Russia. Built to exceed even Versailles in terms of beauty, scale and grandeur, it’s epic Italianate facade is the prelude to a stupendous spread of public rooms, each one almost awash in gilded opulence. Vast, impossible chandeliers hold sway above galleries lined with floor to ceiling mirrors.  Lacquered Chinese cabinets frame rooms filled with a glut of silver banqueting ware set on tables the size of the Titanic. The staircases are sweeping, magnificent, marble accented ascents.

In the gardens, a series of stunning, stepped fountains sweep right down to the edge of the Baltic itself, each terrace flanked by pairs of gilded, golden cherubs. When you see this vast former Royal playground, you get a sense of what truly triggered the revolutions that ultimately culminated in the Communist take over of October, 1917.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

The most commanding building in this amazing city. And quite literally in many ways, since this is the seat of the German parliament. The vast, sprawling neo classical facade is impressive enough, with elements of ancient Greek architecture on display as well. The new, magnificent glass cupola, added by British architect Sir Norman Foster, offers almost Olympian-like views out over the most vibrant city in Germany.

It was famously burnt down in a coup orchestrated by the Nazis, in order to frame the opposition and consolidate Hitler’s total grip on power after his election in 1933. Today, children sit eating ice cream on the same steps that hordes of Russian infantrymen stormed in 1945 in the face of a desperate, fanatical resistance. Nazism died on those steps in many ways.

The Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Even on the brightest days, the Tower manages to look at once menacing, sinister and forbidding. Hardly surprising when you consider it’s almost thousand year history. A site of great pageantry and a place of unimaginable pain and cruelty, every one of it’s gaunt, bleached stones seems to have centuries of agonised history seared into it.

You can see the amazing. glittering glut of the crown jewels, and some of the fetid, one time rat infested cells where scores of doomed men and women eked out their last pitiful days. You can even walk the silent, immaculately manicured lawns, and see the spot where no less than three Queens of England- Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey- met their grisly fates. All are interred in the adjacent, small church of Saint Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest place in all of England’.

This is just a snap shot of some of the great sites that litter the shores and cities of Europe like so many random exclamation marks. They all have amazing stories to tell. Many are poignant, all are powerful, each one is a  pointer to the past glories-and follies- of this proud, often prolifically violent continent.