As you know, our logo is the Tower. The perfect representation of London history, I reckon. Along with Westminster Hall, it’s the oldest standing building we have. So here was a welcome opportunity to read this new book on the subject, and build on my quite frankly sketchy knowledge of the place.
Tower is a history for the general reader and Nigel Jones has trodden a well-worn path, obviously. But unless you are deeply familiar with the Tower of London’s history, this is the book for you. It is breezy, exciting and despite much grim subject matter, often humorous. The author demonstrates that the history of the Tower is not only the history of London, but the history of post-Norman England. Power holders and power seekers from all parts of the country lived and and often enough died at the Tower. So the book, by default, is also a history of England. For the amateur historian (especially), the web of relationships, alliances, intrigue and betrayal in the pursuit of power – particularly from the Wars of the Roses through to the late 18th Century – is almost impossible fully to grasp. Tower goes a long way to solving this problem.
Many think of the Tower of London as synonymous the Norman White Tower. Some, I believe, consider the White Tower and the Bloody Tower to be the same building. Most do realise that the complex actually comprises many towers, but nonetheless may still think that enemies of the state were all banged up in the White Tower and also that the crown jewels are kept there. This book succeeds in banishing these misconceptions. One of the pleasures of reading it is constantly to reference the illustrated map on the front and back end-papers to figure out where the action is actually taking place.
The common perception of the Tower of London is that of grim dungeons, torture and death. In fact, many of its prisoners lived very comfortably, mingled with visitors and friends, and were permitted to roam the complex with relative freedom. But overall, these were the exceptions. Most of the stories related here are savage, sad and traumatic in the extreme. Tower not only reinforces the perception, but reminds one how unremittingly cruel and violent our history has been.
Subject matter which spans the ages are treated in separate chapters, the menagerie and the mint, for example. But my favourite has to be the chapter Great Escapes, a welcome light diversion after so much bloodiness. Most attempts are littered with blunders and miscalculations, almost all ultimately unsuccessful. They have all the usual ingredients: filed bars, makeshift ropes, shinning down sewer pipes, disguise as a woman, prisoner-visitor switcheroo, secret correspondence, invisible ink, bribing the screws, and so on. No 20th Century movie escape caper uses methods not tried before at the Tower. The story of lovers Arabella Stuart and William Seymour was only half successful, the outcome therefore heartbreaking. The tale of the resourceful Edmund Nevill involving three almost successful breaks for freedom is as hilarious as it is uplifting and at least had a happy ending insofar as he lived to tell it, albeit in exile.
You’ll be relieved to know that Tower is not all about ravens and beefeaters. It is not, really, even so much about the building. It is, rather, the story of the people who occupied it: traitors, martyrs, kings, queens, lords and princes; heroes and cowards; soldiers and officials; poets, writers, politicians. You didn’t really count if you hadn’t spent time there in whatever capacity. Nigel Jones tells their story with panache. Tower is as entertaining as it is informative.
Totally coincidentally, Nigel Jones is talking at the History of London festival with Leo Hollis on 23 November in Kensington, an evening which London Historians is co-sponsoring. Bonus!
Tower. An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones (2011), 456pp, is published by Hutchinson. Cover price is £20.00, but available for considerably less.