Posts Tagged ‘Tower of London’

General the Lord Dannatt recently retired from the ancient position of Constable of the Tower. Here, LH Member Chris West writes a guest post about some of the highlights of this 900 year old office.

This is the most senior appointment at the Tower; the first Constable was Geoffrey de Mandeville, appointed by William the Conqueror in 1078. In the medieval period, four Archbishops of Canterbury held the office, Thomas à Becket being the most famous. The Constable of the Tower was nominally responsible for management of the site when the monarch was not in residence; the duties for managing the site devolved to a deputy known as the Lieutenant of the Tower, who had an office with clerks to oversee administration, accounting and running the Constable’s own court of law.

white tower

Over time Constables acquired a variety of legal and financial privileges which included collecting tolls on selected goods from trading ships and entitlement to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames. They also gained from fees paid by state prisoners for their upkeep, the ownership of livestock falling from London Bridge and passing swans. Sir Henry Bedingfield was appointed Constable by Queen Mary and was responsible for Princess Elizabeth while incarcerated at the Tower prior to her removal to Woodstock. The Princess was reported by some sources to have lived in fear for her life while at the Tower. Following her succession, Queen Elizabeth may have advised Bedingfield to stay away from Her Court. Sir John Holland, Duke of Exeter, was a leading army commander who had served at Agincourt. He was appointed Constable and died in 1447. Originally, his tomb was in the nearby Royal Foundation of St Katharine but is now in St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower itself. Since 1784 the Constable has been a senior Army officer, either Field Marshal or General. Henry VIII built The Queen’s House for Anne Boleyn which has since been used by Constables and Governors.

duke of wellingtonArthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington was Constable from 1769 to 1852. He made important changes, which included draining the moat, removing the menagerie of wild animals, reorganising the establishment of the Yeoman Warders, overseeing the building of the Waterloo Barracks and other extensive restoration of the site. He also made the last, unsuccessful attempt to refill the moat. Wellington did not favour its development into a museum and preferred the Royal Repository at Woolwich for the prizes from Paris in 1815. He did ensure that the guns captured in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo would be preserved at the Tower, some of which are still outside the Waterloo Block. His memory is honoured with a plaque in the Chapel Royal- though interestingly, this was only initiated recently.

Since 1933 the Constable’s appointment has been for five years. His installation is celebrated on Tower Green before an invited audience. The Lord Chamberlain hands the keys of the Queen’s House to the new Constable, who then entrusts them to the Resident Governor, responsible for the management of the Tower.

DSCN2727 (2).JPG


The Constable still retains the right to direct access to the monarch. Ceremonial events are attended, including gun salutes, state parades and the Ceremony of the Dues, representing the historic toll of wine or goods paid by ships entering the Pool of London. A Royal Navy vessel berths at Tower Wharf, bringing into the Tower a ceremonial keg slung from an oar, accompanied by a parade headed by the Chief Yeoman Warder, then a military band followed by the ship’s company. At Tower Green, they are met by Tower officials in full dress uniform and the keg is presented. Both parties and guests then retire for refreshments.


Former Chief of General Staff, General the Lord Dannatt has just finished his tenure as the 159th Constable, having served for seven years instead of the usual five. He has further distinguished himself with his extensive input while resident. Being a Trustee of Historic Royal Palaces (the independent charity responsible for running the Tower), he was involved in the excellent 2014 poppies installation in the moat, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. He also helped coordinate the services charities involved and was a central figure in the daily Roll Call ceremony.

DSCN2385 (3)


Lord Dannatt was extensively involved in life at the Tower, its residents and the various ceremonies, while still regularly attending at the House of Lords. Lord and Lady Dannatt were key figures in raising money to renovate the Chapel Royal and to improve funding for the unique choir, successfully hosting many special day and evening events.

General Sir Nicholas Houghton replaces Lord Dannatt as the 160th Constable.


Read Full Post »

This ceremony is held on an occasional basis at the Tower of London. It originates in the 14C when, under Richard II, it was decided that any large navy vessel which traveled upstream to the Tower must pay a levy to the Constable. This takes the form of a barrel of rum and is one of a raft of lucrative privileges enjoyed by the Tower’s constables for use of the Thames or London Bridge, the underlying principle being that the Tower provides protection to visitors.

This morning it was the turn of HMS Defender  – a new Class 45 Destroyer – to pay the Dues. Led by Commander Stephen Higham and supported by the band of the Royal Marines, the sailors delivered the barrel to the current Constable, the Lord Dannatt, formerly commander in chief of the British Army.

Visitors to the Tower were clearly delighted at this unexpected treat. My thanks to LH Member Chris West for the tip-off.

More on the Contable’s Dues. 


Band of the Royal Marines.

Band of the Royal Marines.

Commander   addresses the reception party.

Commander Higham addresses the reception party.


Constable of the Tower, the Lord Dannatt, speaking to the media.

Constable of the Tower, the Lord Dannatt, speaking to the media.

Matelots enjoying a well-served drink afterwards in the Yeoman Warders' Club.

Matelots enjoying a well-deserved drink afterwards in the Yeoman Warders’ Club.

Read Full Post »

For some reason that life’s too short to find out, the Royal Mint and its museum are based in Wales. So a new exhibition at the Tower of London adds a welcome and much-needed minty flavour to the capital. And rightly so, because the Royal Mint was based at the royal fortress from the late thirteenth century right through to 1812. The new show – Coins and Kings: The Royal Mint at the Tower – is based in rooms which were once part of the old money factory in what was, and is, known as Mint Street.

royal mint, tower of london

Mint Street.

There is a strong focus on technology. At the beginning of our period it was very basic; coins were literally stamped with a hammer and dye, and then cut into shape. As a technique it was thousands of years old. During the Restoration a new way of making milled coins using machinery was introduced from the Continent. Apart from automation, that’s essentially still the method used today.

I love the story of James Turnbull, a soldier who was seconded to do hot, sweaty work in the mint. With the help of an accomplice, after breakfast one morning in December 1798 he locked his colleagues in a cupboard and made off with much bullion. He was caught trying to escape to Europe several weeks later. Next stop, Newgate gallows by way of the Old Bailey. Exactly a century previously William Chaloner, a notorious counterfeiter and fraudster had been running rings around the authorities. Unfortunately for him, the new Warden of the Mint was possibly the cleverest man in the world: Isaac Newton. Newton meticulously built a water-tight case against the felon and prosecuted him, the inevitable result being a one way ticket to Tyburn. In a final letter to Newton, the now contrite Chaloner begged for his life:

O dear Sr nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murdered unless you save me O I hope God will move your heart with mercy pitty to do this thing for me I am Your near murdered humble Servant…

These are just a few of the stories you’ll learn. Key objects from the Tower itself have been united with items from the Royal Mint Museum in Wales, the British Museum and other institutions to give a compelling narrative of coin production down the centuries. The great and the good – kings, scientists, forgers and brigands – all are featured.

royal  mint, tower of london

Spanish eight reales coins were an international currency. During the crisis of 1797, it was quicker to stamp George III’s portrait onto foreign coins than to melt them down to make new ones.

This exhibition hasn’t been confirmed as “permanent”, but it is on “until further notice”, which means for a long time. Entry is free with the Tower of London ticket, so do make sure you make account for it whenever you next visit, easily worth 45 minutes to an hour of your time.

Read Full Post »

Fallen In Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn, by Joanna Carrick, showing at the Tower of London.

A Guest Post by London Historians Member, Lissa Chapman

fallen in love tower of london anne boleyn

The Boleyn brand has never been more popular: novels, television series, conferences, a dozen Twitter users jostling for the name @AnneBoleyn – surely the perfume and a range of lingerie called “the most happy” can’t be far behind. It’s hardly surprising. Anne Boleyn was a celebrity (yes, they did have them in the sixteenth century), a whore or a religious heroine – delete according to taste – in her own lifetime, and her legendary status is unlikely to fade. She is one of the historical figures whose significance is in the eye, and often the heart, of the beholder.

So a play about her, staged within yards of the place of her violent death, has to be a winner. But it isn’t clear if “Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn” is exactly a play. Supported by the Heritage (not the Arts) Lottery Fund and staged in association with Historic Royal Palaces, this project seemed to me to belong in the sometimes uncertain ground between theatre and live interpretation. It is both a strength and a weakness of the piece that it is written with great integrity, firmly based on primary source material. It also avoids the vulgarities of sixth fingers, witchcraft and serial shagging.

The theme is the intense bond between Anne Boleyn and her younger brother George – the two were of course convicted, among other things, of incest with each other. The premise of the piece is that their love was the central relationship in both their lives. The action spans nearly twenty years, starting at the time of the Field of the Cloth of Gold when the siblings were in their teens, and continuing until their execution; each scene is a self-contained set piece, with the two characters meeting to plan, rejoice, grieve or comment.

Emma Connell as Anne and Scott Ellis as George, both in their twenties, were convincing in the early scenes; each was able to convey the vitality and insatiable ambition of the pair, and their interdependence against the world, along with the febrile charm that must have characterised the real Boleyns.. It was as they were asked to age, to occupy a larger place in that world and to become more formidable that the difficulties began. These were partly inherent in the writing which, as the characters became public property, took more and more the form of paraphrased chunks of source material (relying on the accuracy of the reports of Eustace Chapuys a little too often for my particular taste). And as the Boleyns became significant and visible to the world at large, the limitations of the two-hander became more evident. Attempts were made to suggest the influence of others, in particular the king, but neither the danger and watchfulness of court life nor the dangerousness of the characters themselves became manifest.

fallen in love tower of london anne boleyn

It is worth noting that this production represents a huge ask of its cast and crew. The 9pm performance I attended was the third of that day – an exhausting prospect for a show with an 85-minute running time. The choice of the New Armouries as the setting was a disappointment, as it is one of the least atmospheric parts of the Tower, although the practicality in terms of lighting and comfort were evident. And the costumes, although they would have been acceptable in a larger space, were not of sufficient quality to bear the close scrutiny they receive from an audience only a few feet from the action.

Despite all this, however, this is a serious and thoughtful piece of writing. It would be interesting to revisit the subject using a larger cast of characters and perhaps with live rather than recorded music. Yet – secret heart? Walking through the dark precincts of the Tower on a night in May seemed to me to offer a greater sense of connection with Anne Boleyn than any play ever could. Perhaps that is as it should be.


Fallen In Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn, by Joanna Carrick, runs until 16 June. There are three performances most days, ticket prices £27 – £32. Concessions available, including 10% discount to London Historians Members.

More information here.
Booking here.

Read Full Post »

Tower by Nigel JonesAs 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.

tower of london

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.

Read Full Post »