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The Bloody Romance of the Tower

May 17, 2011
by the gentle author

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey at Tower Green

“It has been for years, the cherished wish of the writer of these pages to make the Tower of London the groundwork of a Romance,” wrote Henry Ainsworth in 1840, introducing his novel, ” The Tower of London”  - and it is an impulse that I recognise, because I know of no other place in London where the lingering sense of myth and the echoing drama of the past is more tangible that at the Tower.

It is my recurring pleasure to visit John Keohane, the Chief Yeoman Warder, attending the age-old ceremonies that he officiates throughout his final year at the Tower, and each time I am struck by the mystery of the place. Each time, I have to stop and reconcile my knowledge of history with the place where it happened, and each time I become more spellbound by the actuality of the place, which in spite of Victorian rebuilding still retains its integrity as an ancient fortress. I make a point to pause and read the age-old graffiti, to stop in each doorway and take in the prospect at this most dramatic of monuments.

When I discovered “The Tower of London” by Henry Ainsworth in the Bishopsgate Institute I was captivated by George Cruikshank’s illustrations, realising that not only had this favourite of mine amongst nineteenth century illustrators once stood in exactly the same places I had stood, but he had the genius to draw the images inspired by these charged locations.“Desirous of exhibiting the Tower in its triple light of a palace, a prison and a fortress, the author has shaped his story with reference to that end, and he has also endeavoured to combine such  a series of incidents as should naturally introduce every relic of the old pile, its towers, halls, chambers, gateways and drawbridges – so that no part of it should remain uninvolved.” explained Ainsworth in his introduction to his sensationalist fictionalised account of the violent end of the short reign of Lady Jane Grey. Yet it is George Cruikshank’s engravings that bring the work alive, providing not just a tour of the architectural environment but also of the dramatic imaginative world that it contains – and done so vividly that when I go back this weekend for the ceremony of the Lilies & the Roses, I know already I shall be looking out for his characters in my mind’s eye while I am there.

There is a grim humour and surreal poetry that draw me to these pictures which, to my eyes, presage the work of Edward Gorey, who like George Cruikshank also created a sinister diaphanous world out of dense hatching. Maurice Sendak is another master of the lyricism that can be evoked by intricate webs of woven lines in which, as in these Tower of London engravings, three dimensional space dissolves into magical possibility. But to me the prime achievement of these pictures is that George Cruikshank has given concrete life to the Tower’s past, creating figures that convincingly take command of the stage offered by its charged spaces and, like the acting of Henry Irving, appear as if momentarily illuminated by flashes of lightning. Cruikshank’s pictures stand alone, like glimpses of a strange dream, drawing the viewer into a compelling emotional universe with its own logic, peopled with its own inhabitants and where it is too readily apparent what is going on.

The popularity of Henry Ainsworth’s novel was responsible for creating the bloodthirsty reputation of the Tower of London which still endures today – even though for centuries the Tower was used as a domestic royal residence and administrative centre, headquarters of the royal ordinances, records office, mint, observatory, and a menagerie amongst other diverse functions throughout its thousand year history. Yet although it may be just one of the infinite range of tales to be told about the Tower of London, Henry Ainsworth’s Romance does witness historical truth. There is a neglected plaque in the corner of Trinity Green just outside Tower Hill tube station which bears witness to those executed there through the centuries – as testament to the reality of the violence enacted upon those with the misfortune to find themselves on the wrong side of authority in past days.

Jane Grey’s first night in the Tower - “Prompted by an undefinable feeling of curiosity, she hastened towards it and, holding forward the light, a shudder went through her frame, as she perceived at her feet – an axe!”

Cuthbert Cholmondeley surprised by a mysterious figure in the dungeon adjoining the Devilin Tower.

Jane Grey interposing between the Duke of Northumberland and Simon Renard.

Jane Grey and Lord Gilbert Dudley brought back to the Tower through Traitors’ Gate - “Never had Jane experienced such a feeling of horror as now assailed her – and if she had crossed the fabled Styx, she could not have greater dread. Her blood seemed congealed within her veins as she gazed around. The light of the torches fell upon the black arches – upon the slimy walls and upon the yet blacker tide.”

Jane imprisoned in the Brick Tower - “Alone! The thought struck her to the heart. She was now captured. She heard the doors of the prison bolted – she examined its stone walls, partly concealed by tapestry – she glance at its barred windows, and she gave up hope.”

Simon Renard and Winwinkle, the warder, on the roof of the White Tower - “There you behold the Tower of London,” said Winwinkle, pointing downwards. “And there I read the history of England,” replied Renard. “If it is written in these towers, it is a dark and bloody history, ” replied the warder.

Mauger sharpening his axe - ” A savage-looking individual seated on a bench at a grinding stone, he had an axe blade which he had just been sharpening, and he was trying its edge with his thumb. His fierce blood-shot eyes, recessed far beneath his bent and bushy brows were fixed upon the weapon.”

Execution of the Duke of Northumberland upon Tower Hill - “As soon as the Duke had disposed himself upon the block, the axe flashed like a gleam of lightning in the sunshine – descended – and the head was severed from the trunk. Mauger held it aloft, almost before the eyes were closed, crying out to the the assemblage in a loud voice, “Behold the head of a traitor!”

Cuthbert Cholmondeley discovering the body of Alexia in the Devilin Tower - “Pushing aside the door with his blade, he beheld a spectacle that filled him with horror. At one side of the cell upon a stone seat, rested the dead body of a woman, reduced almost to a skeleton. On the wall, close to where she lay, and evidently carved by her own hand, the name ALEXIA.”

Queen Mary surprises Courtenay and Princess Elizabeth

Lawrence Nightgall dragging Cicely down the secret stairs in the Salt Tower

Courtenay’s escape from the Tower

The burning of Edward Underhill at Tower Green – “As the flames rose, the sharpness of the torment overcame him. He lost control of himself, and his eyes started from their sockets – his contorted features and his writhing frame proclaimed the extremity of his agony. It was a horrible sight, and a shudder burst forth from the assemblage.”

The Death Warrant - “Mary tried to ascertain the cause of the animal’s disquietude as its barking changed to a dismal howl. Not without misgiving, she glanced towards the window and there between the bars she beheld a hideous black mask, through the holes of which glared a pair of flashing eyes.”

Elizabeth confronts Sir Thomas Wyatt in the torture chamber - “‘Sir Thomas Wyatt,’ Elizabeth declared in a loud and authoritative tone, and stepping towards him, ‘If you would not render your name forever infamous, you must declare my innocence!’”

The Fall of Nightgall - “Nightgall struggled desperately against the horrible fate that waited him, clutching convulsively against the wall. But it was unavailing. He uttered a fearful cry, and tried to grab at the roughened surface. From a height of nearly ninety feet, he fell with a terrific smash upon the pavement of the court below.”

The Night before the Execution - “In spite of himself, the executioner could not repress a feeling of dread and the contrary urge, which represented his curiousity. He pointed towards the church porch, from which a figure, robed in white, but insubstantial as the mist, suddenly appeared. It glided noiselessly along and without turning its face to the beholders.”

Jane Grey meeting the body of her husband at the scaffold - “She knew it was the body of her husband, and unprepared for so terrible an encounter, uttered a cry of horror.”

Plaque at Trinity Green on Tower Hill

You may also like to read

John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Constables Dues at the Tower of London

The Oldest Ceremony in the World.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011

    Love this post! It’s so easy to forget when walking to Tower Hill station every morning the immense history and fascinating tales of the place.

  2. dante permalink
    May 17, 2011

    bloody marvelous

  3. Ros permalink
    May 17, 2011

    O horrible! Horrible! Most horrible! …but very good.

  4. Robin permalink
    February 8, 2012

    Amazing. Wonderful illistrations.

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