Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tower of London

“To serve God, to endure penance, to obey fate, is to reign.” – Arthur Poole 1564, inscribed into the stone at Beauchamp tower

I’ve wanted to go to the tower of London for as long as I can remember. Specifically, to see the axe and block that chopped off the head of Scottish-born Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who, according to family tradition, I’m related to. While Fraser is a family name, Scottish is a family ancestry, and there are family ties to the place where Simon Fraser was born, the specific link has yet to be made. I’m also aware, that being related to Simon Fraser isn’t necessarily something to be particularly proud of, since most times he was ruled by his particular want of power and while it may have made him clever, it never made him “good.”

I know it’s morbid, to want to see where a possible relative not only died, but was executed, but for some reason I feel it gives me a tie to this place.

Well, I saw the axe and the block, and I learned where the saying “laughing your head off” came from: When Lord Lovat put his head down on the block, he was staring straight out at his spectators—suddenly, one of the viewing scaffolding fell, crushing about a twenty people. Lovat declared, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” from Horace (meaning “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” He apparently found it hilarious and extremely ironic that these people died, coming to his beheading. He must have been laughing pretty hard for that term to come to use in popular culture—he must have been laughing too hard for them to wait to cut off his head!

Also at the tower of London, in the White tower, was a show casing of Henry VIII’s favorite life-long pastimes and including his knight’s armor from his young adult years, ot the last suit of armor ever made for him. It includes a display of jousting armor and poles—one of his favorite sports, and one that he was exceptionally good at—a tennis ball he used to own (by the way, it was “real” tennis, which is a little different than modern day tennis; it includes the use of the walls.), and many of his hunting instruments. It might interest some to know that he was over six feet tall, extremely fit, and described as very handsome when he was younger. Granted he was the king, so who would have the nerve to call him anything other than handsome—however, his suits of armor attest to the fact that he was both very tall, and very fit. Suits of armor (and everything that goes on underneath them) are over a hundred pounds to wear, and Henry the VIII was very strong and very active. I suspect that his lifestyle required him to eat quite a lot—now of course, when he got his leg wound, which prevented him from being as active as he once was, despite his desire to be so, he never stopped eating the amount he always had—causing him to become the fat man that everyone sees him in pictures as. Unfortunately, the only picture of him as a young man is grossly inaccurate and awful-looking.

Moving on.

I saw the area where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were beheaded, the green where Guy Fawkes was questioned, the tower where sixteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey was kept until her beheading, and rooms formerly used for torturing prisoners at the tower—they pulled people apart on the rack, scrunched them up in the Scavenger’s daughter, and suspended them by their wrists from manacles. I saw the bloody tower where Sir Walter Raleigh—navigator and pirate—was kept for thirteen years before being executed, and the Beauchamp Tower, known for the carvings on the wall made by its prisoners—some of them looking like full-on relief sculptures. Can you imagine the loneliness and the insistent desire to do something productive? I also saw the Bell tower where Sir Thomas More was kept by Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the church. They’d once been good friends, but church versus state got in the way. This seems to be a common thread between King Henry's and friend Thomas's, if you’ll remember Henry II and Thomas Beckett.

No contest that seeing that axe and block was my favorite part of the visit, but there was something else, something I’m sure I’ll say a thousand more times: It was all the history there—the years of it, stories and facts, stacked up imperfectly with nothing to hold them together, like the mortar-less walls in the countryside. His it nothing is knocked out of place or out of order? Tread lightly, I suppose, the past of too many depend on mere remembrance.

“As virtue maketh life, so sin causeth death.” – Thomas Bawdewin 1585, inscribed into the stone at Beauchamp tower

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