Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of Londonby Nigel Jones
A dazzling history of the Tower of London, one of the world's busiest tourist attractions, and the people who populated it
Castle, royal palace, prison, torture chamber, execution site, zoo, mint, home to the crown jewels, armory, record office, observatory, and the most visited tourist attraction in the UK: The Tower of London… See more details below
A dazzling history of the Tower of London, one of the world's busiest tourist attractions, and the people who populated it
Castle, royal palace, prison, torture chamber, execution site, zoo, mint, home to the crown jewels, armory, record office, observatory, and the most visited tourist attraction in the UK: The Tower of London has been all these things and more. No building in Britain has been more intimately involved in the island's story than this mighty, brooding stronghold in the very heart of the capital, a place which has stood at the epicenter of dramatic, bloody and frequently cruel events for almost a thousand years.
Now historian Nigel Jones sets this dramatic story firmly in the context of national—and international—events. In a gripping account drawn from primary sources and lavishly illustrated with sixteen pages of stunning photographs, he captures the Tower in its many changing moods and its many diverse functions. Here, for he first time, is a thematic portrayal of the Tower of london not just as an ancient structure, but as a living symbol of the nation of Great Britain.
“Heads roll throughout Jones' pages, frequently under the dynasty that endowed the Tower with its most sinister associations, the Tudors. . . . This is popular history well arranged and well written.” Booklist
“Historian and journalist Jones enlightens and delights in this history of the London Tower. A historian's history that deserves pride of place in every library.” Kirkus Reviews
“A marvelous, authoritative, and entertaining history of England, tightly focused and richly detailed.” Publishers Weekly
- St. Martin's Press
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- 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)
Read an Excerpt
They had been fighting all day, and sheer exhaustion was sapping their strength. The light of the autumn afternoon was fading fast. The grass covering the long slope of Senlac Hill was sodden and greasy with mud and blood, littered with the mangled corpses of the slain, 'soiled with their own gore'. Seven hours of savage combat, as the famed Norman cavalry charged repeatedly uphill, meeting the unbreached dam of the Saxon shield-wall, had taken a grim toll of both armies. They had started the day with roughly equal numbers - seven to eight thousand men each - but a quarter were already dead, and another quarter would follow them to Valhalla before the day was done.
The Normans, after the rough cross-Channel voyage in their open longships, were near despair as their assaults dashed against the rampart of the shield-wall. The English Saxons, dog-tired from their week's forced march from Yorkshire after smashing the last Viking invasion of England at Stamford Bridge, could hardly stand from fatigue. The wall of their inter-locked shields was looking ragged, the gaps torn by the falling dead too wide to be plugged. Only the fierce spirit of their warrior king, Harold, sternly ordering them to close ranks, kept them in their places.
Duke William of Normandy seized the situation at a glance. He had less than two hours left to win a decisive victory and with it the throne of England. If he failed to break the Saxon line by dark, his cause would be lost. Harold would remain king, and William would be lucky to escape ignominiously back across the Channel. Only a massive final effort might yet secure the kingdom. William had already tried a few tricks that day. He had swerved his knights away just as they reached the English front line after a headlong charge. It was a risky manoeuvre - a feigned downhill retreat could easily become a rout. But it had worked. Believing that their enemies were fleeing, some Saxons had broken ranks and chased theirenemies down the slippery slope. Once in the open, however, the Norman horsemen had turned on the isolated foot soldiers and cut them down.
Now, William again threw in his cavalry. He flung them at either end of the English line. Simultaneously, William ordered his archers to unleash a storm of arrows at the heart of the Saxon defences: the elite housecarls who guarded Harold with their terrifying five-foot axes. William ordered his bowmen to shoot so that their arrows arched over the shield-wall and fell from the sky, a hard rain on a soft target - the exhausted English rear ranks. A lucky arrow found a spectacular mark: King Harold's eye. Although the faithful housecarls closed ranks for a brave last stand around their stricken king, Saxon morale finally cracked.
Pursued by Norman horsemen, the surviving conscript soldiers of the fyrd fled first. Behind them on the torn ground lay the hacked bodies of England 's last Saxon king and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. Harold's body was so slashed and battered that only his mistress, Edith Swan-neck, could recognise it by intimate 'certain indications' when she searched the battlefield. Here, on the evening of 14 October 1066, it was Anglo-Saxon England that lay dead along with its king, its bleeding body trampled into the earth. To the victor went the spoils.
Hastings was not the first battle that Duke William had fought - nor would it be the last. Born in 1027/8 as the illegitimate son of Duke Robert 'the Devil' of Normandy by Herleva, a humble tanner's daughter, William learned early that life is an unceasing struggle. Aged eight when his father died in 1035, he was surrounded by plots and assassinations as ambitious nobles vied for the throne. At twenty-three, William won his first victory near Caen against his rebel cousin, Guy of Burgundy. A successful soldier, and a lucky one, William fought off repeated French incursions and steadily expanded his duchy.
His triumphs whetted William's ambitious appetite. He persuaded England 's ageing king, the childless Edward the Confessor, to accept his tenuous claim to the English throne. (William's wife Matilda was descended from Alfred the Great, so he was Edward 's second cousin, once removed.) Despite having allegedly pledged William his support after being shipwrecked on the Normandy coast, Harold Godwinson, England 's leading Saxon nobleman, accepted the crown offered him by the Anglo-Saxon council, the Witan, on Edward 's death in January 1066. Incensed, William prepared to back his ambitions by force. He assembled a fleet and an armyof Normans, Bretons and French mercenaries, secured the blessing of the Pope, and sailed for the Sussex coast.
Moving slowly, and savagely stamping out sparks of resistance as he went, William took until mid-December to reach Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. He found the wooden London Bridge - the only river crossing - barred against him. Cautiously, he marched west, burning and looting, until at Wallingford he met a submissive Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, sent by the Witan to offer him the crown. On Christmas Day 1066, William I was crowned by Stigand in Edward the Confessor's newly built Westminster Abbey.
Outside the abbey, the coronation ceremony was disrupted by angry Londoners loudly opposing their new, foreign-born king. Alarmed, Norman soldiers rushed from the abbey with drawn swords. It was a reminder that their conquest was far from complete. They were a tiny, beleaguered army amidst a hostile, barely cowed populace which bitterly resented these strangers with their weird tongue and alien ways. The Normans had killed the English king and decimated his host, but to enjoy the fruits of victory they realised they must be equally ruthless in repressing Harold's discontented former subjects. And they had a tried and tested method at their disposal: the castle.
Fortified hilltops had been commonplace in England for centuries; as the ramparts and ditches of Dorset's Maiden Castle, dug by the ancient British, attest. The Romans had their fortresses too, as the stones of Hadrian's Wall bear witness. But it was the Normans who patented the 'motte-and-bailey' castle. The idea was simple. Where there was no convenient natural hill, as with a sandcastle, the Normans threw up an artificial mound - the motte - crowned by a wooden tower. They then dug a defensive ditch - the bailey - around its base, using the excavated earth to make an additional encircling rampart, surmounted by a wooden fence. By 1066 the Normans were past masters at the speedy construction of these flat-pack fortresses - they could build one within a week - and their first acts upon landing had been to put up two, at Pevensey and Hastings.
Eventually, the Normans would build some eighty-four motte-and-bailey castles across their newly conquered kingdom. The early ones were sited near their Sussex beachhead - Lewes, Bramber and Arundel - guarding strategic river valleys in case they needed to retreat to the coast in a hurry.The temporary wooden castles were soon replaced by solid stone, once the Normans felt confident that they were in England for good. The functions of the castle were twofold: as the imposing home and headquarters of the local magnate; and as a refuge for his loyal soldiers, servants and tenants in times of trouble. They were the nodal points of the feudal mesh of occupation that the Normans threw over the conquered kingdom.
William rewarded the knights who had followed and fought alongside him with large parcels of conquered English land - together with the overlordship of the peasants who tilled the soil. Great castles were erected at Dover, Exeter, York, Nottingham, Durham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge and Colchester. Norman names - de Warenne, de Lacey, Beauchamp - replaced Saxon ones in the nobility and clergy as a military occupation morphed into a new social structure.
William lavished special care on one castle in particular. His new capital, London, was vulnerable to attack on its eastern, seaward side. It clearly needed the protection that only a great castle could provide. England's earlier military masters, the Romans, had pointed the way. In the fourth century AD, to defend the port-city they called Londinium Augusta, they had thrown up a stout city wall. It ran north - south from today's Bishopsgate down to the Thames before swinging west along the northern bank of the river. Only the foundations of the wall remained by William's time, but it was in the angle of its south-eastern corner, on the site of a former Roman fort named Arx Palatina - erroneously thought by the Normans (and by Shakespeare) to have been put up by Julius Caesar - that William decided to build his super-castle.
The rowdy scenes at his coronation had made it very clear that Norman rule could only be imposed by brute force. As a contemporary French chronicler, William of Poitiers, recorded, 'Certain strongholds were made in the town against the fickleness of the vast and fierce populace.' A fortress to house London's garrison and intimidate its inhabitants - who totalled around 10,000 in 1066 - had to be constructed without delay. Within days of the Christmas coronation, conscripted gangs of Saxon labourers were hacking into the frozen soil. The remains of the Roman city wall served as a temporary barrier on the new fortress's eastern and southern sides. A wide and deep ditch, surmounted by a palisaded rampart, went up on the western and northern sides of the site. A wooden tower was erected within three days in the middle of this rough rectangle. Aftera decade, however, largely spent in stamping out rebellions in the west and north of his new kingdom, William decided to remake his temporary timber structure in permanent stone.
William had the very man in mind to realise his vision. He envisaged the building of a mighty edifice that would be at once fortress and palace - the last word in state-of-the-art military architecture, as well as an impressive royal residence. A towering, solid structure that would literally set Norman superiority in stone, inducing a Saxon cultural cringe and snuffing out any notion of further resistance to his rule. The master architect that William hand-picked to oversee the project was a talented cleric named Gundulf.
Born in 1024 near Caen, Gundulf, like many medieval bright lads, entered the all-powerful Church. Legend says his decision was prompted by his miraculously surviving a storm during a perilous pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 1050s. He became a protégé of Lanfranc, the Italian-born prior of the great Benedictine Bec Abbey. Gundulf demonstrated a particular talent for architecture, designing churches and castles. He was an emotional man, given to outbursts of weeping, which won him the disrespectful nickname 'the Wailing Monk'. Nevertheless, when William sacked the Saxon Stigand and chose Lanfranc to succeed him as the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, the new archbishop brought his temperamental clerk with him to Canterbury, where Gundulf supervised extensions to the cathedral.
The castle-building cleric caught the Conqueror's eye, and Gundulf was soon summoned to London. William suggested that Gundulf should crown his architectural career by building in London the greatest castle in all Christendom. Gundulf was reluctant. Ageing and increasingly pious, he told the king that in his time left on earth he wanted to construct an ecclesiastical, rather than a secular, edifice - if possible a cathedral. No problem, William replied. At Rochester, near Canterbury, there already was a cathedral, in ruins since being pillaged in a Viking raid. He offered Gundulf the vacant bishopric and money for the cathedral's restoration - so long as he built the great London castle first. So - doubtless with more tears and fears - Gundulf accepted his commission. In 1077 he became Bishop of Rochester, and the following year - 1078 - work on London's new Tower commenced.
Gundulf set about his task with vigour. He was fifty-four, old by medieval standards, yet would not only complete both the White Tower and Rochester Cathedral (along with a fine new castle there), but also see out both the Conqueror, and William's son and successor, William Rufus. The White Tower gained its name from the blocks of pale marble-like Caen stone imported from Normandy with which it was constructed - with infill of local coarse Kentish ragstone - and from the coats of gleaming whitewash with which it was eventually plastered. The Tower was a huge structure, the biggest non-ecclesiastical building in England, rising some ninety feet above ground, with four pepperpot turrets, one at each corner. All the turrets were rectangular, with the exception of the north-east one, which was rounded to contain a spiral staircase.
When complete, the White Tower measured 107 feet (33 metres) from east to west, and 118 feet (36.3 metres) from north to south. The massive walls were fifteen-foot thick at their base, tapering to eleven at the top, built on foundations of chalk and flint. An undercroft, or basement, formed the lowest floor of the White Tower, where a well was sunk to supply the inhabitants with water. The cellar vaults were used at first for storing food and drink, as well as arms and armour. A more sinister function was their later use as the Tower's principal torture chambers, the agonised screams of victims muffled by the surrounding earth and stone. The main, middle floor was entered, then as now, on the south side by an exterior wooden staircase, which could be quickly removed in case of siege. This floor was originally the living quarters of the Tower's garrison, and was divided into three vast rooms: a refectory with a great stone fireplace where the soldiers ate and made merry when off duty; a smaller dormitory with another fireplace where they slept; and, in the south-east corner, the beautifully simple Romanesque Chapel of St John, with its twelve huge pillars.
The second floor of the White Tower was reserved for the use of the constable - the Tower's commander appointed by the monarch - for important guests, and eventually for state prisoners of high status. The rooms consisted of a great hall complete with fireplace - used for state banquets - with a minstrels' gallery running around it; and the constable 's chamber, a space which served as bedroom, meeting room and living quarters for the Tower's top official. Each floor had latrines with chutes into underground cesspits emptied by the 'night soil men'.
South of the White Tower, a gaggle of smaller buildings sprang up toserve Gundulf 's great structure. These, the first of many additions and extensions added to the original keep across the centuries, were temporary structures not designed to last. There were stables, blacksmiths' forges, stores for building materials, chicken coops and pigsties. Before he died, Gundulf oversaw the building of a high curtain wall guarding the Tower on its southern, river side, and the first of many smaller towers girding the great central keep. It is not known exactly when the oldest surviving tower outside the White Tower, the Wardrobe Tower, was built; and the date of the construction of the royal palace south of the White Tower is equally uncertain. It is likely, however, that by the time of Gundulf 's death, aged eighty-four, in 1108, a start had been made.
Gundulf had long outlived his original patron. Having finally subdued the English, William the Conqueror was faced with rebellion in his native Normandy by his own oldest son, Robert Curthose. It was on a punitive expedition against the rebellious town of Mantes, in 1087, that the Conqueror, his youthful stockiness run to fat, met his end. Having torched the conquered town with his customary savagery, William was riding through the blazing streets when his horse stepped on a burning ember. The beast bucked violently, throwing William's great gut against the hard iron saddle pommel, and causing devastating internal injuries to his swollen stomach. William took ten days to die in agony. Feared more than loved, when he expired, his remaining followers stripped his bloated corpse and then scarpered. The Conqueror's final indignity came at his funeral, when monks attempted to stuff his carcase into a small sarcophagus. The cadaver split, filling the church with such a noxious stench that mourners fled. It was an inglorious end for the victor of Hastings and the founder of the Tower.
William's second son, Rufus, succeeded him as King William II of England. Rufus was a tyrant who quarrelled violently with the Church, offended his nobles with his extravagance and apparent homosexuality, and oppressed his long-suffering Saxon subjects with punitive taxation. But Rufus, like his father, was an enthusiastic builder. His most lasting legacy was the great Westminster Hall, and he supervised the completion of Gundulf 's work at the Tower before his violent and mysterious death by an arrow fired in the New Forest in August 1100.
Henry Beauclerc - so called because, alone among the Conqueror'schildren, he could read and write - William I's third and youngest son, succeeded Rufus as Henry I. Ruthless, ambitious and astute (he was in the fatal hunting party and may have engineered his brother's death), Henry lost no time in riding to London and claiming the throne. Henry consolidated Norman rule during his long and stable reign - partly by marrying a Saxon wife, Edith, heiress to King Harold 's House of Wessex. But although he fathered more bastard children (over twenty, by half a dozen mistresses) than any other English king, like that other later fertile monarch, Charles II, Henry left no legitimate male heir. His only sons by Edith, William and Richard, died when their vessel, the White Ship, failed to clear rocks outside Barfleur on a drunken homecoming voyage from Normandy in November 1120.
Henry named his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, as his heiress. But a female ruler - even an empress - was an unwelcome novelty to the Norman nobility. When Henry died in 1135, the majority of England's barons invited Stephen of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror by his daughter Adela, to take the throne. Matilda, endowed with her combative family's ferocious genes, refused to accept Stephen's claim to the crown. Aided by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, she invaded England to assert her right by force of arms.
Stephen's seizure of the throne and Matilda's outraged opposition, condemned England to two decades of sporadic civil war known as 'the Great Anarchy'. Stephen, though a brave and stubborn warrior, lacked the ruthlessness essential in a medieval ruler. He was too weak to eliminate Matilda, yet the prospect of a woman ruler was terrifying enough to his barons to keep him on his increasingly shaky throne. The result was a bloody stalemate in which the over-mighty barons - constantly changing sides - lorded it over their long-suffering serfs as the rival rulers fought like cat and dog.
The more unscrupulous barons, like modern mobsters, imposed a protection tax known as a 'tenserie' on their unlucky tenants. But the extortion provided no protection at all. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle laments, 'When the wretched people had no more to give, they plundered and burned all the villages. Then was corn dear, and flesh and cheese and butter, for there was none in the land. The wretched people perished with hunger; some who had been great men were driven to beggary. Never did a country endure more misery, and men said openly that Christ and His saints slept.'
One of these robber barons was Geoffrey de Mandeville, holder of the office of Constable of the Tower of London, whom his biographer, the Victorian historian J. H. Round, calls, 'the most perfect and typical presentment of the feudal and anarchic spirit that stamps the reign of Stephen'. The office was then a hereditary post, and the first constable, appointed by the Conqueror, had been Geoffrey's grandfather, another Geoffrey de Mandeville - rewarded for his courage at Hastings. The first Geoffrey was succeeded by his son William, and in his turn Geoffrey the younger had taken the post. He had done fealty to Stephen when the new king arrived to secure the capital and the Tower after Henry I's death. A grateful Stephen created Geoffrey 1st Earl of Essex - the first of three holders of that title to enjoy close, but ultimately fatal, connections with the Tower - and rewarded him with land.
Stephen was the first monarch to reside in the Tower, keeping the Whitsuntide festival there in 1140 in the newly built royal palace south of the White Tower. The king hoped that his generosity to Geoffrey would ensure the constable 's loyalty as the civil war dragged on. But the unscrupulous Geoffrey took advantage of the chaos to advance his own interests. Given custody of the daughter of King Louis VI of France, Princess Constance, who was betrothed to Stephen's eldest son and heir, Eustace, Geoffrey kept the young girl under virtual house arrest - the first of the Tower's many royal captives - defying Stephen's demands for her release until he had seen who would win the civil war.
In 1141, Stephen was defeated and captured by Matilda's forces at Lincoln and taken in chains to Bristol. Geoffrey deftly changed sides and pledged the Tower's allegiance to Matilda. He demanded in exchange that he should receive yet more land, acquiring in addition the powerful post of sheriff of the counties adjoining London. Matilda also gave him permission to strengthen the Tower's defences. De Mandeville 's defensive work came just in time. When Stephen was freed, civil war flared up again and the London Mob - strong supporters of Stephen - chased Matilda from the capital and besieged the Tower. Not only did Geoffrey see them off, he staged a sortie as far as Fulham and abducted the Bishop of London - the king's leading supporter in the capital - as a hostage.
Geoffrey extorted a high price from Stephen for the renewal of his dubious loyalty. He forced the king to grant him yet more land around London, making him the wealthiest magnate in the kingdom. Stephen's patience with the treacherous constable finally ran out in 1142 when hediscovered that Geoffrey had secretly renewed contact with Matilda, intending to turn his coat yet again. The king summoned Geoffrey to St Albans in Hertfordshire, arrested him, and forced him to disgorge all his land and castles - including the Tower - before he was freed.
Enraged and embittered, Geoffrey left the court 'like a vicious and riderless horse, kicking and biting' to embark on the final phase of his turbulent career. Imitating Hereward the Wake, the legendary guerrilla leader who had resisted the Norman conquest, he took to the East Anglian Fens around Ely, expelling the monks from Rumsey Abbey in order to use it as his headquarters. Here, the ex-constable lived an outlaw's life for many months, preying on the surrounding countryside. But in 1144, Geoffrey's luck ran out when he was mortally wounded in a skirmish with Stephen's forces at Mildenhall in Suffolk.
Word of Geoffrey's expulsion of the Rumsey monks had reached the Pope himself, who excommunicated him for sacrilege. He was denied a Christian burial, and his body lay in the open 'for the ravens to devour'. His remains were rescued by the Order of the Knights Templar. Grateful to Geoffrey for past services, the Templars clothed his corpse in their robes and brought his body to London's Temple Church off the Strand on the north bank of the Thames - a mile from the Tower where he had held sway for thirteen years. They enclosed the corpse in a lead coffin, but, in obedience to the papal ban, left it unburied between two trees in the churchyard. Here it remained for twenty years before someone took mercy on the old rogue and finally laid Geoffrey to rest before the church's west door. His effigy, clad in Templars' robes, can be seen in the church to this day.
In 1153, after nearly two decades of bloody but inconclusive strife, Stephen and Matilda reached a compromise in the Treaty of Winchester. Depressed by the death that year of his heir Eustace, Stephen disinherited his second son and accepted Matilda's son, Henry -- who had already entered the fray on his mother's behalf - as his heir. In return, Stephen would be unmolested for the rest of his reign. Henry did not have long to wait: the following October, 1154, Stephen died at Dover and Henry, England's first Plantagenet king, was proclaimed Henry II.
The year before his death, Stephen had named Richard de Lucy as constable of the Tower in succession to Geoffrey de Mandeville. Henry confirmed the appointment and made de Lucy his Chief Justiciar - the foremost legal officer in the kingdom. Restoring the rule of law andfinancial stability to England after the bloody chaos of Stephen's reign was Henry's most urgent task, and one he carried out with the driving, restless energy that characterised the Plantagenets. One of the first jobs was to put the neglected Tower into a state fit for its dual role as fortress and palace. These works, early in 1156, were supervised by Henry's most efficient subordinate - his chancellor, friend and future turbulent Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Henry appointed the humbly born Becket to succeed de Lucy as constable of the Tower in 1161. Further works - including giving the chapel in the White Tower a lead roof - were carried out in the 1170s.
In the first written description of the Tower after the improvements, Becket's biographer William Fitzstephen describes the royal palace within the Tower as 'great and strong with encircling walls rising from a deep foundation and built with mortar tempered with the blood of beasts'. The mortar had not literally been mixed with animal blood, and the Tower's use as a zoo still lay some years ahead. This description refers to Roman bricks and tiles which had been pounded into reddish powder to make the mortar. With its contrasting white and red facades, the Tower had become England's keystone.
Brutal and quarrelsome though Henry was - as his notorious ill-judged outburst which led to Becket's murder, and his feuds with his own wife and sons, demonstrate - he was an able and effective ruler. His marriage to the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine added a vast new swathe of French territory to his domains. By the end of Henry's reign in 1189 his Angevin empire stretched from Ireland to Spain. But things fell apart again after his death, when his glamorous second son and successor, the tall, golden-haired Richard I, called Coeur de Lion, abandoned England for the Third Crusade, while Henry's youngest and favourite son, John, proved himself arguably England's worst king. Once again, as under Stephen, local lords flexed their muscles in the absence of any commanding monarch to curb them.
One such magnate was William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, Richard's chancellor, justiciar and constable of the Tower, who the king had left in virtual charge of the kingdom during his prolonged absence in the Holy Land (Richard spent just ten months of his ten-year reign in England). The French-born Longchamp, as unlike his royal master physically as it was possible to be - he was small, swarthy and crippled - was efficient, but also arrogant and vain.
Longchamp spared no expense in turning the Tower into a stronghold capable of withstanding a prolonged siege. He almost doubled the fortress's size by extending the south curtain wall westwards along the river, and built a new tower, the Bell Tower, at its south-west corner. Beyond this new outer, western ward, Longchamp dug a fresh defensive ditch to the west and north of the castle to make a moat, although this last refinement proved too much for Longchamp's engineers, and for the time being the ditch remained dry. The little cleric also spent £100 equipping the Tower with the latest state-of-the-art military technology: mangonels, giant siege engines that could hurl huge rocks further and faster than existing catapults.
Longchamp's extensions had, however, enraged neighbouring Londoners whose houses he had destroyed and whose land he had grabbed. The chronicler William of Newburgh said of the hated prelate, 'The laity found him more than king, the clergy more than Pope, and both an intolerable tyrant.' There was, therefore, much local support when in 1191 followers of Prince John, attempting to snatch the kingdom from his brother Richard during the king's absence on crusade, laid siege to the Tower. The siege lasted only three days, for Longchamp's moral resolve proved to be rather weaker than his physical defences. He exchanged his clerical garb for the disguise of a woman's dress, limped through the besiegers' lines, and fled to Dover Castle, leaving the Tower in John's hands.
While Richard lived, the quarrelsome, treacherous and avaricious John could never feel secure in his illicitly gained kingdom. In 1192 word arrived that Richard had been arrested in Vienna on his way back from the Holy Land and handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, to be held in Durnstein Castle on the Danube until a vast ransom of £100,000 was paid by the people of England. Raising this enormous sum crippled the English economy, and left a lasting legacy of resentment among the poor on whom fell the chief burden of paying it.
A Londoner named William Fitzosbert, known as Longbeard, headed popular demands for the financial load to be more equitably spread. A charismatic demagogue, Fitzosbert had a fine line in eschatological, pseudo-religious imagery in his appeals for social revolt. He told one excited meeting, 'I am the saviour of the poor. Do ye, O poor, who have experienced the hardness of rich men's hands, drink from my wellsthe waters of salvation. And ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. I will divide the waters ... and separate the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.' Tradesmen, apprentices and many of the poorer sort flocked to hear Longbeard deliver this intoxicating message, and he attracted a following of thousands to his public orations, thwarting attempts by the Mayor of London to arrest this dangerous rabble-rouser. An ex-Crusader himself, Fitzosbert took his case to King Richard who, released from captivity, was campaigning in Normandy.
After Fitzosbert returned to a London on the verge of civil insurrection, the authorities cracked down hard. The new justiciar and Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, sent an armed posse to arrest him. Fitzosbert made the mistake of putting one of Walter's posse to the sword. Panicking, he and his friends sought sanctuary in the spire of St Mary's Church in Bow. Refusing to respect this, the archbishop had a fire lit beneath them and smoked the fugitives out. Half choked, Fitzosbert staggered into the street and was stabbed in the stomach by the son of the man he had murdered. Battered, bleeding, but still alive, he was tied to a horse's tail, and painfully dragged to the Tower, where he was thrown into a dungeon to await his inevitable condemnation. On 6 April 1196 he was again dragged through the streets, this time to Smithfield, a traditional site of butchery, where he was agonisingly stretched between horses, before being hanged along with nine of his followers.
The support that Fitzosbert had attracted among poor Londoners was evident at his execution when the crowd, instead of jeering, watched his suffering in respectful silence, before converging on the scaffold and bearing away the gallows as a sacred relic. The very earth on which the gibbet had stood was carried away in handfuls until a great pit marked the site, while the chains in which Fitzosbert had been hanged were reputed to work miracles. Only after Walter had placed armed guards at the site did popular adulation for the 'martyred' Longbeard die away. But the rebel had inaugurated a tradition of social dissent that would involve the Tower more violently before another two centuries had passed.
In 1199 King Richard I died a lingering death from gangrene after an arrow struck his shoulder while he was besieging the French castle of Chalus. John inherited the kingdom he had coveted for so long. John proved himself a crueller, more grasping, and more untrustworthy kingthan he had been as a mere prince. After fourteen years of his tyranny, John's barons rebelled in May 1215, entered London, and besieged the Tower. Although the fortress's lieutenant, William of Huntingdon, proved a tougher nut than William Longchamp had been and stubbornly held out, his royal master did not. Within weeks the unpopular king had famously been forced to a humiliating capitulation at Runnymede on the Thames. John put his seal to Magna Carta - the great charter drawn up by the rebel barons which, for the first time in English history, set legal limits to an absolute monarch's arbitrary powers. Only one of the charter's sixty-three clauses specified granting rights and liberties to 'all freemen of the realm and their heirs for ever'; and a second forbade the selling, delay or denial of justice. Most of the other clauses safeguarded the rights and privileges of the barons. It was hardly a great milestone on the road to democracy. But it was a start.
No sooner was the wax hard on his seal, however, than John was trying to persuade his old enemy the Pope to annul the charter. Civil war broke out again, and in 1216 the exasperated barons, terminally tired of their treacherous king, invited the Dauphin of France, Prince Louis, to take John's place on the throne. The leader of the barons who took this radical step, Robert Fitzwalter, had a very personal score to settle with 'Bad King John'.
In 1214, John - a notorious lecher, currently married to his second wife, the teenage Isabella of Angouleme - had taken a fancy to Robert's eldest daughter, Maud Fitzwalter, known for her beauty as 'Maud the Fair'. Robert, governor of London's second greatest fortress, Baynard's Castle, rejected John's request to make Maud his mistress. Enraged, the king had Maud abducted to the Tower. Here, John imprisoned her in a cage at the top of the circular turret at the north-east corner of the White Tower: the highest point in the fortress. John responded to Robert Fitzwalter's indignant protests with more violence, sending troops to sack Baynard's Castle, and forcing Robert to flee to France with his wife and two remaining children.
Maud remained in her high cage, a cold and lonely prisoner, yet resolute against all John's assaults on her virtue. Neither exposure nor hunger, nor solitary confinement, could break the 'Fair Maid's' resistance. At last, an exasperated John had an egg impregnated with poison. When the egg was presented to Maud the famished girl ate it - and painfully died. Thoughsources for this story are scanty, it is entirely in keeping with John's malevolent character. Besides, the king had a record when it came to murdering his helpless captives. Apart from killing his nephew Arthur, John kept his niece, Eleanor of Brittany, another 'Fair Maid', imprisoned at Corfe Castle in Dorset until she died. He deliberately starved twenty-two French knights to death in the same fortress. The black legend of 'Bad King John', though questioned by some modern revisionists, accords with the awful facts.
Summoned by the rebel barons to replace their despised king, Prince Louis landed in Kent with a French army in May 1216. The gates of London were opened and he was proclaimed king in old St Paul's Cathedral. As Louis took up residence in the Tower with his small court, John retreated into the East Anglian Fens, where nemesis caught up with him.
The fight was going out of John, who was sick with dysentery. In October 1216, half of his baggage train was lost in the Wash estuary near Wisbech. Along with his crown and coronation regalia, jewels, dozens of gold goblets, silver plate and costly fabrics were swallowed up before the king's horrified eyes in the treacherous tides and quicksands of the Wash. The news was the final straw for John. In a feast of forgetting, the sick king gorged himself on pears and peaches washed down with cider - the very worst diet for a dysentery patient. The next day, afflicted with agonising abdominal cramps, he struggled on by litter through atrocious weather, reaching Newark Castle where, on the night of 18/19 October, he died. Few mourned.
John's death was, however, a body blow to Prince Louis' hopes of power. For John had a legitimate English-born son and heir - nine-year-old Henry of Winchester - who was crowned king in Gloucester a week after his father's death. A strong and capable baron, Earl William Marshal, became regent and set about organising the boy king's forces. London remained loyal to Louis, who doggedly fought on. However, Marshal defeated him at Lincoln and the following year the Dauphin's last hope was destroyed when a French fleet bringing reinforcements was sunk off Sandwich in Kent by an English squadron under Hubert de Burgh. Louis sailed home, and young Henry III became undisputed king of England.
TOWER. Copyright © 2011 by Nigel Jones. All rights reserved..
Meet the Author
NIGEL JONES is a historian, journalist, and biographer, covering subjects ranging from Nazi Germany to the lives of British writers. He has written for the Cambridge Evening News, the Press Association News Agency, and has been an editor on BBC and independent radio, as well as for History Today and BBC History magazines.
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