By Carole Barclay
beefeaters' lonely vigil
The Tower of London has dominated the London scene for almost a thousand years. It began in 1066 when William the Conqueror ordered its construction to make his mark on the capital of his new kingdom. Since then the Tower has served as a fortress, palace, prison and even a royal zoo for those who sat on the throne of England.
This is where the two young “Princes in the Tower”, who stood in the way of their uncle Richard III, were held before they conveniently “disappeared” in 1483. Ann Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives, spent her last days awaiting execution in the Tower. Many others, including Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes, passed through ‘Traitors Gate’ down the ages.
During the Second World War Germany’s Deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, became the last state prisoner of the Tower when he was held here after he parachuted into Scotland to try and negotiate an armistice in May 1941 while the last man to be executed behind its grim walls was a German spy shot by firing squad in August 1941.
Though this massive fortress may seems impregnable to the modern visitor the only time it ever fell was when sympathetic guards opened the gates to Wat Tyler’s rebel army during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. A rebel detachment led by John Starling seized the architects of the hated poll tax who were cowering behind its walls. The Lord High Treasurer Robert Hales along with the Chancellor of England Archbishop Simon Sudbury and John Legge, the king’s tax collector for Kent, were dragged out and beheaded on nearby Tower Hill.
Though there is modest display dedicated to the Peasants Revolt in one of the bastions along the eastern ramparts walkway little or nothing is said about the turbulent times of the English Civil War.
London was the staunchly Puritan capital of the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War which began in 1642 and ended in 1649 with the trial and execution of Charles Stuart and the abolition of the monarchy. The Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was commonly styled in English, was proclaimed soon after.
In 1653 Oliver Cromwell, the great commander of the New Model Army, became head of state, the Lord Protector. He established the Tower’s first permanent garrison and ordered the original crown jewels to be melted down to meet the needs of the new republic – a fact coyly mentioned in the current Crown Jewels exhibition.
Cromwell never lived in the Tower but the fortress did provide a roof for some of his less than welcome “guests”. Most were Royalist prisoners. Others had once fought by his side.
One was John Lilburne, a parliamentary army officer who had become a leader of the radical “Leveller” movement that campaigned for justice and equality during the conflict. “Freeborn John” denounced MPs who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died in poverty. He ended up in the Tower for denouncing his former commander, the Earl of Manchester, as a traitor and a Royalist sympathiser and campaigning against the “grandee” army leaders who led the new republican government that the Levellers claimed were no better than the Cavaliers they had just ousted,
Lilburne was accused of working with the Royalists to bring down the Commonwealth. Though a London jury acquitted him of treason charges his continuing opposition activities led to his exile soon after. Lilburn was sent back to the Tower when he returned to London without permission. He was finally freed in 1656. By that time he had abandoned his radical beliefs to become a pacifist and a Quaker and he died the following year.
Lilburne told the Puritan preacher Hugh Peters, one of Cromwell’s inner circle, that he would rather have had seven years under the late king's rule than one under the present regime.
Whether Lilburne had actually became a turn-coat, however, is still debatable.
But there’s no doubt about Edward Sexby, a prominent Leveller “agitator” who was arrested for plotting to kill Cromwell and distributing a pamphlet that incited the murder of the Protector.
Sexby was an ambitious man. When the Levellers turned against the grandees he joined Cromwell’s camp and was rapidly promoted. He was elevated to the rank of Colonel and worked in France for the fledgling republic’s intelligence service. But he made many enemies along the way and by 1654 his military career had come to a halt. An increasingly bitter man, he returned to his radical past and the now underground Leveller movement.
In 1655 he fled to the Netherlands after being implicated in a new Leveller conspiracy. There he joined Royalist exiles plotting to assassinate Cromwell.
Sexby helped produce, and may have actually written, an appalling pamphlet called Killing No Murder that called for Cromwell’s death. But he was speedily arrested after secretly returning to England in 1657. He died in the Tower the following year. The Commonwealth’s semi-official bulletin, the Mercurius Politicus, said he was ‘stark mad’.
There’s plenty to see and this is the best time to do it. Before the coronavirus crisis the Tower of London was one of London’s most visited tourist attractions and one of the leading visitor attractions in the United Kingdom.
Over 15,000 visitors, many from overseas, passed through its gates every day. In these troubled days London’s tourist industry has all but collapsed while the Covid-19 restrictions strictly ration the numbers allowed into the fortress at any given time. It’s around 800 on a good day. But when it rains visitors are almost outnumbered by the Beefeaters and the soldiers of the garrison. The long queues to see the Crown Jewels have vanished and you can really explore the nooks and crannies of this fascinating relic of London’s past.
The Tower of London is currently open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 18.00. Tickets cost £25.00 (half-price for children) and visitors must book entry-slots with their tickets.