Half-a-mile below London Bridge, on ground which was once a bluff, commanding the Thames from St. Saviour’s Creek to St. Olave’s Wharf, stands the Tower; a mass of ramparts, walls, and gates, the most ancient and most poetic pile in Europe. . . The Tower has an attraction for us akin to that of the house in which we were born, the school in which we were trained. Go where we may, that grim old edifice on the Pool goes with us; a part of all we know, and of all we are. Put seas between us and the Thames, this Tower will cling to us, like a thing of life. It colors Shakespeare’s page. It casts a momentary gloom over Bacon’s story. Many of our books were written in its vaults; the Duke of Orleans’s “Poesies,” Raleigh’s “Historie of the World,” Eliot’s “Monarchy of Man,” and Penn’s “No Cross, No Crown.”
Even as to length of days, the Tower has no rival among places and prisons, its origin, like that of the Iliad, that of the Sphinx, that of the Newton Stone, being lost in the nebulous ages, long before our definite history took shape. Old writers date it from the days of Caesar; a legend taken up by Shakespeare and the poets in favor of which the name of Caesar’s tower remains in popular use to this very day. A Roman wall can even yet be traced near some parts of the ditch. The Tower is mentioned in the Saxon Chronicle in a way not incompatible with the fact of a Saxon stronghold having stood upon this spot. The buildings as we have them now in block and plan were commenced by William the Conqueror; and the series of apartments in Caesar’s towerhall, gallery, council-chamber, chapelwere built in the early Norman reigns, and used as a royal residence by all our Norman kings. What can Europe show to compare against such a tale?
Set against the Tower of Londonwith its 800 years of historic life, its 1,900 prisons of traditional fameall other palaces and prisons appear like things of an hour. The oldest bit of palace in Europe, that of the west front of the Burg in Vienna, is of the time of Henry the Third. The Kremlin in Moscow, the Doge’s Palazzo in Venice, are of the fourteenth century. The Seraglio in Stamboul was built by Mohammed the Second. The oldest part of the Vatican was commenced by Borgia, whose name it bears. The old Louvre was commenced in the reign of Henry the Eighth; the Tuilleries in that of Elizabeth. In the time of our civil war Versailles was yet a swamp. Sans Souci and the Escurial belong to the eighteenth century. The Serail of Jerusalem is a Turkish edifice. The palaces of Athens, of Cairo, of Teheran, are all of modern date.
Neither can the prisons which remain in fact as well as in history and dramawith the one exception of St. Angelo in Romecompare with the Tower. The Bastile is gone; the Bargello has become a museum; the Piombi are removed from the Doge’s roof. Vincennes, Spandau, Spilberg, Magdeburg, are all modern in comparison with a jail from which Ralph Flambard escaped so long ago in the year 1100, the date of the First Crusade.
Standing on Tower Hill, looking down on the dark lines of wallpicking out keep and turret, bastion and ballium, chapel and belfrythe jewel-house, armory, the mounts, the casemates, the open leads, the Bye-ward-gate, the Belfry, the Bloody towerthe whole edifice seems alive with story-the story of a nation’s highest splendor, its deepest misery, and its darkest ,shame. The soil beneath your feet is richer in blood than many a great battle-field; for out upon this sod has been poured, from generation to generation, a stream of the noblest life in our land.
Should you have come to this spot alone, in the early days when the Tower is noisy with martial doings, you may haply catch in the hum which rises from the ditch and issues from the wall be-low youbroken by roll of drum, by blast of bugle, by tramp of soldierssome echoes, as it were, of a far-off time, some hints of a Mayday revel, of a state execution, of a royal entry. You may catch some sound which recalls the thrum of a queen’s virginal, the cry of a victim on the rack, the laughter of a bridal feast. For all these sights and sounds-the dance of love and the dance of deathare part of that gay and tragic memory which clings around the Tower.
From the reign of Stephen down to that of Henry of Richmond, Caesar’s tower (the great Norman keep, now called the White Tower), was a main part of the royal palace; and for that large interval of time the story of the White Tower is in some part that of our English society as well as of our English kings. Here were kept the royal wardrobe and the royal jewels; and hither came with their goody wares the firemen, the goldsmiths, the chasers and embroiderers, from Flanders, Italy, and Almaigne. Close by were the Mint, the lion’s den, the old archery-grounds, the Court of King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, the Queen’s gardens, the royal banqueting-hall, so that art and trade, science and manners, literature and law, sport and politics, find them-selves equally at home.
Two great architects designed the main parts of the Tower: Gundulf the Weeper and Henry the Builder; one a poor Norman monk, the other a great English king.
Gundulf, a Benedictine friar, had, for that age, seen a great deal of the world; for he had not only lived in Rouen and Caen, but had traveled in the East. Familiar with the glories of Saracenic art, no less than with the Norman simplicities of Bec, St. Ouen, and St. Etienne, a pupil of Lanfranc, a friend of Anselm, he had been employed in the monastery of Bec to marshal with the eye of an artist all the pictorial ceremonies of his church. But he was. chiefly known in that convent as a weeper. No monk at Bec could cry so often and so much as Gundulf. He could weep with those who wept, nay, he could weep with those who sported, for his tears welled forth from what seemed to be an unfailing source.
As the price of his exile from Bee, Gundulf received the crozier of Rochester, in which city he rebuilt the cathedral and perhaps designed the castle, since the great keep on the Medway has a sister’s likeness to the great keep on the Thames. His works in London were the White Tower, the first St. Peter’s Church, and the old barbican, afterward known as the Hall Tower, and now used as the Jewel House.
The cost of these works was great ; the discontent caused by them was sore. Ralph, Bishop of Durham, the able and rapacious minister who had to raise the money, was hated and reviled by the Commons with peculiar bitterness of heart and phrase. He was called Flambard, or Firebrand. He was represented as a devouring lion. Still the great edifice grew up, and Gundulf, who lived to the age of fourscore, saw his great keep completed from basement to battlement.
Henry the Third, a prince of epical fancies as Corffe, Conway, Beaumaris and many other fine poems in stone attest, not only spent much of his money in adding to its beauty and strength, but was his own chief clerk of the works. The Water Gate, the embanked wharf, the Cradle Tower, the Lantern, which he made his bedroom and private closet, the Galleyman Tower, and the first wall appear to have been his gifts. But the prince who did so much for Westminster Abbey, not content with giving stone and piles to the home in which he dwelt, enriched the chambers with frescoes and sculptures, the chapels with carving and glass, making St. John’s Chapel in the White Tower splendid with saints, St. Peter’s Church on the Tower Green musical with bells. In the Hall Tower, from which a passage led through the Great Hall into the King’s bedroom in the Lantern, he built a tiny chapel for his private usea chapel which served for the devotions of his successors until Henry the Sixth was stabbed to death before the cross. Sparing neither skill nor gold to make the great fortress worthy of his art, he sent to Purbeck for marble and to Caen for stone. The dabs of lime, the spawls of flint, the layers of brick which deface the walls and towers in too many places are of either earlier or later times. The marble shafts, the noble groins, the delicate traceries, are Henry’s work. Traitor’s Gate was built by him. In short, nearly all that is purest in art is traceable to his reign.
Edward the First may be added, at a distance, to the list of builders. In his reign the original Church of St. Peter’s fell into ruin; the wrecks were carted away, and the present edifice was built. The bill of costs for clearing the ground is still extant in Fetter Lane. Twelve men, who were paid twopence a day wages, were employed on the work for twenty days. The cost of pulling down the old chapel was forty-six shillings and eight pence; that of digging foundations for the new chapel forty shillings. That chapel has suffered from wardens and lieutenants; yet the shell is of very fine Norman work.
From the days of Henry the builder down to those of Henry of Richmond the Tower, as the strongest place in the south of England, was by turns the magnificent home and the miserable jail of all our princes. Here Richard the Second held his court and gave up his crown. Here Henry the Sixth was murdered. Here the Duke of Clarence was drowned in wine. Here King Edward and the Duke of York was slain by command of Richard. Here Margaret of Salisbury suffered her tragic fate.
Henry of Richmond kept his royal state in the Tower, receiving his ambassadors, counting his angels, making presents to his bride, Elizabeth of York. Among other gifts to that lady on her nuptial day was a Royal Book of verse, composed by a prisoner in the keep.