Emerging from Beauchamp Tower and walking toward Tower Green, it is possible to imagine the sight of young Jane being led to the place of execution on what is now a spot of cool green grass. Here, her eyes blindfolded, she knelt and blindly felt for the block in front of her. Not being able to locate her destiny, Jane panicked, and cried out for help. In the untold tragedy of the moment, a lone priest stepped forward to guide Jane’s flaying hands to the stone that would end her nightmare. What fear she must have felt. What shame those that ended her life should have felt.
The unbearable tragedy of this spot of ground is brought home when envisioning the scene of that day long ago. Even though Jane Grey died centuries ago, her spirit and her story remain alive to this day, symbolized by a simple gray block of stone surrounded by modern day tourists. The love, fear, sadness, and lost soul of a young girl is refreshed again and again each time a slight breeze filters through the trees and stirs the leaves above. No, the dead are not silent, at least not for ears that listen for their faint voices.
Just beyond the scaffold, a scene of violence and utter despair, is the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. Meaning St Peter in Chains, the Chapel is the final resting place of many who lost their lives just outside the church’s hallowed walls – including Lady Jane Grey. An intrinsic sadness seems to exude from it. Yet another sad irony presents itself – a place of eternal peace and protection so intertwined with a pot of intense suffering from which victims could find no salvation.
Finally, the White Tower itself looms from the center of the fortress. This structure is, with the exception of a portion of the Roman Wall inside the Tower of London, the oldest part of the Tower. Built between 1078 and 1097 by William the Conqueror, it is square in shape, with one turret rising from each corner. Each of these turrets is also square except for one, which at one time housed the first royal observatory. Rising ninety feet toward heaven itself, the White Tower is supported by massive walls, fifteen feet thick at the base. A fortress by design, the original main entrance was not on the ground level, but was reached by a staircase of wood that could be moved to prevent entry. Most of the windows now seen were once only slits large enough for an arrow to pass through. Today the White Tower is no longer a protector of kings, but houses an exhibition of arms and armory.
The final and most poignant of ironies that greet the visitor to the modern Tower of London is perhaps the White Tower itself. All around, other buildings have been built, altered, torn down, and rebuilt, but the White Tower remains as it was in the beginning. It is the ultimate symbol of English power and weakness, age and youth. It is the very heart of the fortress that is the Tower of London and the British Empire of old. Built by William the Conqueror, a young man with visions of power and domination, along the banks of a mighty river, its walls have defied challenge and withstood the test of time.
-cover image courtesy of Photo Everywhere