Sunday, January 18, 2009

Westminster Abbey and the Tower--2 of 5

Part 1 of 5 is here.

The next day was Boxing Day, which is a bank holiday. Other countries celebrate Boxing Day and; the name comes from the tradition of giving Christmas gifts (“boxes”) to service workers (such as postal workers, tradespeople, etc.). It was, however, also a day for post-Christmas sales and given the crappy economy, just about every store in the city (probaly the country) was having some kind of massive sale. They should have just put signs in the shop windows that read “Just buy something, for God’s sake!”) We had done our research, and it turned out that the only thing that was on our list of things to do that was open was Westminster Abbey, so that was where we headed.

We did the audio tour narrated by Jeremy Irons. There was no photography in the Abbey, but it was an amazing structure. There has been a church on the present site of Westminster Abbey for more than a thousand years. Once called Thorney Island as it was surrounded by tributaries of the Thames, the region was originally on the inhospitable the outskirts of London before it became the city of Westminster and the real seat of government. The Abbey we know today was established by King Edward the Confessor—I bet he drove the local police crazy; whenever a crime was committed he would always be confessing to it—in the 1060s. Almost everyone who was anyone in British history is buried somewhere in the Abbey; it is rather a crowded place with tombs and sarcophagi packed in like it was rush hour on a rather ghoulish subway line. Indeed, more than 3,000 people are buried there, and there are more than 600 tombs and monuments. Edward the Confessor of course got his own special chapel (well, he did build the place) and massive monument. I’m sure he would confess that it was a bit ornate.

The Tudors are well-represented. Henry VII has a special chapel, and Queen Elizabeth has a pretty large tomb, which also is where her half-sister, Queen Mary I, is also buried. Oddly, her rival for the throne, Mary, Queen of Scots, has an even bigger monument right next to hers. Sure, Elizabeth was the one who had Mary executed, but Mary’s son eventually became king James I and was the one who built her tomb.

Oliver Cromwell was buried there for a short period, but after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 he was dug up and booted out.

One of the other relics on display at Westminster Abbey is the coronation chair, commissioned in 1297, used by just about every British monarch going back at least to Henry III. Westminster Abbey has played host to 38 coronation ceremonies, the most recent, of course, having been Queen Elizabeth II’s in 1953. The coronation chair has been pretty dinged up over the years, although I’ll bet it gets a fair amount of water damage from Prince Charles’ drool.

There is also a Poets’ Corner, where “men of letters” are buried. The tradition of burying writers and other artists there began accidentally when Geoffrey Chaucer was buried there in 1400. He ended up there not because he was a poet, but rather because he was Clerk of the King’s Works at Westminster Palace. Two hundred years later, poet Edmund Spenser requested that he be buried alongside Chaucer—oddly no one had a problem with this—and the precedent was struck. The men of letters buried there range from the famous (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, etc.) to those whom time has forgotten (Thomas Triplet; no, he was not buried in three tombs). Charles Dickens is also buried there, although on the audio tour Jeremy Irons dismissed Dickens rather cavalierly. There was some kind of bad blood between them, methinks. In the middle of the nave is the grave of explorer and missionary David Livingstone; one cannot resist the temptation to stand over it and intone, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” although one probably should.

The Abbey also houses the oldest door in Britain, dating from about 1050. Yes, we visited Westminster Abbey and they showed us the door. When we later visited Canterbury Cathedral, we asked to see their door but they wouldn’t show it to us.

On Saturday the 27th, we went to the Tower of London, and we did another audio tour. We went through the White Tower, the Bloody Tower, the Cradle Tower, and various other bits of Tower. The oldest parts of the Tower date back to 1066, not long after William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings. Even then. London was the heart of the country he had just conquered, so he immediately went there and had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. He then set about building a fortress to control, as it was put at the time, “the numerous and hostile inhabitants” of the city (one of the drawbacks to being a Conqueror).

The White Tower is one of the original structures. It has been worked on over the years; the turreted roofs were added in the 16th century, the window and door surrounds were added at various times in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The wooden staircase was built in 1973.
The original purpose of the White Tower (the original “Tower of London”) was defensive, residential, and ceremonial. A beautifully preserved chapel (the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist) shows off the original and intact Romanesque architecture of the Normans.
The White Tower wasn’t completed until about 1090 or so, under William Rufus, son of William I and his successor as King of England. The first major expansions of the Tower were undertaken in the 12th century by Henry I (younger brother of and successor to William Rufus) and Henry II.

The Tower complex was more or less completed (and is the layout that survives) by Edward I in the early 14th century. Needless to say, the Tower has been noodled with endlessly ever since, particularly by the Tudors and the Victorians.

In the Tower Green we came across what appeared to be a fairly new Execution Memorial created by Brian Catling. Contrary to popular belief, not too many people were actually executed at the Tower. Those commemorated by the new Memorial on the Site of Execution are the seven beheaded near the site of execution (their remains are still buried in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula and three Black Watch soldiers who were executed in the 18th century.

We spent the day wandering around the Tower, and it started to get dark just as we were touring St. Thomas’ Tower and it was quite dark indeed and uncrowded when we got to the room and chapel where Edward I died. It was rather creepy. Fortunately the Tower was closing so we were shooed out.

We walked along the Thames up to the Millennium Bridge and for some reason decided to walk over to Southwark. At the south end of the bridge, there is a ramp which slopes somewhat steeply down to the embankment aling the river. At the top of the ramp was a woman in a wheelchair; one slip and she would go flying down the ramp and likely end up in the river. Funny, the guy holding the wheelchair did look a little like Richard Widmark (see 1947’s Kiss of Death). We ended up at Young’s Tavern again before we hoofed it back across the river and back to Bayswater in search of dinner. I believe this was night we found a Persian restaurant, which was rather good.