modern London

If I were ance at London Tower
Where I was wont to be,
I never mair suld gang frae hame
Till borne on a bier tree.
_Old Scots Ballad._

The Tower as palace and prison has been singularly neglected in
literature. When we consider the part it has played in our history, how
closely it is knit up in the woof and web of our national life, from
far-off days when England had not risen to the measure of her greatness,
down to the last Hanoverian, this fact surprises us. Shakespeare might
well have laid all the scenes of another _Hamlet_ within its walls;
Scott might have given its name to another Waverley Novel. The
possibilities are endless. If Scott had touched it we should have been
spared the gloomy sentimentalities of Ainsworth; Shakespeare, in five
acts, could have given us a truer picture of Tower comedy and tragedy
than the tomes of Bayley and De Ros. Scott would have cast the same
romance over the Tower as he did over the rugged strip of land that lies
between Callander and Inversnaid. We do not go to the Trossachs because
we have read of it in a gazetteer, nor would we seek the Forest of Arden
because we desired to walk in a wood. Burnham Beeches would serve the
purpose equally well. But we go to the Tower because we have some vague
idea that in our school-days we remember it having been mentioned,
during the history lesson, as a place where men were put into dungeons,
sometimes tortured, frequently beheaded. We have some indistinct notion,
too, that our earlier kings lived there, but whether they lived there at
the same time as the men of State they had imprisoned, executed, or
burnt, we should not like to say off-hand. And if the Court was held
here in the Tower, we have never tried to imagine in what part of the
building it could have been properly accommodated. We can accept
Whitehall and Windsor without a murmur, for the very names suggest
kingliness and ample space. But–the Tower! It seems too grim and
grimy, too insignificant in position, too circumscribed to conjure up
visions of olden pageantries of State. It is just here that the
master-hand would have changed our view. A tragedy for the stage of the
Blackfriars Theatre or the Globe in Southwark, the work of a month of
summer mornings at Abbotsford, or of winter afternoons in Castle Street,
would have fixed for all time the essentials in the picture, and we
should have gone to the Tower with the definite aim of seeing the walls
wherein a Malvolio strutted, where a Macbeth made murder, or where a
Romeo pined. As we walked over Tower Green we might have expected to
meet a Dandie Dinmont with the Peppers and Mustards at his heels, a
Rashleigh lurking by, a Dugald Dalgetty of Drumthwacket discussing the
merits of Rhenish wine and _Kirschenwasser_ with the yeomen warders. Had
we lived in the Tower through the greater part of a book, as we are shut
up in Loch Leven Castle with Queen Mary in _The Abbot_, we should have
visited again and again the rooms and cells in which, with Roland Graeme
and the Douglases, we had spent so unforgettable a time in our lives.

It is true that Shakespeare lays scenes of his historical plays in the
Tower, and that Scott brings Julian Peveril and Nigel within its
Traitor’s Gate, for a space; but the dramatist is merely copying
locality from the history books, and the novelist is so impatient with
the fate that has carried two of his young men under the archway of the
Bloody Tower that he cuts off his chapter with the words, “But the
thoughts and occurrences of a prison are too uniform for a narrative,
and we must now convey our readers into a more bustling scene.” Really,
Sir Walter, this is too scant an excuse to drive us out of one of the
most wonderful buildings in the world to “the spacious mansion of the
Duke of Buckingham with the demesne belonging to it,” the foundations of
which are now covered by the Hotel Cecil, and the “demesne” blotted out
by the buildings of the Strand and the Adelphi.

“The tide carried them up under a dark and lowering arch, closed at the
upper end by the well-known Traitor’s Gate, formed like a wicket of huge
intersecting bars of wood, through which might be seen a dim and
imperfect view of soldiers and warders upon duty, and of the steep
ascending causeway which leads up from the river into the interior of
the fortress. By this gate–and it is the well-known circumstance which
assigned its name–those accused of State crimes were usually committed
to the Tower. The Thames afforded a secret and silent mode of conveyance
for transporting thither such whose fallen fortunes might move the
commiseration, or whose popular qualities might excite the sympathy, of
the public; and even where no cause for especial secrecy existed, the
peace of the city was undisturbed by the tumult attending the passage of
the prisoner and his guards through the most frequented streets.” Here
we have the beginning of quite an admirable Tower romance. Our hero
lands at the fatal steps, and as he walks up under the Bloody Tower a
handkerchief is dropped down from the window of the cell in which
Archbishop Laud was imprisoned. From within that darkened room “a female
voice, in a tone wherein grief and joy were indescribably mixed,
exclaimed, ‘My son!–my dear son!’” We feel our plot moves quickly when
the warder picks up the mysterious bit of cambric and “looks at it with
the jealous minuteness of one who is accustomed to detect secret
correspondence in the most trifling acts of intercourse.

“‘There may be writing on it with invisible ink,’ said one of his
comrades.

“‘It is wetted, but I think it is only with tears,’ answered the
senior. ‘I cannot keep it from the poor gentleman.’

“‘Ah, Master Coleby,’ said his comrade, in a gentle tone of reproach,
‘you would have been wearing a better coat than a yeoman’s to-day had it
not been for a tender heart.’”

“‘It signifies little,’ said old Coleby, ‘while my heart is true to my
King, what I feel in discharging my duty, or what coat keeps my old
bosom from the cold weather.’”

Spoken like a true son of the old Tower, we say, and feel ourselves
already with Peveril listening to the warders’ talk as they take him to
his cell. We begin to breathe the Tower atmosphere, we hear a groan from
one cell, the clank of chains from another; we see a young yeoman
whispering words of love into the ear of a maid who was born and has
grown up within the battlements that bound us on all sides, and we see
some boys at play round the spot where to-morrow a human being may
suffer death. And over all this little world within the walls, where
comedy and tragedy shake hands each day, rises the Conqueror’s Norman
keep unchanged and unchangeable. Here is a quarry indeed in which to dig
for material for a whole series of novels and plays, and yet Sir Walter
beheads our little romance on Tower Green, and spirits us away “into a
more bustling scene.”

Shakespeare brings us to the Tower four times in the course of the three
parts of _King Henry VI._ and four times during _King Richard III._ In
the former play we witness the death of the imprisoned Edmund Mortimer;
in the fourth act of Part II. there is a short Tower scene of a dozen
lines; the sixth scene of Part III. Act IV., headed “A room in the
Tower,” brings us to King Henry asking the Lieutenant of the Tower what
fees incurred during his (the King’s), captivity are due to him; and in
the sixth scene of the last act of the same part, we are again in “A
room in the Tower,” where “King Henry is discovered sitting with a book
in his hand, the Lieutenant attending.” Here, in the course of the
scene, Henry is stabbed by Gloucester, and with the words, “O, God
forgive my sins, and pardon thee!” dies. In _Richard III._ when, in the
first act, we are taken into the “room in the Tower” in which Clarence
is murdered, and see the evil deed performed as, later in the play, we
are again in the Tower at the smothering of the sleeping Princes, we
feel that Shakespeare has in these moving scenes brought before our
eyes the grim reality of two evil deeds done in secret within the
prison-house set up by William the Norman and Henry III. But here,
again, our dramatist is only telling over again the story told in
England’s records, and it is all a tale of unrelieved gloom. That is why
we have come to associate the Tower with murder, torture, and evil
passions. We forget that the sun shone on the Royal Palace, on the
Green, and even sent a beam of its rays into many a dreary cell; that
flowers grew in the constable’s garden and made fragrance there as
sweetly as in the cottage gardens deep down in the quietude of the
shires; that jailors and warders had not invariably hearts of stone;
that prisoners by taking thought and snatching an instant opportunity
had found a way through the walls, then to a boat on the river, and so
to liberty. In describing the shifts and hopes and disappointments that
at last reached their close in so happy a “curtain,” we would wish our
dramatist had been moved to write another _All’s Well That Ends Well_,
with a Tower background.

When we discover Prince Henry, Poins, and old Sir John at their “deep
drinking” at the Boar’s Head Tavern, we feel we have the Eastcheap of
the early fifteenth century re-created for us, and

[Illustration: THE BYWARD AND BELL TOWERS, WITH THE KING’S HOUSE ON THE
RIGHT, LOOKING FROM THE TRAITOR’S GATE]

that is because Shakespeare is allowing his fancy free play and is not
bound down to the repetition of mere historical facts. So would we have
gained had he dealt thus with the Tower and laid a stage-romance there,
as well as the portions of the strictly historical plays we have already
referred to. The history of the Tower, as the history of other places,
will give us names of famous men and the numbering of years in plenty,
but of the inner everyday life of some early century there–nothing. It
is only the skilful in stagecraft and romance that dare touch the Tower
to turn its records to such uses; men of less skill fail, and give us
novels and plays that make weary reading and weary sitting-out. Many a
tale has been penned of the times of the Papist prosecution, for
instance, into which the people of the Tower have been brought, but so
feeble has the grasp of the subject been that we turn to actual history
for the “real romance” and exclaim, with greater conviction than ever,
that fact is more wonderful than fiction.

It has been said that “the distinctive charm of the historical novel is
that it seems to combine fact and fiction in a way that tickles the
intellectual palate. In conversation we are interested in a story if
some one we know is an actor in it. Historical fiction has a like
piquancy because it mingles men and women known to tradition and history
with fictitious heroes and heroines and minor characters. Then life is
large and important; we learn what it is to be of some service to the
State; we feel the fascination of great causes and great leaders, the
reviving influence of the liberty of wide spaces in time and distance.
There we breathe an ampler ether, a diviner air,” and in spite of Sir
Leslie Stephen, who characterises the historical romance as “pure cram
or else pure fiction,” we prefer to have our history made living for us
by the touch of a Shakespeare or a Scott.

To come to our own day, I can imagine no more delightful excursion into
the brighter side of Tower romance than the wholly fictitious but
happily conceived Savoy opera, _The Yeomen of the Guard_. Who can look
upon the White Tower here, after seeing its model on the Savoy stage,
and yet not remember the delicious melodies of the opera? The very
spirit of Tower times of long ago, of Tower griefs and joys, of Tower
quips and cranks and lilting songs, seems brought before us in the
theatre when, on the rising of the curtain, we look across Tower Green,
see the gable-end of St. Peter’s Church, and have the huge bulk of the
central keep reaching up toward the blue heaven. And the little comedy
brings the old Tower nearer to our hearts, and, perhaps, to our
understanding. We see it is quite possible for men to love and laugh and
dance even if to-morrow they see a comrade meet death on the very spot
where they had held merriment with the strolling players. It is all very
human, very full of life’s sunshine, though it is felt and known that
behind it all there is suffering bravely borne and deeper sorrow yet to
come. But we applaud the daring of librettist and musician; complete
success has justified all. Here, again, we are safe in master hands. We
have been led down a by-way in Tower history by plot and counter-plot,
with fragrant music for our cheer. When we come again to the actual
Tower of to-day, lying, it may be, under a summer sky, we should like to
find Phœbe sitting on the Green at her spinning-wheel, singing “When
maiden loves,” or see Jack Point teaching the surly jailor and
“assistant tormentor,” Wilfred Shadbolt, to be a jester.

It is by such paths that boys and maidens should be led to the right
understanding of Tower history. Appeal to their imagination first; give
them a typical day in the old life of the place, and so clothe the mere
skeleton of dates and isolated facts. I often wonder what impression of
the Tower a child brings away after a hurried Christmas holiday visit on
a “free day” when the place is little more than a glorified show. To the
child, the Jewel-room can only appeal as something very like the
shop-window of a Bond Street jeweller, and much less easy, in the
jostling crowd, to get a glimpse of. A benevolent warder will hurry the
family party through the dungeons, and keep up a running commentary of
dates and names of statesmen, traitors, and kings, covering vast spaces
of English history in a single breath. The White Tower will, that night,
re-appear in the child’s dreams as a branch of the Army and Navy Stores,
where they have nicely polished armour on view; where there is a
wonderful collection of swords and bayonets displayed on the walls in
imitation of sunflowers; where policemen will allow you to move in one
direction only, and forbid you to turn back to see anything you may have
omitted or passed too hurriedly; where Queen Elizabeth appears to be
preserved in a glass case and wears remarkably well; and where large
whitewashed vaults, in which are kept cannons sent by the King, suggest
the lower regions of South Kensington Museum and not the
torture-chamber of Guy Fawkes. If that child in the air and sunshine of
the following morning does not take a dislike to the Tower as a rather
gloomy Madame Tassaud’s, and too festive a prison, it will be surprising
indeed.

The Tower buildings at the present day have been treated in a manner
that destroys all illusion. It is the fault of economy and compromise.
The attempt has been made to convert the old buildings into
dwelling-places with modern comforts, and to accommodate there not only
the families of the warders but also a military garrison. The warders
live in the smaller towers, and these, though full of historic interest,
are closed to the public. For the convenience of the garrison a paternal
War Office has caused to be erected, on the ground where the old
Coldharbour Tower stood, the most unsightly building it is possible to
conceive within Tower walls. But the putting-up of such a monstrosity
convinces one that the greatest want of the present age is imagination.
The men who could plan, and then construct in brick and sandstone these
“quarters,” must have been those who were hurried through the old
fortress in their youth, and who, like the child we have mentioned,
took a not unnatural dislike to His Majesty’s Tower. In no other way can
the blunder be accounted for.

In spite of the cheapening and vulgarising of the Tower by Governments
and State officials, it retains a surprising hold on the people. Even
the mill-hands of Lancashire, surging up to London to witness a football
“cup-tie,” think their visit to London incomplete until they have walked
through the Tower. But whatever impressions may be on their minds when
they have “done” the building, these impressions are rudely brushed away
in the subsequent excitement at Sydenham. It would be interesting to
hear their reply to the question, “And what did you think of the Tower
of London?” when they returned to their friends and relations in the
North-country. It would certainly give an excellent idea of the result
of years of School Board education, of free-library reading, and a visit
to the actual scene of historic events. The cell where Raleigh wrote is
looked upon with lack-lustre eye by the youth whose one idea of
literature is the football edition of the evening papers.

The Tower itself is the most precious jewel in the nation’s Crown. It is
the epitome of English history. From the Norman Conquest to the day
that has just dawned we have something here to remind us of our storied
past. It might be the most interesting spot in England to young and to
old alike. In these days of rush and turmoil and ceaseless activities,
it might be the one corner of modern London where the present is quelled
in its noise, and stayed in its hurry, to contemplate the past. These
buildings might well be revered by those who are hardly yet conscious of
their value; they, at least, might be spared the impertinent aggressions
of to-day. A commercial age has committed one unforgivable crime in
pulling down Crosby Hall to erect a bank, and we may well ask ourselves
if the Tower itself is safe from such vandalism. Again, it is want of
imagination. Our city magnates can appreciate a bank, with its hideous
granite pillars and its vapid ornamentations, but an ancient hall which
Shakespeare has touched with his magic pen is of no “practical” use,
mark you! It is a result of the detestable gospel of get-on-or-get-out,
and as our old buildings are incapable of going-on they must go-out.

Our fear may well be lest the modernising of the Tower, and the erection
within the walls of wholly characterless piles that would be considered
unworthy of place even in a rising suburb, will in time destroy our
sense of the value of any of the buildings bequeathed to us from
earliest times. Little by little the boys of to-day, who will be the
citizens of the day after to-morrow, will come to look at the Tower as a
very ill-painted showroom, or as none too spacious a place to
accommodate a garrison. It must, we may hear them say when they become
men of importance, either be brought up to date as an exhibition of
antiquities, or be rebuilt to meet increasing military requirements. All
this is conceivable; few things are held sacred nowadays, as we know to
our sorrow.

The spirit of the twentieth century is alien from the spirit still
brooding over the Tower, and which has not been quite dispelled by
latter-day encroachments. Yet, when we find the great dungeon under the
White Tower wired for electric light, we begin to wonder what the end
will be. May we not hope that wiser counsels will prevail and that we
shall have the Tower restored–in the better sense of the term–to
something of its appearance in Elizabethan and Jacobean times? How
refreshing it would be to leave the traffic of Great Tower Street behind
and pass into the tranquillity of Shakespeare’s day, as we entered the
Tower gateway. The modern policeman should no longer repeat the
irritating cry, “Get your tickets! Get your tickets!” at the foot of
Tower Hill; the wretched refreshment shed, which all visitors are
compelled to pass through, should no longer assail us on our entry with
its close atmosphere savouring of stale buns. Even on “free days” this
“ticket” procedure has to be gone through solemnly, and the turnstiles
to be pushed round to satisfy some mystic regulation. It is all very
suggestive of a circus, and reminds us that, as a nation, we are
singularly lacking in the sense of humour. The stage-lighting effects in
connection with the Crown Jewels in the Wakefield Tower certainly charm
the glitter-loving multitude, but this dazzling cageful of royal gold
plate stands, we are apt to forget, in a room where Henry VI. had an
oratory, and where, tradition tells, he was “murdered in cold blood as
he knelt before the altar that stood in the recess of the south-east
corner” of the chamber. Here was committed “one of the most barbarous
murders that even the Tower has recorded in its blood-stained annals,”
as one authority has it; but who to-day has leisure to think of this
when told to “move on,” as one of the crowd surging round the regalia
cage, by yet another policeman who might have just come in from the
duties of regulating motor omnibuses in the Strand?

I dwell on these points in order to show how hopeless it is to catch any
of the real spirit and message of the Tower when to-day, to-day, to-day,
is ever intruding itself. We ask for leisure to contemplate a far-off
yesterday, and to teach the boys and girls we take to the Tower
something of the value of the Tower buildings as concrete embodiments of
England’s noble history; but we are only permitted to walk hurriedly in
one specified direction, and illusion is destroyed at every point. I
should like, however, to say, lest I may be misunderstood, that from the
Tower officials one receives nothing but courtesy. They are not to
blame. They are performing the duties imposed on them from without. The
pity is that the restless spirit of the age should have found its way
within walls hallowed to memories of England’s kings, and the sufferings
of her greatest and worthiest men. Were that spirit denied all access to
this one spot, lying in the heart of modern London, a visit to the Tower
would mean to young and old alike very much more than it means to-day.
The feeling of reverence, which is so sadly lacking in people of all
ranks of life, might once again be shown by all who entered these solemn
portals.

It is in the hope that a record of Tower history and romance presented
anew, in the form which this volume takes, may deepen the interest in
and the love for the Tower of London, that this book was written. It
does not attempt within its narrow limits to give a detailed and
exhaustive account of occurrences; that has been admirably done by
others before now. But it does attempt, by the aid of carefully prepared
pictures, to recreate not only what has been bequeathed to us from a
fascinating past, but also the life and colour of the Tower as it stands
to-day, in its less-spoiled aspects.

A dry repetition of facts and dates may make an accurate history for the
scholar’s shelves, but it would remain unread by all else. Such books
have their place, and a worthy place, but they would not convey to the
mind of one who has never seen the Tower, a really adequate conception
of its past and present. This book may fail to bring the Tower in all
its strange charm to the heart and mind of a lonely reader on the
prairies of Manitoba or in the Australian bush, but the attempt has been
made, and it is not for writer or artist to say whether it has been
achieved or not.

As I look from my window day by day across Tower Hill at the noble old
buildings lying beyond, and watch them when silhouetted against a
morning sky or lit up by the glow of evening sunshine, I often wonder if
justice can ever be done to them now that we have no Shakespeare and no
Walter Scott. While walking in the garden, wherein is set the stone that
records the last execution in 1747 on that blood-stained spot, one
cannot but contemplate the possibility of even this solemn place being
some day violated by the hands of those who scheme out city
“improvements.” Still, one may hope that England in her heart will
ponder these things, and will save the Tower and Tower Hill from
vandalism; that she will realise more and more as years roll on what a
precious heritage she has here–a heritage that was born at her birth,
has grown with her growth, and may not be destroyed while she breeds
strong sons to guard her treasures.