I’ve been in London for a little over two weeks, and yes, I’ve been working a lot and odd hours. More to the point, though, I’ve been so busy using my free time to have great experiences that I haven’t taken the xtime to write about them. Never fear, I’ll get caught up on writing about our exploits. In the meantime, I have to share a quick factoid I learned yesterday that is too much fun to keep to myself.
Alison had a couple of things she was excited about doing, so I tromped off to explore the Tower of London. I declined the ordinary Beefeater tour, opting instead for a walking tour of the Tower’s environs and the interior from a company, London Walks**, which Alison loves. My guide was terrific – funny, knowledgeable, and (thank goodness) loud. I learned quite a bit about the Tower, which was started by William the Bastard in 1078. Other interesting tidbits that I did not know, shared for the geeks out there:
- The original keep at the heart of the Tower is square, with square towers at the corners; the outer walls, which were built over the next 200 years, are round with round towers. Why? Because intervening years ushered in the Crusades and the English learned from the Moslems how to make fortifications that are hard to sneak up on and hard to knock down.
- William the Bastard, a.k.a. “the Conqueror,” built the Tower out of stone (obviously). What we don’t think about is that in 1078, nothing was really built in stone — the castle was basically his form of “shock and awe” tactics. He was telling the Saxons that he was there forever and ever. Plus, he didn’t even trust English stone, but imported all of it from Normandy.
- The Tower Bridge, in ultra-British fashion, is insured as a ship.
- The first person to escape the Tower? Literally tied sheets together, lowered them out the window, and shimmied down. A prince named Llewellyn tried that a couple of centuries later, and it turned out he’d been sick the day they taught knots in knot school. It only took a mop and whisk broom to put him back in his cell.
- There are ravens living in the Tower, and there is a legend that if the ravens ever leave, it will precipitate the fall of the Tower and the fall of the monarchy. Fun follow-up: during the Battle of Britain, they were actually down to one raven living there. Now they have eight, and they clip their wings. Because it’s fine to call things silly superstition, but even people who aren’t superstitious don’t want to find out that they’re wrong.
- The Tower is still officially a palace, and stands ready day and night for the Queen to arrive and take residence.
- You could totally bribe the gaolers when you were locked up in tlike he Tower. Sir Walter Raleigh spent so long as a prisoner that he paid extra money to have his wife locked up with him, and a couple of his kids were born while he was in the hoosegow. Doesn’t sound like a great deal for his wife, I have to say.
There was a lot of Socratic Method with the tour guide. I had my Law Review t-shirt on and he remarked that he’d heard of my school (duh), and I remarked that I was enjoying the architecture in London because my law school also has a building by the fabulous Mr. Wren. He remarked he’d heard great things, to which I remarked that he should make a point of seeing it if he is ever in the States. Because buildings from the 17th century are what pass for “old” in the United States.
And while I didn’t win anything, I enjoyed being an occasional know-it-all. Mr. Guide pointed out a trebuchet and asked what you might want to hurl into an enemy’s castle. Yes, rocks, he conceded immediately, but glared at me when I yelled from the back, “Dead animals!” Because, while that’s funny in a Monty Python kind of way, that is also a correct answer. Nothing takes the fight out of the castle garrison like a little plague, or at least some dysentery. But! And I was surprised that I hadn’t thought of this before, he pointed out that if you win that way, you should be prepared to catch whatever you gave them when you finally do gain access to their castle. Interesting.
Even in a country famed for its obsession with the royals, these people are unsurprisingly and absolutely mad over Henry VIII. It’s hard to pick out many more influential monarchs in English history, or more colorful. There are lots of reasons to find the man fascinating — it helps that he was a walking, talking combo of soap opera and sound bite machine. For those interested and not aware of these things already:
- When Henry died, he had a 53-inch waist. I saw the suit of armor constructed for him shortly before his death, and you’ve never seen a mailed ass this big outside of a Disney movie. Not so proud for a man who only 20 years earlier boasted of being “the fittest man in Europe” and wrestled with his cousin, Louis of France.
- Henry VIII knew two things: 1) the mob liked them a good hanging, and 2) killing people was a good way to make a point. And to that end, during his reign, he ordered the execution of 48,000 people. Considering that he didn’t have modern methods available to him, how many does it take qualify for “mass murderer” status?
But the best factoid is last. Some people go to the Tower to see the guards or look at the jewels or admire the architecture, but let’s face it, we’re all there to hear good stories about torture and executions and other gross stuff. And here it is: Henry was so fat when he died that they had trouble even loading him onto a cart and taking him from the Tower overland. And when they did manage to get him on a cart, he jounced around so much over the cobblestones that his stomach literally exploded. And the pieces were eaten by dogs. They think it might have been anthrax that did him in, what with the posthumous indigestion, and you might think that after all the nerd trivia above, you finally got to the part that explains the post’s title.
** By the way, how turbo are you when you get walks.com for your farking URL? Way to web, London Walks. Here’s contact info, Londoners. Do their tours, they rock.
London, PO Box 1708, London, NW6 4LW
Telephone 020 7624 3978