New Podcast Episode: The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 2

Entrance to the burial chamber below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, England

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

Simon, Laurence, and I leave the Queen’s House and follow Simon past the Tower Green to the Royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (‘St Peter in Chains’). We descend a narrow stone stairway which leads to a chamber underneath the chapel and find ourselves in a chamber with low, arched ceilings. The room is constructed of stone or brick, perhaps both; it’s hard to determine exactly which since it’s thickly painted, and plastered in some places. The walls are lined with black tablets with names inscribed in curly script. Before the names, some contain such inscriptions as ‘Here lieth the body of…’ or ‘To the memory of…’

A tablet on the north wall, above several of these black name-inscribed tablets, explains:

‘Within this wall are deposited in two chests the remains of many distinguished persons who suffered death on Tower Hill and which were for a time interred beneath the floor of the chancel and nave of St Peter ad Vincula of the Tower of London * The removal of which was necessitated by repairs and alterations within the chapel by H.M. Office of Works in the years 1876-7 * The reinterment of these remains was under the supervision of Lieut-General Milman * Major of the Tower * A member of the committee appointed to carry out the alterations April 1877.’…

… Read the written version here

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The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 2

Entrance to the burial chamber below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, England

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

Simon, Laurence, and I leave the Queen’s House and follow Simon past the Tower Green to the Royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (‘St Peter in Chains’). We descend a narrow stone stairway which leads to a chamber underneath the chapel and find ourselves in a chamber with low, arched ceilings. The room is constructed of stone or brick, perhaps both; it’s hard to determine exactly which since it’s thickly painted, and plastered in some places. The walls are lined with black tablets with names inscribed in curly script. Before the names, some contain such inscriptions as ‘Here lieth the body of…’ or ‘To the memory of…’

A tablet on the north wall, above several of these black name-inscribed tablets, explains:

‘Within this wall are deposited in two chests the remains of many distinguished persons who suffered death on Tower Hill and which were for a time interred beneath the floor of the chancel and nave of St Peter ad Vincula of the Tower of London * The removal of which was necessitated by repairs and alterations within the chapel by H.M. Office of Works in the years 1876-7 * The reinterment of these remains was under the supervision of Lieut-General Milman * Major of the Tower * A member of the committee appointed to carry out the alterations April 1877.’

At the west end of the chamber near the door where we entered, there’s a large alcove with a pointed ceiling, and within the alcove is a large darkly-painted sort of chest with a portrait bust of Thomas More on the center top. It’s flanked by two large candles, with one small one in blue glass burning in the center in front of the bust, and two long narrow holders containing many more small candles below. There are two kneelers directly in front of the alcove, and one off to the left below two framed portrait prints, one of John Fisher and one of More. The large chest in More’s alcove is inscribed:

Thomas More
Knight * scholar * writer * statesman
Lord Chancellor of England 1529 – 32
Beheaded on Tower Hill, buried in this Chapel
1535
Canonized by Pope Pius XI 1935

This may be the actual resting place of his remains or it may be a cenotaph, an empty tomb memorializing a person whose remains are elsewhere, in this case, elsewhere within the chamber.

Thomas More memorial shrine below the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

Thomas More portrait bust in his memorial shrine below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

This chamber is where, as Simon confirms, More’s body is buried. His head, however, is not buried with it. As was the usual practice for those executed by beheading, More’s head was boiled for preservation then placed on a spike over London Bridge, on the very spike upon which John Fisher’s severed head had already been displayed for two weeks. They were placed there to serve as a warning to others. More’s daughter Margaret, so distraught that she could not bring herself to witness his execution, managed to retrieve it after it was displayed for some time (my sources disagree about how much time), and the skull was buried with her in Chelsea Old Church when she died nine years later.

More and his family regularly attended services at Chelsea Old Church since they lived nearby; Roper’s Garden across the street may be on land that belonged to the More estate where Henry VIII would come to visit More during happier times. The More chapel in Chelsea Old Church is among the few sections that stand today after surviving the 1941 bombing that reduced most of the church to rubble. The church has since been restored to nearly its original appearance. More’s head and Margaret’s body are no longer buried there, however. After Margaret’s husband and More’s early biographer William Roper died in 1578, their remains were all buried together in the Roper family vault at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury.

Burial chamber below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

The Royal Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

Next, we ascend the stairs from low light of the burial chamber into the bright sunshine, then enter lovely St Peter’s chapel proper. Simon tells us stories about many things found in the chapel and people buried within it. While they’re very interesting to hear, I won’t include them in this account since they’re unrelated to the subjects I journeyed here to explore. St Peter ad Vincula was first converted from a simple parish church when the Tower walls were extended outward in the 11th century, placing the church within its walls as the complex was enlarged. Henry III expanded and redecorated it as a royal chapel in the 13th century. Though it had remained in use, the chapel had fallen into a sad state of repair by the latter half of the 19th century. The extensive restoration of 1876-77, which had led to the aforementioned reburials in the chapel’s subterranean chamber, also removed many of the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century additions that gave the chapel an ornate but dark and crowded look. Today, the interior has a bright and airy look while still very decorative with its arches and stained glass windows, a significant improvement.

This photo of the Royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London is courtesy of TripAdvisor. Photography is not allowed within the chapel, though evidently, it’s possible to obtain permission

Lady Jane Grey, perhaps after a lost Holbein portrait by Magdalena and/or Willem de Passe, published by Frans van den Wyngaerde 1620, via Project Gutenberg

The names of many famous persons buried in and below the chapel are listed on a scrolled brass plaque on the wall near the front door. They include among them, in the order listed: John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester; Sir Thomas More; Queen Anne Boleyn; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex; Queen Katherine Howard; Sir Thomas Arundel (his name is carved into the walls of Beauchamp Tower in numerous places); John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland; and Lady Jane Grey.

After touring the chapel, we part ways from Simon for about quarter of an hour: he discovers that he needs to fetch a key from his colleague in order to visit our next destination. Laurence and I bask in the sun and talk over what we’ve seen and heard thus far. What an adventure! we agree. When Simon returns, we head back past the Queen’s House towards the Beauchamp Tower.

Speaking of Lady Jane Grey… Simon points out a darker brick building on the way back past the Queen’s House. It’s a three-story structure not including the low attic rooms beneath its pointed gables, with brightly painted blue doors. Through the smudged windows, I see evidence of its use at least in part as a storage space. Before it can welcome visitors, the building needs to be restored, says Simon, and there are plans to do so. This is where Lady Jane Grey stayed during her brief nine-day reign, from July 10th, 1553, when she was proclaimed Queen after Henry VIII’s son Edward VI’s early death until July 19th when Henry VIII’s eldest daughter Mary was proclaimed Queen by her supporters. Mary won out, and Jane was then held here until executed seven months later.

Section of Queen’s House where Lady Jane Grey was kept in the Tower of London

Jane Grey was a distant cousin of Mary; Jane was Henry VIII’s great-niece. Although Mary was the next in line to the throne after her younger brother Edward, according to Henry VIII’s third and final Act of Succession of 1543, the dying fifteen-year-old king named Jane Grey as his heir in hopes that foreign powers would not gain access to the throne through marriage to his elder sisters. It wasn’t just a matter of international politics, however: the Protestant Edward was anxious to keep the throne in Protestant hands and Mary was a committed Catholic. When Mary took power, Edward’s fears were realized: she released all of the Catholics still imprisoned since Henry VIII had them arrested, and worked to return England to the Catholic fold.

Queen Mary I by Master John, 1544, now at the National Portrait Gallery in London, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mary did not want to execute Jane. She was actually very fond of her, just as she was of her little brother Edward, despite their religious differences and despite the fact that they were rival claimants to the throne. Jane was persuaded by her husband Guildford Dudley, her parents, and her ambitious father-in-law the Duke of Northumberland to take the crown according to Edward’s wishes. Mary held the view that many historians still do today, that Jane was an unwilling pawn used to further the interests of power-hungry family members and their connections. Some, however, believe that Jane was more ready and willing to be queen then many of her later chroniclers would admit. She was and still often is portrayed as an innocent martyr to duty, family, and religious conflict. It is true that she was forced into the marriage with Dudley, that she harshly condemned her father-in-law Northumberland’s power grabs, and supported Mary’s ascendancy to the throne. So Mary was more than willing to spare Jane’s life, though she did keep her imprisoned in the Tower for security’s sake. But during her imprisonment, members of Jane’s family and their connections continued to involve themselves in plots to undermine Mary’s reign, and in the interests of removing these persistent threats around their Protestant figurehead Jane, Mary felt forced to act. Jane was executed on the same day as her husband, on February 12th, 1554. According to eyewitness accounts, after watching, at her own insistence, her husband’s execution, Jane faced her death stoically, proclaimed her innocence firmly but not self-pityingly, and held fast to her Protestant beliefs. Her father-in-law Northumberland had already been executed the previous August. Her father Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, was executed eleven days later, after having taken part in one too many anti-Mary conspiracies.

Entrance to the Beauchamp Tower, Tower of London, England

In the long run, Edward VI’s hopes of England continuing as a Protestant country were realized: the unpopular Mary I died on November 17th, 1558, after only a five-year-reign. Her younger sister, the daughter of Anne Boleyn who ascended to the throne as Elizabeth I, broke the pattern her siblings had set of dying after very short reigns. More about Elizabeth shortly.

As we continue past the Queen’s House, Simon points out the upper sections in white plaster supported by dark wood beams, in that classic Tudor style. It was originally built as a living space for Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and the reason he broke off communion with the Church of Rome, but it was not to be used as such. Instead, Anne was imprisoned there for about 18 days before her husband had her executed on May 19th, 1536, not even one year after More was executed in part for opposing her marriage to Henry VIII. I’ve decided not to tell the story of Anne Boleyn here. There’s been a glut of Anne Boleyn-related documentaries, miniseries, and television specials in the last several years, and I feel a bit of Boleyn-related-fatigue at this point. There’s also a five-day-a-week, twice-daily reenactment here at the Tower of Anne’s ‘tragic final days at the famous fortress, from her imprisonment and interrogation, through to her trial and execution,’ according to the Tower of London’s website. During our later Tower explorations, we see the troupe’s retinue, beautifully costumed and equipped, make the solemn march behind the faux Anne from the archway leading from the Traitor’s gate up to the Tower green. Though I won’t tell her story, she will figure in the next one, though.

Elizabeth’s Walk leading from the Beauchamp Tower to the Bell Tower, Tower of London

Alcove in the upper cell of the Bell Tower, Tower of London. Note the portraits of Bishop John Fisher, executed two weeks before More, and then-Princess Elizabeth

So, to continue: we follow Simon through the Beauchamp Tower door and up a narrow spiral staircase. There’s some uncertainty as to whether Simon had been given the right key, but after a little fumbling with its inability to smoothly open the lock, it gives way, and we step out onto a long balcony walk with a crenelated wall running along the Tower Green side.

This walkway leads from the Beauchamp Tower to the upper chamber of the Bell Tower, no longer accessible by the old small staircase that had been there in More’s time. Simon confirms that this is the walkway commonly known as Elizabeth’s Walk. Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, younger sister of Mary, and older sister of Edward, was held here in 1554 following the Wyatt rebellion. This was one of those in which some of Jane’s family and connections were implicated, though the purpose of this one was to prevent Mary from marrying the Catholic Philip of Spain and to put Elizabeth, not Jane, on the throne. A few weeks after the plot was foiled and many involved it in were imprisoned and executed, Mary had Elizabeth committed to the Tower.

Queen Elizabeth I by unknown English artist, oil on panel, ca 1600, at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Unlike Jane and Edward, Mary did not particularly like Elizabeth. Religion must not have been that much of an issue since Mary loved her brother and cousin despite their religious differences, though it may have contributed. Rather, sibling rivalry likely had much more to do with it, sibling rivalry of a very particular sort, exacerbated or perhaps entirely created by the adults in their lives. When Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, he had Mary declared illegitimate as an additional way to bolster the perception of legitimacy for his new marriage. After Anne bore Elizabeth, the new Princess and heir apparent was given the honors and retinue that was stripped from Mary, who was required to stop referring to herself as Princess. Though she could do nothing about the other indignities of losing her place in the royal household, she refused to recognize her demotion to ‘Lady Mary.’ Henry VIII was angered at his daughter’s stubbornness in this matter and punished her for it in various ways, but she would not relent. He may have recognized and even come to respect that the steely will Princess Mary exhibited echoed his own, and over time he softened in his stance toward her.

Upper cell of the Bell Tower, Tower of London, England

As we continue along Elizabeth’s Walk, Simon explains that evidence could not be produced that was sufficient to legally convict Elizabeth for her purported connections to plots to undermine or overthrow Mary’s reign. I think this was true for the court of public opinion as well. Immersed in the constantly shifting dangerous royal sand trap that was the Tudor family, the highly intelligent Elizabeth had grown wise and wary very early on. She was just too canny to accept communications from suspicious persons. But, says Simon, since she lied at least by omission since she knew about the plots, Elizabeth was technically guilty. Mary would have been far more legally justified in executing Elizabeth than Jane and nearly did so more than once, but she had reasons to hold back. One, it seems, was her religious compunction against killing her own sister. Another was Mary’s realization that she was growing increasingly unpopular and she was afraid of rousing support for Elizabeth and the Protestant cause by making a martyr of her. Simon tells us that Elizabeth was the only prisoner ever held in this room to survive their imprisonment here.

Another view of the upper cell of the Bell Tower, Tower of London

Then Simon opens the door to the Bell Tower’s upper chamber and we enter. In this rough-walled stone room, Princess Elizabeth was held for a time. All told, she was imprisoned in the Tower from mid-March to May 19th of 1554, but according to Patrick Collinson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, she was held for much or most of that time in the aforementioned nearby upper floor apartments-turned-prison built for her mother Anne Boleyn, where the Queen’s House now stands. Perhaps this thickly-built, secure upper room of the Bell Tower we’re in now, above Thomas More’s cell and the same one which reportedly held John Fisher in 1535, may have been the room in which Elizabeth was initially held in or held anytime there seemed to be a danger of her rescue or escape.

Toilet installed for Hitler outside the upper cell of the Bell Tower, Tower of London

Next, Simon leads us down a tiny hallway off to the side of the main chamber. Perhaps, I’m guessing, it leads to where the old communicating stairway was. Whatever its original purpose, we find something very much unexpected: a toilet. Not just any toilet, it turns out. Simon explains that it this room was readied as a possible place to hold Adolf Hitler upon capture. Hitler’s imprisonment here never happened, and this toilet was therefore never used. And so, here it remains. I’m a little surprised it was never removed given its architectural incongruousness and the general depressing creepiness it evokes, but I suppose it’s just too interesting a historical reminder of that time of England’s crisis, tenacity, and triumph.

Simon has other interesting stories to tell us about World War II and his military history in general, which particularly fascinates Laurence. At one time, Simon says, he guarded the imprisoned Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand-man, for three years as I remember. Held in the Queen’s House for four days in May of 1941, Hess was the Tower’s last high-profile prisoner, as historian Tracy Borman writes. I won’t go into Simon’s stories of Hess and other military affairs here as they are unrelated to my quest here, but it’s a great starting point for digging into more of the long and fascinating history of the Tower.

‘Years of Peril’ document in upper cell of the Bell Tower, Tower of London

Returning to the main chamber, I spot a framed document upon a table, leaning against the southeast wall, and move in for a closer look. It’s entitled ‘Years of Peril’, and it’s neatly written by hand in an old-fashioned script, in black highlighted in places with red and surrounded by a green leafy decorative border. In many places, the document is wrinkled and the ink has run from the damp. It’s a great overview of the history we’ve just considered, laid out as a timeline. It reads:

1533

Whit Sunday [1st of June] –  Queen Anne goes to Her Coronation from the Queen’s House
7th September  –  Princess Elizabeth born at Greenwich

1536

19th May  –  Queen Anne to her execution and burial in the Chapel Royal of Saint Peter ad Vincula from the Queen’s House

1553

6th July  –  King Edward dies at Greenwich
10th July  –  Northumberland proclaims Lady Jane Grey, now married to his son Guildford Dudley, as Queen, they enter the Tower
3rd August  –  Queen Mary welcomed to London and enters the Tower
22nd August  –  Northumberland executed on Tower Hill
1st October  –  Queen Mary goes to Her Coronation from the Tower, having made 15 Knights of the Bath
31st October  –  Queen Mary announces intention of marrying Philip of Spain, arousing widespread opposition
13th November  –  Jane and Guildford Dudley condemned to death. No apparent intention to carry out sentence. Guildford in Beauchamp Tower, Jane with Yeoman Gaoler’s wife.

1554

25th January  –  Sir Thomas Wyatt leads Protestant rebellion from Kent. Bombards the Tower from Southwark.
27th January  –  Princess Elizabeth, though ill, ordered from Ashridge to Whitehall under escort. Queen Mary refuses to see Her half-sister.
7th February  –  Rebels defeated at Ludgate and Charing Cross. Wyatt captured.
12th February  –  Guildford Dudley executed on Tower Hill and Jane on Tower Green. They are buried by the Chapel Royal altar with their fathers.
6th March  –  Proxy marriage of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain
18th March  –  Princess Elizabeth brought by water to the Tower.
At the Water (Traitor’s) Gate, Princess Elizabeth says: –
“Here landeth as true a subject, being a prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs.”
At the Bloody Tower arch, when the Yeoman Warders say, “God Preserve Your Grace,” she replies: –
“…..I come no traitor, but as true a woman to the Queen’s Majesty as any is now living, and thereon I will take my death.”
Imprisoned in the Upper Chamber of the Bell Tower, being supposedly involved in the Wyatt Plot. Kate Ashley, her governess and companion, quartered elsewhere.
Interrogated by Bishop Gardiner and the Council.
In view of her poor health, permitted to walk on the battlements, still known as Elizabeth’s Walk, past her mother’s old room.
Robert Dudley, later Leicester, still imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower.
Princess Elizabeth is permitted to walk in the Privy Garden, now Tower Green, escorted by the Constable and Lieutenant. Dines with them in Queen’s House but a little boy, who brings her flowers, is denied access.
11th April  –  Thomas Wyatt executed on Tower Hill, having exonerated Princess Elizabeth.
19th May  –  Princess Elizabeth released from the Tower. Conveyed under escort to Woodstock through demonstrations of loyalty to her.

1558

17th November  –  Princess Elizabeth proclaimed Queen on Mary’s death and begins Her Glorious Reign

1559

15th January  –  Goes to Her Coronation from the Tower

====================
10th May, 1982

Thirty years after Her Accession, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was entertained by Her Royal Highness, The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon in this Upper Bell Chamber. Together they paced Elizabeth’s Walk, mindful of the imprisonment of the first Princess Elizabeth here, dined in the Queen’s House and attended the Ceremony of the Keys.’

The Bell Tower cupola and a view of London and the Thames, Tower of London

The bell in the cupola of the Bell Tower, Tower of London, England, photo 2018 Amy Cools

The bell in the cupola of the Bell Tower, Tower of London

In the end, not only was Edward VI’s hopes of England remaining Protestant realized; his fears of a foreign prince taking power in England through marriage to one of his sisters came to naught. As her early chronicler William Camden described, Elizabeth was courted vigorously and widely by princes and aristocrats all over the Western world, some of whom she was personally fond of, and many of which could have helped replenish England’s exhausted coffers and bolster its world influence. Yet, she refused all of them. Her determination to remain single followed a severe bout of smallpox in 1562 which nearly killed her; such crises have a way of centering the mind and inspiring one to firmly establish priorities. As Camden reports, the next year Elizabeth replied to Parliament’s urging that she take a husband and produce heirs: ‘Yea, to satisfy you, I have already joined myself in marriage to an husband, namely, the Kingdom of England. And behold [taking a ring off her finger and showing it to them] the pledge of this my wedlock and marriage with my kingdom.’ And to underscore her determination to rule with authority in her own right, dominated by no man, Elizabeth continued, ‘But I commend you that ye have not appointed me a husband, for that were most unworthy the majesty of an absolute princess, and unbeseeming to your wisdom, which are subjects born.’ Elizabeth I was known through her long reign and ever after as the Virgin Queen.

After I do some photography, we leave the chamber through a little door, climb another little stairway,  and emerge onto the rooftop of the Bell Tower. The views up here are amazing, especially on this bright sunny day. The scattered clouds are puffy, the sky is a bright clear blue, and London is gleaming. We enter the pointy-roofed cupola and examine the old bell within. Simon tells us that this bell, once rung at executions, is now rung twice a day at curfew. We take in the views, talking all the while. Simon answers my questions about the histories I’m telling here and about good resources for researching my stories. He also tells us more interesting stories from his military career and of military history in general, again outside of the scope of this piece.

Simon Dodd and Amy Cools atop the Bell Tower, Tower of London

Inscription and clarification in the upper cell of the Bell Tower, Tower of London

As we go down again, on our way out of the Bell Tower chamber, I spot a section of stone that’s been inscribed and covered with a protective clear covering of glass or plastic, and a black slate underneath it with a transcription, strapped to the wall. In answer to my question, Simon tells me there’s a tradition that it was carved when Elizabeth was imprisoned here but it’s not really known just who carved it. Both texts are both worn and difficult to read. Here’s my best attempt to decipher what they say:

In forture strange
My trouth was tried
Yet of my liberty ye denied
There for reson, hath
Me perswaded did that
Pasyens must be ymb
rasyd. Thogh hard
Or unchasyth
Me with smart[…?]
Yet pasyens shall prevail

The gist of its meaning seems to be that the writer’s integrity was attacked and tried through the inexplicable circumstances of fortune and imprisonment. Though imprisoned, however, they decided that patience must be ‘ymbrasyd’ and that it would prevail in the end.

A view of London from the Bell Tower, Tower of London

We leave the Bell Tower, and in the courtyard near Tower Green, we thank Simon profusely and we all say our goodbyes. Then, accompanied by Laurence, I continue my Tower quest in the places that are accessible to us without official accompaniment. There are so many more fascinating aspects of these stories to be explored, and we press on. To be continued….

*Patron of this Tower of London journey: Laurence Murphy ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!*

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions: Latest Results.‘ VisitBritain.org

The Bell Tower.’ English Monarchs website.

Borman, Tracy. The Story of the Tower of London. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015

Borman, Tracy. ‘The Tudors and the Tower.‘ Tudor Times website, 3 Aug 2015

Camden, William Norton, Robert; Hans and Hanni Kraus. The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
Sir Francis Drake Collection Library of Congress. London: Printed by N. Okes for B. Fisher; 1630

Chelsea Old Church: Thomas More.’ Chelsea Old Church website

Collinson, Patrick. ‘Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

English Monarchs website: ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Queen’s House

Freeman, Thomas S. (2002). ‘`As true a subiect being prysoner’: John Foxe’s notes on the imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5.‘ (Notes And Documents). The English Historical Review, 117(470), 104-116

Furness, Hannah. ‘Wolf Hall is ‘Deliberate Perversion’ of History, says David Starkey.The Telegraph, 26 Jan 2015

Guy, John. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More. London: Fourth Estate, 2008

Guy, John. ‘For What Did Thomas More So Silently Die?’ Lecture published at Tudors.org

House, Seymour Baker. ‘More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535), Lord Chancellor, Humanist, and Martyr.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Ives, Eric William. ‘Henry VIII (1491–1547), King of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Wolf Hall is Wrong: Thomas More was a Funny, Feminist Renaissance Man.‘ The Guardian, 29 Jan 2015

Kennedy, Maev. ‘Historians Scorn Claims over Thomas More’s Cell.The Guardian, 10 Jan 2000

Marc’hadour, Germain P. ‘Thomas More.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

More, Thomas. The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight. from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 9. Yale University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

More, Thomas. Conscience Decides: Letters and Prayers from Prison Written Between April 1534 and July 1535. Selected and arranged by Dame Bede Foord; preface by Trevor Huddleston; introduction by Germain Marc’hadour. London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971

More, Thomas. The English Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 1947 Rogers edition, Princeton University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

Moynahan. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Plowden, A. ‘Grey [married name Dudley], Lady Jane (1537–1554), Noblewoman and Claimant to the English Throne.Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More1556. Ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003

Stanford, Peter. ‘Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?’ The Telegraph, 20 Jan 2015

Teysko, Heather and Melita Thomas. ‘Tudor Times on Thomas More.’ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 55, Sep 16, 2016

Weikel, Ann. ‘Mary I (1516–1558), Queen of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.

By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.

Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.

Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain

Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.

But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.

I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.

In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.

Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her

Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.

The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:

Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.

Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.

World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.

Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.

Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:

Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:

Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc) – by Christine de Pizan, ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), trans. L. Shopkow

Henry VI, Part I – by William Shakespeare, 1591 via Open Source Shakespeare (website)

Jeanne d’Arc – by T. Douglas Murray, New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1902 (excerpts detailing her trial)

Joan of Arc – by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast, episode 51

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured – by Kathryn Harrison, New York: Doubleday, 2014

Joan of Arc – 1948 film directed by Victor Fleming, screenplay by Maxwell Anderson

Joan of Arc: A History – by Helen Castor, New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint – by Stephen Wesley Richey, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003

The Passion of Joan of Arc – 1928 film, screenplay by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – by Mark Twain, 1896

The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc – by Daniel Crown for The Awl, Apr 3, 2012.

Saint Joan – 1957 film adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

New Podcast Episode: The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 1

Bell Tower, Tower of London, England

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Saturday, May 4th, 2018

I first visited the Tower of London in January of this year with my friend Steven, a fellow student of history; I at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he at King’s College, London. We had great fun, two history nerds running around London for a couple of days! While we were at the Tower, I looked for the cell where Sir Thomas More was imprisoned for over a year before he was executed for treason on July 6th, 1535. Like many brought up in Catholic families after the film was made, I grew up watching the adaptation of Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons starring Paul Scofield, seeing it so many times I believe I could have parroted the dialogue from entire scenes from memory with little effort. Going back and watching clips, I still remember just about everything that every character will say and do ahead of time. The tragic story of and Scofield’s compelling characterization of the clever lawyer and saint captured my imagination. Since then, I’ve read more about him over the years and broadened my understanding of this man, who was much more complex than the stellar but somewhat two-dimensional martyr of integrity and righteousness portrayed in the film… Read the written version here

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

Umar Khayyam –  by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 – The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam – Encyclopædia Britannica.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – by Sajjad H. Rizvi for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – for Muslim Heritage

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was never a less-than-fascinating one.

Learn more about the brilliant and idiosyncratic Bertrand Russell at:

Bertrand Russell – by Ray Monk for Encyclopedia Britannica

Bertrand Russell – by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Various pieces on Bertrand Russell – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 1

Bell Tower, Tower of London, England

Saturday, May 4th, 2018

I first visited the Tower of London in January of this year with my friend Steven, a fellow student of history; I at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he at King’s College, London. We had great fun, two history nerds running around London for a couple of days! While we were at the Tower, I looked for the cell where Sir Thomas More was imprisoned for over a year before he was executed for treason on July 6th, 1535. Like many brought up in Catholic families after the film was made, I grew up watching the adaptation of Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons starring Paul Scofield, seeing it so many times I believe I could have parroted the dialogue from entire scenes from memory with little effort. Going back and watching clips, I still remember just about everything that every character will say and do ahead of time. The tragic story of and Scofield’s compelling characterization of the clever lawyer and saint captured my imagination. Since then, I’ve read more about him over the years and broadened my understanding of this man, who was much more complex than the stellar but somewhat two-dimensional martyr of integrity and righteousness portrayed in the film.

Bell Tower placard, Tower of London, England

Early on in our Tower visit, I spotted a sign near the base of the Bell Tower, just across and to the left of the place where visitors enter the Tower, which identified the Bell Tower as More’s place of imprisonment. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that it’s not open to the public. It had been for a short while many years back, but wear and tear caused by visitors there and in other especially historically significant places within the Tower caused them to be closed off again. The damage was minor but happened more quickly than expected, even given the very large number of people that pass through every year: almost three million in 2017 alone! I persisted in my inquiries, as my historically nosy self is wont to do, and discovered that historians can and do seek and gain permission to visit. And so I did!

Simon Dodd, Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

So on the morning of May 4th, 2018, I arrive at the Tower of London’s raven cages, this time with Laurence as my companion (unfortunately, Steven had a prior engagement and couldn’t make it.) We’re a little early for our assigned meeting time of 11 am with a Yeoman Warder of the Tower, one of the ceremonial guardians also commonly known as ‘beefeaters.’ We’re bleary-eyed since we had pulled an all-nighter: I was unable to get the night before off of work so I went straight to the airport after my shift in the very wee hours of the morning. Laurence very kindly met me there to keep me company. Fortunately, his sense of adventure is also strong and his knowledge of efficient travel to London excellent, so here we are, ahead of time. It’s a very sunny day, almost hot, much different than my first visit to the Tower which had been, appropriately, moodily gray and drizzly. As we wait, we watch the ravens. It’s long been a tradition to keep a certain number of these clever birds at the Tower, where they’re fed, groomed, and trained, their wings clipped just enough to keep them from going over the Tower walls but not enough to keep them from their perches. Some of them are roaming freely. Two of the ravens are nuzzling one another on a perch within one of the cages, one ducking regularly and enthusiastically to groom the other’s neck feathers.

Yeoman Warder Simon Dodd arrives and greets us. He proves throughout our time together to be an extremely friendly, knowledgeable, witty, and all-around delightful man, and very generous with his time. I couldn’t have asked for a better host or conversational partner. Laurence is particularly interested and well-read in military history and Simon has had a long and distinguished military career, so, we all have a lot to talk about. I only hope, as we tour and talk, that my sleep-deprived brain can form intelligent questions and process his answers. I take no chances with its ability to successfully retain information: I take plentiful notes as we go. After introductions and a brief chat, we start right in on our tour.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1527, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Before I get into the details of the day’s explorations, let me offer a few more details about Thomas More just in case this is your introduction to him, or, just in case it’s been awhile since you read or heard anything about him and your memory is rusty on the subject. Born on February 6th, 1478, he was a lawyer, scholar, writer, statesman, and Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 until he asked King Henry VIII to release him from the post in 1532 when More found himself no longer able to support the King in his power struggle with the Pope. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the widow of his older brother prior to Henry’s marriage to her. When the marriage failed to produce any living male heirs, Henry VIII sought to have his marriage to her annulled, freeing him to marry his paramour Anne Boleyn. Trouble was, Henry VIII had already sought and won a special dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place from the previous Pope; the new Pope was a virtual prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; and Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt. So, as you can imagine, this whole annulment business was a sticky, tangled religious and political mess. Henry solved the problem in a typically aggressive and self-aggrandizing way: he tore the Church of England away from the Catholic Church and placed himself at the head of it, ruining careers, taking away titles, confiscating lands and property, and chopping off heads along the way.

More and Henry went way back. More first met Henry when the latter was a young prince. In 1499, More’s friend Erasmus brought him along to the palace where the royal family was staying. The bright, athletic, and precocious eight-year-old Henry was second in line to the throne behind his elder brother Arthur. More would become a huge influence on and trusted counselor of King Henry VIII until the King turned against him when More refused to formally acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church in England. Erasmus was another central figure in More’s life. He was twelve years older than More, yet the two became very intimate friends very quickly. Erasmus called More ‘sweetest Thomas’ and More called Erasmus ‘my derlynge’ (my darling). These two humanist scholars bonded deeply over books and writing; Erasmus and More were inspirations for one another’s most enduring works, Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (in fact, the book’s original Latin title Moriae Encomium is a pun on More’s name) and More’s Utopia. When More decided to turn his energies to a life of public service instead of scholarship, Erasmus was disappointed, but they remained friends. Sadly, according to More’s biographer John Guy, Erasmus effectively abandoned him in his troubles with the King, yet More continued to write to him as to a trusted friend up to the end of his life.

A view of the Thomas More cell in the Bell Tower, Tower of London

The bonds of trust and friendship between More and Henry VIII only went so far, however, at least on Henry’s part. From the beginning, More made it clear to Henry that his beliefs regarding the annulment and the nature and extent of papal authority did not accord with Henry’s actions or with what was included in the final version of the Act of Succession. Henry promised to allow More the freedom to act in accordance with his conscience, but like so many of Henry’s promises, this one turned out not to be worth much. Eventually, Henry (perhaps prodded by Anne Boleyn) demanded that More swear to the Act. More found he could not since the preamble of the Act specified that the monarch was the supreme head of the church in England rather than the Pope; as he told the King’s ministers charged with administering the Oath of Supremacy to him, ‘…it were a very hard thing to compel me to say either precisely with [the Act of Supremacy] against my conscience to the loss of my soul, or precisely against it to the destruction of my body.’

To return to the story of the day… Simon leads us first to the place I first sought: the cell where Sir Thomas More was held. Well, maybe he was held here. There’s plenty of dispute about this: there’s no contemporary written record of where exactly More was held. Historians disagree and their dispute continues in books, newspapers, and elsewhere. The Tower of London’s signage indicates that he was most likely kept in this Bell Tower cell, but Simon responds to my questions regarding this dispute that the chances may even be ‘fifty-fifty’ that he was held here or in the Salt Tower, another very secure cell where politically dangerous but distinguished and influential people like More were held. He goes on to explain that the southwest or southeast tower, the Bell Tower or Salt Tower respectively, were the only two likely candidates for More’s cell. Outside of rooms in the central White Tower, which was not a place of imprisonment at the time, the Bell Tower cell is the most secure, with 11 foot thick stone walls and 30 foot deep stone foundations. The Salt Tower was also pretty secure, though not quite to this degree.

A wider view of Thomas More’s cell, Bell Tower, Tower of London

Another More historian, Peter Ackroyd, believes More might have been held at least for a time in the Beauchamp Tower, where many other religious and political prisoners were held. But those cells were not so secure nor isolated as the Bell or Salt Tower cells. According to the notes for Ackroyd’s biography, Sonja Johnson of the Tower of London described More’s cell as ‘one of those apartments which were reserved for the more influential or privileged “guests” of the lieutenant. His was a pentagonal stone chamber, with a vaulted ceiling; it was some nineteen feet in height, with a floor space of approximately eighteen feet by twenty feet. The walls themselves were between nine and thirteen feet thick, the floor flagged through with rough and uneven stone, the windows merely arrow-slits or “loops”‘. And, it was cold: cold enough that, Simon says, it was used as a larder for a time. In fact, the very cool temperature helped preserve the room, despite the damp. Johnson’s description fits perfectly with this high-ceilinged, chilly stone room we’re in.

John Fisher and Thomas More portraits in chamber below St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

There are other reasons to think More may not have been held in this cell, at least not during the entire time of his imprisonment in the Tower. Historical researcher Stephen Priestley told the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy that Tower authorities tried to break up communication between More and fellow prisoner Bishop John Fisher, who was also opposed to the Act of Succession, much more openly so than More, and also thrown into the Tower for it. The cell above this one in the Bell Tower, which at the time could be reached by a narrow staircase from this one, was the one that held Fisher, or at least, probably did. This leads Priestly to surmise that Fisher and Thomas would have been eventually placed where they could not communicate so easily with one another. I also consider the stories that Simon and others tell of More rapping on the ceiling to get Fisher’s attention in the room above. But, as you can see yourself from the photos and as Simon points out today, this hardly seems possible in the Bell Tower cell, no matter how hard you might pound on the ceiling if you found a way to reach it at all. Perhaps, then, More and Fisher were held, at least for awhile, in neighboring cells where such communication was possible. Or perhaps, the ceiling-rapping stories are apocryphal and More and Fisher communicated only through smuggled notes and letters, as we know for certain they did.

On the way from the Bell Tower’s lower cell to our next destination, we spot Merlin the Raven. Simon Dodd tells us that she was named prior to knowing her sex, which was later determined by DNA. That’s the only way you can tell, he says – other than by such behavior as egg-laying, of course.

Overall, given what I’ve read and heard, I think, like Ackroyd does, that More’s place of imprisonment changed at least once. In one of his letters written in 1534 from his prison cell to his eldest daughter and confidante Margaret Roper, who he called ‘Meg,’ More reports that he was returned to ‘close keeping’ and ‘shut up again.’ Does this mean he was imprisoned more securely, perhaps in a different room, or just not allowed to leave his cell? Ackroyd interprets More’s comments to mean he was held in solitary confinement, but perhaps they could also refer to his being moved to a more isolated, stronger cell away from others where escape or rescue was far less likely.

After spending some time looking closely at the Bell Tower cell, talking over its history, and discussing the likelihood and duration of More’s imprisonment here, Simon, Laurence, and I re-emerge from the dim cell blinking against the bright sun’s light.

Next, we make a short visit to the Queen’s House. Simon tells us a bit about the history and historians of the Tower and that there have been 160 Constables of the Tower since 1066, the portraits of many of which are hanging here on the Queen’s House wall. He tells us about the early-to-mid 19th century Constable Duke Wellington who worked to make the Tower function better; made it look more like it did in the medieval era; increased its military management; and who was dismayed when tourism to the Tower drastically increased during his tenure there. Simon recommends us to read and watch David Starkey’s, Lucy Worsley’s, and Anna Keay’s books and audiovisual productions to learn more about Tudor history in general. In researching this piece, I recently read a Telegraph article about Starkey’s sharp criticism of the BBC’s historical miniseries Wolf Hall‘s negative portrayal of Thomas More.

A room in the Queen’s House, Tower of London

Simon Dodd telling us history in the Queen’s House, Tower of London

Simon also describes changing features of the Tower over the centuries with reference to a lovely old painting of the Tower hanging on the wall, and indicates the route by which More would have been taken from the gate through which he entered the Tower to his cell in *the Bell Tower.

We will see and talk about many, many more things during our day’s tour of the Tower so I’ve decided to break up this story into multiple parts. Stay tuned for more about our Tower adventure…

*Patron of this Tower of London journey: Laurence Murphy ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions: Latest Results.‘ VisitBritain.org

Borman, Tracy. The Story of the Tower of London. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015

Borman, Tracy. ‘The Tudors and the Tower.‘ Tudor Times website, 3 Aug 2015

Camden, William Norton, Robert; Hans and Hanni Kraus. The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
Sir Francis Drake Collection Library of Congress. London: Printed by N. Okes for B. Fisher; 1630

Collinson, Patrick. ‘Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Davies, C. S. L., and John Edwards. ‘Katherine [Catalina, Catherine, Katherine of Aragon] (1485–1536), Queen of England, First Consort of Henry VIII.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

English Monarchs website: ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Queen’s House

Freeman, Thomas S. (2002). ‘`As true a subiect being prysoner’: John Foxe’s notes on the imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5.‘ (Notes And Documents). The English Historical Review, 117(470), 104-116

Furness, Hannah. ‘Wolf Hall is ‘Deliberate Perversion’ of History, says David Starkey.The Telegraph, 26 Jan 2015

Guy, John. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More. London: Fourth Estate, 2008

Guy, John. ‘For What Did Thomas More So Silently Die?’ Lecture published at Tudors.org

House, Seymour Baker. ‘More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535), Lord Chancellor, Humanist, and Martyr.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Ives, Eric William. ‘Henry VIII (1491–1547), King of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Wolf Hall is Wrong: Thomas More was a Funny, Feminist Renaissance Man.‘ The Guardian, 29 Jan 2015

Kennedy, Maev. ‘Historians Scorn Claims over Thomas More’s Cell.The Guardian, 10 Jan 2000

Marc’hadour, Germain P. ‘Thomas More.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

More, Thomas. The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight. from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 9. Yale University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

More, Thomas. Conscience Decides: Letters and Prayers from Prison Written Between April 1534 and July 1535. Selected and arranged by Dame Bede Foord; preface by Trevor Huddleston; introduction by Germain Marc’hadour. London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971

More, Thomas. The English Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 1947 Rogers edition, Princeton University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

Moynahan. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Plowden, A. ‘Grey [married name Dudley], Lady Jane (1537–1554), Noblewoman and Claimant to the English Throne.Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More1556. Ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003

Stanford, Peter. ‘Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?’ The Telegraph, 20 Jan 2015

Teysko, Heather and Melita Thomas. ‘Tudor Times on Thomas More.’ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 55, Sep 16, 2016