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:
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‘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
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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
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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
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