Wednesday, May 20, 2015

London: Tower of London and an 'audience' with the Queen

It was an early start the next morning. After breakfast we headed to the underground once again. This time we bought Oyster Cards, which we loaded up with £20, and then headed off to The Tower of London. I hadn't been there since I was eleven and Seamus not at all. It was a hot, sunny day and lots of people had chosen to visit the Tower.

We started out by listening to a Yeoman Warder guide or Beefeater, but unless you were quite close you couldn't really hear him. For some reason he didn't have a microphone so we only got snatches of his anecdotes about intrigue, imprisonment, execution and torture. There was just too much competition from the airplanes and some restoration hammering going on.

The ‘Beefeaters’, as they are nicknamed, have long been symbols of London and Britain. It is thought their nickname is derived from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, which permitted them to eat as much beef as they wanted from the king's table. They are a detachment of the ‘Yeomen of the Guard’, and they’ve formed the Royal Bodyguard since at least 1509. Their origins stretch back as far as the reign of Edward IV (1461-83). Yeoman Warders are required to have served in the armed forces with an honourable record for at least 22 years. The current contingent of warders have experienced serving in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War, Bosnia, the first and second Gulf conflicts and in Afghanistan. 

We decided to tour on our own. I remembered from the last time I was here that the ravens flew and strutted about the Tower. Today we only spotted two caged ravens, although there are more. Legend says that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. It was Charles II, according to the stories, who first insisted that the ravens of the Tower should be protected. This was against the wishes of his astronomer, John Flamsteed, who complained that the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower.

Despite their having one wing trimmed, some ravens do in fact go absent without leave and others have had to be sacked. Raven George was dismissed for eating television aerials, and Raven Grog was last seen outside an East End pub.

We visited the towers where people were imprisoned, the armoury exhibiting armour throughout the ages and of course Tower Green which contained the evocative memorial to the people who died here by order of the state. 

Execution inside the Tower, away from the gawping crowds, was a privilege reserved for those of high rank or for those who had dangerously strong popular support. The best-known among those executed on or near the site of the memorial are the three queens of England: Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who was in her early thirties, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, barely in her twenties, and Lady Jane Grey who was only 16 or 17.

Probably the highlight of the visit was the Crown Jewels. Until the early 1800s you could handle the jewels, but that ended when someone tried to steal them. The display of the jewels with many large stones such as the Koh I Nur diamond is quite formidable. The Crown Jewels, part of the Royal Collection, are the most powerful symbols of the British Monarchy and hold deep religious and cultural significance in the nation’s history. For once our view wasn't blocked with anyone taking a selfie as we were all whisked by the jewels, in a timely fashion, on a moving escalator.

With all of this we had worked up quite an appetite. It was the perfect day for sitting outside at an Italian restaurant. And what could be better than delicious wild boar pasta?

After more walking and a quick change in the hotel it was time to head off to tonight's performance — in keeping with our royal theme — of "The Audience," starring Kristin Scott Thomas. For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. The play starts with Churchill meeting the young queen. Each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while the queen remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister. We see perhaps her only favorite, Harold Wilson, coming to resign because he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. We were lucky to see a brand new post-election scene in which David Cameron seeks permission to form a new government. It was quite funny as the elderly queen nods off as Cameron is extolling his virtues but even funnier as he takes a selfie with the queen.

"The Audience" was most enjoyable as the regal Kristin Scott Thomas made an astute and witty queen. Two plays, both excellent. We are doing well.

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