Memorials of the Tower of London

De Ros, William Lennox






THE chapel of St. John, in the upper story of the White Tower, was, until a very few years back, most improperly used as a repository for obsolete records. On the erection of the General Record Office in Lincoln's Inn, in the year 1857, the whole of the State Papers were cleared out from this and other parts of the Tower, and removed to the new establishment. It will scarcely be believed that an attempt was made, on that occasion, to take possession of this ancient and historical chapel, as a clothing store for the War Department, and in spite of the remonstrances of Lord Combermere (then Constable), this appropriation would have taken place, but for a change of Government, which occurred within a few days after the order had been issued. General Peel then came into office, and, admitting the propriety of the Constable's objection, saved the Chapel from further desecration. As part of the royal palace, it was at once put in charge of the Office of Works; and when the Hon. W. Cowper became First Commissioner, a complete restoration was undertaken under his auspices by Mr. Salvin, who carried it out with his usual


taste and judgment. Perhaps there is nowhere, certainly not in England, a more noble and striking specimen of the grand and simple style of Norman architecture than this Chapel, as now restored. The massive and solemn effect of its huge columns, and the absence of all minor decorations and ornament, give a peculiar character and dignity to its imposing architecture. It is associated with many interesting historical recollections. Here it was that the forty-six noblemen and gentlemen, created Knights of the Bath by Henry IV., on his accession to the throne, performed the ancient chivalrous ceremony of watching their armour from sunset to sunrise. Brackenbury was at his prayers in this Chapel when he received Richard's message to destroy Edward V. and his brother, which execrable deed he, to his honour, refused to undertake. Here the mortal remains of Queen Elizabeth, the White Rose of York, lay in state for some weeks, previous to her splendid funeral in 1503.

The floor or body of St. John's Chapel is on the same level as the Banqueting-hall, which occupies the main story of the White Tower, while the gallery, which runs round three sides of the Chapel, is entered from the Council Chamber, without communication from below. The Royal Palace, of which there is scarcely any vestige remaining, communicated with the White Tower, and this gallery was probably the place to which the English queens and their ladies resorted for the celebration of mass, unseen by the congregation in the body of the Chapel below.


By the late arrangements for throwing open to the public the magnificent Armoury (60,000 stand of rifles) recently fitted up in the Banqueting-hall and Council-chamber, visitors are now conducted through St. John's


Chapel by the outward turret stair (at the foot of which the bones of the murdered princes were found in Charles II.'s time), and so through the armouries to the main stairs, by which the White Tower is entered.

Among the curious traditions of the White Tower, it


is said, that in the time of the civil wars a Parliamentary soldier was pursuing a Royalist, sword in hand, up the north stairs, when the latter, finding escape impossible by further flight, suddenly dropped on his knees at the landing-place, close to a window, which has a very low sill, and tripping up his pursuer by the heels, pitched him headlong down into the yard beneath, and broke his neck by the fall.

The underground part of the White Tower was used for confinement of such prisoners as were to be deprived of all indulgence, and contained dungeons of the most gloomy description. These have been mostly cleared away and removed, in making room for the extensive stores of iron bedsteads, and other barrack furniture, which used to be accumulated here by the store depot; but at the south-east angle of these vaults, there still exists a dark cell, closed by a heavy door, with no aperture for the admission of either light or air, and known by the ominous name of "Little Ease." In this cell Guy Fawkes was confined, previous to his examination and torture, which took place in the Governor's house, in presence of the Lords of the Council, of which particulars are given in another place. There has been lately discovered in the vaults of the White Tower another cell, with this inscription:-

Sacris vestibus indutus

dum sacra mysteria

servans, captus et in

hoc angusto carcere

inclusus. R. FISHER.



Somewhere also in the vaults of the White Tower was the cell mentioned in several of the records as " Cold Harbour," a denomination which has given rise to much discussion, from its having been applied, not only to places of confinement, but to several hamlets in different counties of England, without any apparent similarity of meaning. It is said that there are to be found in old English maps and itineraries, as many as fifteen or twenty " Cold Harbours," but whether they were places of confinement, it is vain now to conjecture. It has been remarked, as somewhat peculiar in the construction of the White Tower, that there is but one portion (that which supports the enormous weight of St. John's Chapel) which is vaulted. The floors of the Banqueting-hall and the Council-chamber are laid on huge oak joists, placed at very close intervals, and so strong and solid are they, that not the smallest deflection has ever been perceived in them, though, at one time, the weight of the stores placed on the floors which they supported, must have tested them severely. In Mr. Salvin's able restoration of this part of the Tower, an open space for admission of light from the council-chamber to the banqueting- hall beneath it has been judiciously left open in the flooring, exactly in its original state, in order to show the great size and perfect preservation of the ancient oak joists above mentioned. Round the whole of the council-chamber, a sort of gallery or corridor is cut in the thickness of the wall, which accords with the details of Shakespeare's celebrated scene of the Protector's sudden


condemnation of Lord Hastings at the Council.[1]  Here were probably concealed the armed men, by whom Hastings was hurried down into the court below, and, the block not being at hand, his head struck off upon a beam of timber, accidentally lying on the green.

One of the turrets on the corners of the roof of the White Tower is supposed to have been the scene of the imprisonment and murder of the unfortunate Matilda Fitz Walter, called Matilda the Fair, from her remarkable beauty. "About the year 1215," saith the Book of Dunmow, "there arose a great discord between King John and his barons, because of Matilda, surnamed the Fair, daughter of Robert Lord Fitz Walter, whom the King loved, but could not obtain her, nor her father's consent. Whereupon the King banished the said Fitz Walter, the most valiant Knight in England, and caused his Castle in London, called 'Baynard's,' and all his other dwellings, to be spoiled; which being done, he sent to Matilda about his old suit in love, and because she would not agree, the messenger poisoned an egg, and bade her keepers, when she was hungry, boil it, and give her to eat. She did so, and died."

Miss Strickland, in one of her most interesting Royal Lives, that of Isabella of Angouleme, observes, in speaking of the unhappy fate of Matilda Fitz Walter, " The


abduction of this lady, who, to do her justice, thoroughly abhorred the royal felon, was the exploit which completed the exasperation of the English barons, who flew to arms, for the purpose of avenging the honour of the most distinguished among their class, Lord Fitz Walter."

The White Tower, like other parts of the Tower of London, has been subjected to much modern disfigurement. Even the eminent Sir Christopher Wren so entirely lost sight of architectural propriety in his restoration and repair of the White Tower, that he faced the windows with stone in the Italian style, and so disfigured this venerable building, that, until the stranger has entered within its massive walls, and observed their huge thickness and other evidence of its antiquity, he might suppose the White Tower to date no farther back than the time of Queen Anne or George I.


[1] RICHARD III., act iii. scene 4. A room in the Tower. BUCKINGHAM, STANLEY, HASTINGS, the BISHOP of ELY, CATESBY, LOVEL, sitting at a table; Officers of the Council attending.