Patrick Stroud ’14 – Amid the aged rocks–some imported from France–blackened fire pits, and tales of noble violence that comprise the Beauchamp Tower, there rests countless names carved into stone and mortar. These signatures, quotes of Biblical verses, and other messages stand as the only remnants of the some 3500 prisoners that were housed within Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress, also known as the Tower of London. A chill runs through the spine at the sight of these departing prayers, or even more haunting: nothing more than a first name, a forgotten remembrance for an oft-forgotten “guest.”
Stroud, second from left, and classmates.
This is but one scene of centuries of English legal history, and only one evocative sight within the Tower. As a continuation of yesterday’s exploration of the Norman conquest vis-a-vis Hastings, our travels moved on to the things later built by William I after his ascension to the throne of England. The White Tower of the Tower of London stands to this day as the most famous (or infamous) example of invading Norman architecture, a nine-hundred year amalgamation of royal construction that has produced the 18-acre complex that tourists visit today, with guided visits provided by the Beefeaters, Yeoman Warder guards wearing uniforms from the time of Henry VII and sporting trademark British military crassness.
Although visitors and guides often focus on the penitentiary aspects of the Tower, its history is much more complex. Originally built as a Norman fortress against rebelling Anglo-Saxons, the Tower has served as a royal home, an observatory, a mint, a treasury, an armory for the Crown Jewels, an arsenal, and–an important fact for our course–the site for the King’s Bench and the Royal Courts of Justice, but was never officially a prison. All monarchs of England lived within the complex until the time of James I, and it was also custom for any prince or princess to process between the Tower and Westminster for one’s coronation. Additionally, despite our positivist frame values when it comes to a historical progression, the century with the most executions in the Tower was the 20th.
The “white” of the White Tower, the central building, is derived from the white Norman stone imported to build the fortress, though it was later whitewashed. It was here that William the Conqueror (née Bastard) lived from around 1070 until his death; this time also begins the long story of legal prosecution within the Tower, with the first prisoner being Ralph de Flambard, a bishop with ties to the construction of the complex itself.
While the cells have ceased their use since 1941, echoes of legend still haunt the halls of the complex. Grim nicknames for buildings still exist: the Traitor’s Gate, named after the point of entry for many royal guests who would never leave their accommodations alive, including Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell, and Sir Walter Raleigh; the Bloody Tower, with its ongoing conspiracy surrounding the Young Princes, the sons of Edward IV who were mysteriously murdered, potentially by their uncle Richard III (at least, Shakespeare would have you believe so); and much more. Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Plot was left to rot here, as well as the noble Lady Jane Grey, a teenager caught in the crossroads of royal legitimacy who served as Queen for just nine days.
Yet, despite all this, the Tower presses on. As it is still labeled a Royal Palace, Queen Elizabeth II still has her private mansion within the complex, located next to houses reserved for the Yeoman Warders and their families. Church services are held every Sunday within the chapels of the Tower. Young students feed crisps to the Tower Ravens, the mythical birds who are said to predict the death of the monarchy should they ever fly away (don’t worry–their wings are clipped).
And, most of all, people are laughing, smiling, and taking in awe this auspicious place, appreciating the grim tales of bloody treachery, sneaking photographs of the Crowns and Scepters, smirking at the dry wit of the Beefeaters, and much more. This is the new legacy of the Tower: a place where people come to realize legal oppression, to take murder as a matter of fact, and to beyond nine hundred years of dirty dealings as a means of coping and as a means of black humor that is educational yet tongue-in-cheek.
If only Yanks did this; why revere slaveholders and criminals yet remain ignorant of their faults, and instead take our atrocities to heart and laugh at their ridiculousness? At the very least, that’s been our “modus operandi” for our course: to notice the role of history in law (or vice versa) as a trend and to laugh at its blatant inconsistency! That idea, that task, gives us analytical purpose daily, and without it, we would flounder at the foot of the monolith that is “Legal Precedent.”
So, grab some fish and chips, have a pint, and help us laugh at history-in-law and the inherent values it presents, analyzes, and morphs. You’ll end up coming out with it with much more than legal knowledge.