It’s been a while since we’ve had such an informative, engaging and entertaining speaker with such a blithe manner. Keith certainly captivated the members who became wholly engrossed in his Tales of the Tower.
After an army career lasting 30 years, in 1997, Keith signed up to become a Yeoman Warder (often referred to as a Beefeater) at the Tower of London. Just three years later he was promoted to Chief Exhibitor of the Tower with prime responsibility for the security and presentation of the Crown Jewels; he also became a member of the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeoman of the Guard.
In his slide presentation, Keith explained that the Tower is in fact a complex of several buildings set within two concentric curtain walls 20’’ thick surrounded by a 120’ wide moat. Founded by William the Conqueror as part of his Norman conquest of England, it was initially a wooden castle however, this was soon replaced by a giant stone keep which later became known as the White Tower. During the 12th and 13th centuries, there were several phases of expansion which included enlarging the moat and building defensive walls with a series of towers from where the reigning monarch could better defend and control.
As the most secure castle in the land, the Tower was not only a luxurious palace, but it guarded royal possessions and the royal family. It also embraced another function when, in 1279, Edward I relocated the Mint there so he could keep the production of coins under closer control. This move was so successful that it remained in the Tower until the late 18th century.
With its reputation as a place of torture and death, Keith disclosed anecdotes and legends of some of the gruesome and dramatic events which occurred in the building including those involving the finding of the remains of the princes in the tower, the torture of Guy Fawkes and the numerous royal or eminent prisoners held during the Tudor period who entered the building via the notorious ‘traitor’s gate’. It wasn’t all bad though as high-status prisoners such as Sir Walter Raleigh could expect to live in conditions comparable to those they might expect outside.
The Tower has also been the stronghold where monarchs locked away their valuables and jewels and even today, the Crown Jewels are protected by a garrison of soldiers. In Tudor times, the Yeoman Warders were the Royal Bodyguard but, by the 16th century, their main duty was to look after the prisoners. In 1845, the Duke of Wellington laid the foundation stone of the Waterloo Barracks which would eventually accommodate 1,000 men and is now the headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; the Crown Jewels are on display in the Jewel House in the Waterloo Block.
In recognition of their duties, Henry VIII granted the Yeoman Warders the right to wear a red ‘dress uniform’ which is still worn today on state occasions and for gun salutes. The more durable dark blue uniform was introduced in the 19th century and is worn for every day duties which now include providing guided tours for the public, undertaking the ancient Ceremony of the Keys and caring for the seven ravens which must stay within the bounds of the fortress or legend has it that the monarchy will fall.
The Tower of London is one of the most iconic historic sites in the world and, although Keith only had time to touch on its many secrets and show us its wealth of buildings and chapels, he still gave us a wonderful insight into the daily running of this living fortress and its centuries of tradition.