King Henry VIII, English royalty, the Princes in the Tower, an actual moat and an execution block. This encompasses all of Jen’s favorite things and what this blog post will dive in to! (We promise Jen is normal. Well, mostly normal.)
If you read our Bucket List blog post then you are already aware that England was Jen’s #1 trip destination. She is a bit of a royalty nerd and when we say bit, we mean she secretly thinks she was a lady in waiting in King Henry VIII’s royal court in a previous life. Totally normal.
Arguably the top destination for any royal fanfare in London is the Tower of London.
This location dates back to William the Conqueror in 1078 when the first building, The White Tower, was constructed. Every single King and Queen since then has used it for some purpose, most as a royal residence. It is currently known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. The Crown Jewels are even there. Craig may have had to pull Jen away from this area because the crown obviously needed to rest on her head for just a moment. I wish this were true…..no touching or even picture taking allowed. No fun.
Let’s begin our journey with getting there and entering the fortress. The Tower of London is located on the North Bank of the River Thames in central London. With it being so centrally located it is easy to get there by tube (London’s subway system), water taxi (yes, you can use a boat as a taxi), regular taxi or Uber. There is a beautiful shop-lined cobblestone road leading you down the hill to the gated entrance.
On a side note, London’s tube is incredibly easy to navigate. It is extremely well signed, with maps of the tube system everywhere. It was clean, efficient and safe. We found Londoners using the tube to be courteous, respectful and helpful. Tip, there is always a slow lane and a fast lane for walking to your tube underground- stay to the left!
There is a mile long line of people waiting to enter the Tower. Lucky for us, we took a moment to research this destination and bought our tickets ahead of time. We passed by the envious tourists and skipped to the front of the line with our passes in hand. It’s also a good idea to get there early. We arrived approx. 30 minutes before it officially opened, and the lines were already wrapped around the extensive queue. Believe us when we tell you that we buy as many entrance tickets in advance as we can. It’s such a time saver.
Due to the size of this tourist hot spot, you want a well laid out plan of what you want to see and the order in which to see it. For obvious reasons, the Crown Jewels are the most popular attraction within the Tower walls. As soon as you gain entrance, get your free audio guide and immediately get in line at the Waterloo Block, where the Jewel House vault is located. Trust us, get in this line first. When the doors open it will move quickly, but the line will grow with each passing minute. By the afternoon, this line looked like the wait for the hot bakery on the most popular corner in NYC- one hour wait time.
It is impossible to avoid a little waiting, but here is the great thing about waiting in this line in London. You are not missing anything unless you allow it to escape. Don’t get caught up in the annoying wait. Instead, look around you. Take it in. You are standing in a foreign land and have not seen any of this before. The White Tower is right behind the line for the Jewels. Look at the architecture and realize that this building has been here for almost 1,000 years. Look at your map and point out the buildings that housed infamous prisoners or listen to the Beefeater tour guide to your left.
As you begin to enter the building, history is painted on the walls. Literally. They have done an amazing job of entertaining you on the way as they tell the history of the Crown Jewels. It is here they tell the story of the destruction of the original Crown Jewels. Following a civil war in England in 1649, right after the execution of King Charles I, all the jewels were sold off and the precious metals melted down and minted into coins. It was not until 1660 when Charles II made his return that the monarchy was reestablished. It was decided to reconstruct the Crown Jewels, the same ones we see on display today. Each monarch has added to the collection.
The anticipation builds as you hear the hushed exclamations ahead of you and notice the security guards increasing in numbers. You are ushered along to a dark room with a narrow walkway along both sides of a long, brightly lit case. Within the case is St. Edward’s Crown. (Give Jen a minute here to catch her breath. She felt like Mike Myers in SNL doing Coffee Talk and Barbara Streisand was in front of her- she needed a minute.) This is the actual crown only used for coronations. It was spectacular.
It was in this moment that Jen gave Craig a look. You know the look; “I know what you are thinking and don’t you dare try it.” See, Craig has this habit of not following all of the rules, especially if they seem (in his mind) to be mere suggestions. For example, when they say no pictures, he thinks they are simply saying this for their own amusement and don’t really mean it. (Ask Craig about his picture of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.)
Jen follows any and all rules because she is terrified of being kicked out of said location for not following the explicitly stated rules. A gentleman that feels the same way that Craig does pulls out his phone and is quickly reprimanded and ordered to stow away his device immediately. From the tone of the guard’s voice, we were prepared to see the guard tackle him to the ground, taser him for good measure and take him to the tower. Jen wished they had, just so she could give Craig the “I told you so” look that she lives for.
Fortunately, Craig did not attempt to take a picture. Besides, no picture could capture what you are seeing right in front of you. The detail, the grandeur, and the sheer size of the jewels in each piece was astounding. The precious gems are so large that they almost appear fake. The lights above cast a shine that lights up the entire room. The Sovereign’s Orb, the Scepter & Rod are indescribable in their beauty.
To those that are not as into royalty as Lady Jennifer, look up a picture of Queen Elizabeth on her Coronation Day and all three original pieces are there in front of you. Queen Victoria’s famous small diamond crown that she had made following her husband’s death is sitting alongside all of the other famous pieces. We slowly walked along both sides in awe. When the next coronation is held, we can say that we saw those grand jewels in person.
The rest of the building has crystal dishes and silver used by the royal household and gifts bestowed to past monarchs that are worth a look. Take your time and pretend this is your storage house of unused domestic goods. Obviously, Jen makes Craig take their numerous crystal punch bowls that serve 100 up to the attic. Who has the room for it?
Next up is the White Tower, which houses the Line of Kings. This display is truly extraordinary. Within glass cases stands the historic armor of Henry VIII, Charles I and James II. Some are even displayed with matching horse and armor. It is so easy to allow your mind to step back in time to see the battles and tournaments these pieces have been a part of. The workmanship shown by the specialized blacksmith is evident in each piece. You will see the wonder of the Giant that has puzzled historians, and even some armor fit for children. Craig continues to drag Jen along away from a time that draws her in. At least that is what he likes to say. He, of course, was sitting there wishing he could open the case, throw on some armor and challenge the guard to a dual. Or sign up for the next jousting tournament where he could wear Jen’s favors.
One of the greatest mysteries surrounding British royalty is the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. The only two sons of King Edward IV, they were the next in line to the throne following his death. (The crown could not pass to women at that time.) There are many theories, but the most popular is that they were murdered by their uncle Richard in his attempt to secure the throne.
Nearly 200 years later, two small human skeletons were discovered in an enclosed closet at the White Tower. Believed to be the Princes, the remains were sent to Westminster Abbey where they remain today. If you walk the outside stairs to the top floor of the White Tower, you will pass the marked area where the discovery was made. We took a moment to acknowledge the lives lost to greed and power.
While the boys were discovered there, they were in fact held in what is now known as Bloody Tower. There is an exhibit dedicated to the Princes where you can learn about their story and ponder how different life would be today if they had lived. The entire line of the monarchy would have been altered.
On to Jen’s favorite time in British history, the Tudor era. In particular, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife that was beheaded for treason. Treason, meaning she could not give him a son, so she obviously bewitched him. It is not so much her as a person, but the tidal wave of change she brought that ignites a fervor of curiosity. A new religion was brought forth and England separated from the Pope in Rome just so Henry could get a divorce and marry her. Her daughter, Elizabeth I, brought peace to a divided country and allowed the arts to flourish. One person changed the world forever.
For someone of such historical significance, her burial site is small and ordinary. In one corner of the Tower site is the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, which is Anne’s final resting place. There is a small marker on the altar with a few flowers indicating the area. A short distance away is the scaffold site where a memorial now stands.
Despite popular belief, only nobility was executed within the walls of the Tower, while most executions were done a short distance away on Tower Hill. Despite Henry’s hatred towards Anne at the end, he at least gave her a noble death. There is a heaviness in the air that you can’t quite put into words. It is a feeling that overwhelms you while being surrounded by the voices of the past trying to tell you their story. Let them tell you.
It is time to shake off the bygone time and reflect. Preferably with food and drink. The dominating Tower Bridge is just outside the Tower of London. The bridge is not just for automobiles. There is a large area for pedestrians and for a small fee you can go on the high-level walkway and see the Victorian engine rooms. It is worth the stroll across to appreciate the massive size of the structure and to peek down at the Thames. However, our favorite view of this crossing is from a distance.
The area is full of life along the River Thames. Eateries, shops, locals and tourists come together along the walkway. We found a cafe overlooking the famous bridge and feasted on scones with clotted cream and afternoon tea. (We do not recommend trying to make your own clotted cream at home…just trust us.) We people watched and felt grateful for our experience. Jen was in full geek-out mode with the Tower of London at her back and the Tower Bridge facing her. Craig was happy to see the pure joy on her face.
We enjoyed this area so much that we came back here to an outside restaurant to enjoy dinner the following evening. The Tower Bridge breathes a whole new life in the evening, glowing with countless lights.
This location is back on our list for our return trip to London. We both need that experience one more time. This was made even more enjoyable due to our planning and the ability to check off our must-sees within those walls. Do not forget to grab your guidebook and make your plan, especially for a large attraction.
Christmas is right around the corner and what better gift than the gift of experience! If someone were to gift you a trip, where would you go? Tell us in the comment section below.
Thank you for reading and #NeverStopPlanning.
Jen and Craig