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A TOWERing tale of English history

March 6, 2012

“Tower: An epic history of the Tower of London” by Nigel Jones

Reviewed by Keith Smith

Tower is a lavishly detailed history of England’s most-visited tourist attraction; the collection of ancient palaces and fortresses known as the Tower of London. Nigel Jones has a very readable style, and doesn’t flinch from the often gory details of his story – the horrific execution of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace, for example, is presented in all its disturbing detail.

The book is full of regal villainy, intrigue and treachery – a spellbinding tale of murder, torture, mayhem and corruption, a precis of turbulent English history, rich in bizarre trivia. For example, the 600-year-old Tower menagerie was finally shut down by the Duke of Wellington, who decided enough was enough when a stray monkey took a chunk out of one of his Guardsmen…and the Tower must be one of the few places on earth to be haunted by the ghost of a bear.

Jones often shares startling gallows humour with his reader – the death of Sir Robert Blount is a good example.  Convicted of treason in 1400, Blount was hanged, drawn and quartered. As he sat on a bench, watching his own entrails being burned, he was offered a drink, which he politely refused: “No, for I should not know where to put it.”

The bloody reign of Henry VIII – “…England’s Stalin, a murderous monster…” – confirmed the Tower as England’s most feared gaol, and Jones doesn’t spare the reader the blood-curdling details of a reign described by Dickens as “a blot of blood and grease on the pages of English history.”

The Tower was home, usually briefly, to many of the most famous names in history: Walter Ralegh, Guy Fawkes, Rudolf Hess. Many famous heads were removed within its walls, and Jones recounts them all, along with hundreds of infamous (and many obscure) tortures, murders, betrayals, seductions and debauchees, suicides, rare escapes and rescues.

The last execution within its walls was of Josef Jacobs, shot as a spy during WW2. Beginning with William the Conqueror, Jones’ absorbing narrative follows the Tower to very recent times…the last of the Tower’s prisoners were the notorious Kray twins, who were apparently released because they were too violent for their jailers!

Tower is a fascinating read – not for the faint-hearted, but meticulously researched and written in a light, personable style. An excellent page-turner, highly recommended.

From → New Books

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