The Tower of London has a real pull for anyone who loves history. It spans the life of England in all its forms, from pre-history, through Roman Britain to the modern age, a great story – or ten – for every era.
I spent a day there recently, ambling around under an Autumn sun. It was the first time I’d been since I was a boy, but the memories of that early visit came rushing back, I think because those stories had sent roots deep into my unconscious. This is how stories work, and why, in ancient times, they were used to teach important knowledge, the truths coded into every line.
That’s something I’m very interested in at the moment: the parallel history of the world, one based on abstracts and intangibles, where stories, myths, legend, folklore, are created by people and then ripple out and affect everything around us as if they were real.
Sometimes facts are the least important thing when it comes to understanding the world at large, and history. It’s what people believe that shapes their actions, and as we can see in the headlines nearly every day, people believe a lot of strange things.
The Tower of London is a great venue for considering this alternative approach to history.
Legend has it – and also the first description of the Tower by Fitz-Stephen who died in 1191 – that the “mortar is tempered with the blood of beasts.” The stories that rolled out suggested this was a magical defence, blood as a spell of protection, and a fitting way of telling the people that their land would be kept safe by this castle which became the symbol of England’s strong defence.
And, of course, there’s the famous legend that the kingdom and the tower will fall if the six ravens ever leave the fortress. Charles II was the monarch who insisted they be protected, for that very reason. That’s another legend that reaffirms a belief in the indomitable nature of the English.
The myth of England is a powerful force that provides a foundation for patriotism and ties people together in the need for common struggle. We’ve been building on it for years, and that isn’t going to stop just because we are, allegedly, wiser and less superstitious.