K.V. Turley writes from London.
By the River Thames stands Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. Today, its 21 towers are dwarfed by the skyscrapers surrounding these ancient structures. And yet, those towers have a special significance for Catholics.
Within the Royal Palace, and oft overlooked by the tourist hordes that crowd the medieval fortress each day, are markings on the walls made by these same martyrs. These stone etchings are the names and words of men willing to die rather than renounce their faith. Inscribed in stone, we have still their last will and testament. These are indeed holy marks.
In August 1534, the first of those who refused to recognize King Henry’s new religion were led to the Tower. Subsequently, many more Catholics were to follow. Those imprisoned there were a multitude of Catholic men and women, noblemen and commoners, lay and religious. By the time Queen Elizabeth reigned, the cells were full of those who refused to compromise the Old Faith.
By then, too, the Tower’s torture chambers were busy. There was not just the rack, but the ‘scavenger’s daughter’ — this device, of recent invention in the Tower, did the opposite to the body as that inflicted upon it by the rack. Often both devices were used simultaneously to crush resistance. There was also a contraption known as ‘the Duke of Exeter’s daughter,’ a series of ropes and pulleys designed to drag apart every joint in the body. In addition, there was an instrument used to extract every tooth in the prisoner’s mouth known as ‘the brakes.’ There were thumbscrews, of course, and the so-called ‘iron glove,’ used to shatter bones in the hand. The horrors on offer were never-ending.
Constructed by the Normans, from the time of William the Conqueror onwards, the Tower of London was a Royal residence. It became the custom for the future monarch to come to the Tower on the eve of his coronation. He would hear Holy Mass in the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist in the oldest part of the Royal palace, the White Tower, and then set out through the streets of London to Westminster Abbey to be crowned. One of the last Royal Masses to be offered in the Tower was, however, a requiem for King Edward VI — organized by his half-sister, the new Catholic monarch of England, Queen Mary. And yet, while it was taking place, in August 1553, Edward’s funeral was being conducted according to the new Protestant rite at Westminster Abbey. Following the death of Queen Mary, the new religious order was re-established in England. Henceforth, the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist was to be a storeroom.
At the lowest point of its structure, the White Tower had dungeons with walls of stone 15 feet thick. The dungeons were pitch black inside and notoriously filthy, cold and damp. They were also full of vermin, so much so even the jailers remarked that their Catholic prisoners were being ‘eaten alive.’ There was worse still. One of the cells was known as ‘Little Ease.’ Prisoners were so crammed in here that no one could sit or lie down. Into this cell ran a pipe from the nearby River Thames. At high tide, water would rush into the confined space. At such times, both prisoners and rats fought to survive. There was another place known as ‘The Pit.’ It might as well have been called ‘the grave’, for prisoners were placed in that hole and left to rot.
From the White Tower, looking east, there is another tower known as the Salt Tower. An underground passage ran between the White Tower and the Salt Tower. Prisoners would be escorted along this passage, walking past the racks and other instruments of torture, which were displayed to them as both a warning and a promise. Some men, such as the Catholic layman, James Atkinson, died in this torture chamber. So also did the Jesuit lay brother, Nicholas Owen, known as ‘Little John’, famous as the architect of priest hole hiding places all over the land. Owen died upon the rack. In the end, many would be tortured in the Tower: Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, Henry Walpole Thomas Sherwood; the list goes on. For all these men, death, however barbaric, must have come as a relief as well as a release such was this hellish underworld.
There was a bittersweet tableau seen from the White Tower. For if one looks south the Traitors' Gate comes into view. It was through that gate that Thomas More returned to the Tower by boat having been found guilty of treason at Westminster Hall. Upon disembarkation, his daughter, Meg, threw herself into her father’s arms despite the efforts of the guards to hold her back. She knew that through Traitor’s Gate there had entered a man who was no traitor, to either conscience or to the indivisible unity of Christendom.
Looking across from Traitors' Gate, there stands the Bell Tower, so called because it housed the alarm bell for the Tower. Within the Bell Tower’s eight foot circular walls were held More and, the then-Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher. It was in the upper room there, called ‘the strong room’, that Fisher was kept. His confinement was particularly cruel. Old and infirm, he was left in a damp and cold cell, without adequate food for the body and nothing to feed his mind. When the time arrived for his execution, Fisher was so frail that he had to be transported by chair to the nearby Tower Hill.
From the Bell Tower, to the west, one can see London Bridge. It was there that the bishop-martyr’s head was taken and placed on a spike. Crowds flocked to the relic, and, in so doing, blocking this busy river crossing. The authorities, alarmed at this incipient devotion demonstrated by the common people, removed the head and cast it into the waters below. In any event, soon after, it was to be replaced by another head, that of Thomas More.
It was from his prison cell in the Bell Tower that More watched Fisher being taken to his death. From the same window, earlier, the former Lord Chancellor had observed and commented upon how the Carthusians had processed to their deaths as merrily as a bridegroom to his wedding. When More’s time came, in the summer of 1535, he departed his cell in the Bell Tower holding a small red cross. On being offered wine en route to his death on Tower Hill, he declined it gently, saying, ‘My Master, Christ, had vinegar and gall.’
Turning around on the White Tower, and looking to the back of the Bell Tower is Beauchamp Tower. This was where many Catholic nobles were held. It is here we find inscriptions upon the wall, such as this one from the Earl of Arundel, Philip Howard:
"Quanto plus afflictiones pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in futuro"
('The more affliction [we endure] for Christ in this world, the more glory [we shall obtain] with Christ in the next')
Most of the inscriptions in Beauchamp Tower are simply names with armorial bearings, or a crucifix, a Sacred Heart, a pierced foot, another a kneeling figure, a skeleton, or the words Adoramus Te. When considering these many engravings today, it is important to remember that most, if not all, of those so writing died not long after. Here, before our eyes remain the last testament of martyrs, and to a world that wished to silence them. It was the authorities’ wish to remove Catholics from society and, in so doing, create a new order. These markings were, and are, a remembrance that there were many Englishmen and women who refused to recognize the new ways of worship and, instead, who chose to shed their blood rather than turn traitor against the True King.
In front of Beauchamp Tower lies Tower Green. It was here that those of Royal blood were executed. So, in 1541, it was here where Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, was to meet her end. She was the aunt of Henry VIII and mother of Cardinal Pole, a man the Protestant Tudors particularly detested. One can still stand at the spot where she was bludgeoned to death, so poorly did the axe man do his task.
Directly in front of Tower Green, and adjacent to the Bell Tower, stands the Queen’s House. A residence built for Anne Boleyn by the then-besotted King Henry VIII. It was his passion for this woman that had brought about his demands for a divorce from his wife, Queen Catherine. To satisfy that same passion, the king decreed Christendom had to be re-ordered. In the end, it was shattered. And yet, for all that, the king’s passion did not last. The residence for his new queen was incomplete when, at Tower Green, in front of that same house, Anne Boleyn knelt, and, before a darkening sky, the axe man raised his blade.
To this day there are countless sightings reported; the “Boleyn girl’s” troubled spirit is said to haunt the Tower of London, endlessly roaming its battlements.
Such legends are in contrast to something remarked upon by those who witnessed the last moments of the Catholic martyrs — namely, a strange serenity. This remains a peace the world cannot give. As these men and women went forth knowing their earthly lives were drawing to a close, they were garlanded in that peace. Thereafter, with their sufferings finally ended, the walls that had held them were no more. Freed forever, they would rest now in the peace of a different walled City, one built of pure gold, and where night no longer holds sway.