Friday, June 3, 2011

The Tower of London - Part One

I recently had the immense privilege to spend a week in London. The one in England, if you were in any doubt.

I have struggled with how to talk about the trip. Where to begin? What should I include, or really what should I exclude? The haze of whirlwind activity, tea and scones, walking until my feet cried, Pimm's at a pub, beholding sights that have stood through many was all so jam packed that I can't separate one event from the next.

When asked how my trip was, or what I saw and did, I get a glazed look. It isn't that I can't remember it as much as I don't know where to start and when to stop. With that being said, none of you would read the hundreds of pages I could fill with London musings. So, for starters, I'll feed you with this delicious crumb. Feed on it and be nourished with knowledge, with passion, and hopefully if you have a local pub, with fish and chips.

I first went to London several years ago with my sister, cousin, and friend. We saw as many of the sights as we possibly could cram into our time there. By far, my favorite place was The Tower of London. It is physically painful for me to refrain from giving a history lesson on why this is such a significant place, the many things that happened here, and how it gives us a small peek into the life of a country using a ruler that is hundreds of years long.

I told you that I've been to the Tower of London. I couldn't be in the city without going back. What could be expected from a history obsessed Anglophile? Luckily, my spouse shares the love of history. He generally prefers Rome to my London, but who would complain about either? We realized on this trip that though we differ EVER SO MUCH in the particulars, we share the same odd obsession with history, churches, and pubs. Thus, we went happily to the ToL.

I expected to thoroughly enjoy my repeat trip, and to watch Austin be amazed at all the fascinating stories contained in the very stones of this ancient palace. Instead, I was blown away by the joy of discovering aspects that had passed me by last time. I shouldn't have been so surprised. Like all lovely things, we can enjoy them differently every time and still be comforted at the familiarity.

The ToL has two chapels. One is inside the White Tower, but we aren't going to go there today. Instead, we visit Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. This chapel is a still-functioning church for the Yeoman Warders and their families, and anyone else who fancies going to church where Anne Boleyn is buried under the altar.

I remembered from my previous visit that many famous executed persons were buried in the church. I was excited to see that flowers had been placed on Queen Anne's grave, as the previous day was the anniversary of her execution. The guards noted that they honor her thus every year, and other prisoners, and they seem to do so with real conviction. What was new, however, is today's blog topic. I know that I'm going to muddle some of the facts, and I really could go check them before I write. For now, however, let's assume that I'm correct and I'll notify you if the dates or names are incorrect. Have faith in Lady Beatrice, for she loves well even when she knows not the correct dates.

This isn't my photo, as pictures aren't allowed in the chapel anymore. But this is how it looks and you can see that it is a small chapel. The the left you see a black iron fence, which contains the final resting place of a couple who you've probably never heard of - Sir Richard Cholmondeley and his wife. It is prominently placed in the chapel, and most people wrongly assume upon entering that Someone Very Famous lies within.

Our Yeoman Warder Beefeater Guide Extraordinaire told us a lovely story. During the time of Queen Victoria, the paving stones of the chapel were beginning to sag and crumble. Not wanting this ancient and lovely chapel to fall into ruin, the Queen ordered that the structure be supported and saved. Up came the paving stones, and to the astonishment of the builders, over 200 bodies were found! Each body was exhumed, and every effort made to identify and rebury these surprise persons in the crypt. During this time, they decided to check on the identities of the bodies inside the above ground tomb located inside the black iron fence. Once again, to their great astonishment, the men found not hundreds of bodies or indeed any bodies at all! Instead, this tomb contained a baptismal font.

Cut into four pieces, this font was from the 1500's and had been hidden by a priest (it is believed) during the Commonwealth. If your history fails you, this was between Charles I and Charles II. Charles I, son of James I (of King James Version fame) was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell and Co. and they attempted to restore the government to REAL work, etc. Basically, history repeats itself and we always think we can do better than those before us. Can you tell I'm not a huge fan of this regicidal Puritan? Anyways, whatever your feelings on Old Ironsides, you should know that he was indeed a strict Puritan and was strongly against court gaiety (which did indeed get out of hand...yikes) and pageantry and such. His ilk didn't like Jesus or his disciples depicted visually, and so they sought to rid the land of 'popish showcases'. They raided churches and tore town gilded altars, stained glass, and other lavish trappings.

This brings us back to the priest, whoever he was, at St. Peter ad Vincula.

When I think about this story, I am so moved. I can see him pacing up and down the floor of the church, trying to decide what to do. He can hear the sounds of change: yelling, weapons, cries of triumph and shouts of defeat. Change is coming, and it will infiltrate his small chapel. He knows they will tear down his altar cloths and ransack the church for ornamented chalices. And then, he has an idea. He cuts the baptismal font into four pieces and hauls it into the tombs of those who have gone before him. This font has baptised countless babes, and it will now go into hiding.

Can't you just see it? I can't stop thinking about this nameless man.

I keep thinking about his conviction. It was so important to him to save this piece of his church, his faith, his life, that it was alright if it didn't see the light of day for hundreds of years. And indeed, it didn't. He had to have tremendous faith that one day, someone would open this tomb and find his secret. One day, the gift of a wooden font would be given to the people of the Tower of London, and they would give thanks for a priest who lived long ago.

Few people are willing to be part of something that includes those yet to be born. In centuries past, people were well acquainted with their place in history. Death came quickly, and was part of life. Likewise, buildings took decades and would be completed for the enjoyment of those who were not yet in their mother's womb. It is one thing to look to the past and learn from ancestors, their mistakes and triumphs. It is quite another, and much more difficult, to do things unselfishly for those whom we'll never meet. I can build my estate for my children because I love them. I don't know that I've thought very much about my descendants two hundred years from now. What can I do for them? How can I serve them in the way my ancestors have served me?

The story of this font, once in four pieces and now displayed at the back of the chapel, really made me think. Preservation and restoration are life-long tasks, and sometimes even lives-long.

I have thoughts about London, and even the Tower of London, that are much more exciting and fun to read about. But I had to start here, because it if anything embodies my trip. London is quite full to the brim with history, and to walk through a place with such history leaves you changed. I touched a wooden font that baptized children during the 1500's. It touched me, and I had to stop and think about it. I owe it to myself, to the priest who heard change, and to those who aren't yet born.

No man is an island, and no generation is either. How lucky I am to have realized it! Now go I into the world to find my own font, and how to preserve such beauty for the future.

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