Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones is a sweeping history of the iconic British landmark. As you probably already know, my husband and I recently went to London and one of our favorite days was the one where we spent the morning at the Tower of London. We took hundreds of photos that day and I even took a photo of the memorial near where one of his ancestors was beheaded.
Jones does a good job of covering the history of the Tower, including its various purposes. First built shortly after William the Conqueror gained tenuous control of his new empire, the White Tower was designed by a Bishop, Gundulf. (I found myself wondering if the similarity between his name and Gandalf’s is merely a coincidence. Possibly but, given Tolkien’s own love of history and language, would it surprise anyone if there were an intentional connection?) At first, the Tower was used for more than a prison. Part palace, part menagerie, many famous and infamous people found themselves within the Tower’s walls.
The book is mostly well organized although I found it a bit confusing. The second chapter focuses on the menagerie and mint, both of which found a home within and near the Tower. Because of the focus on these roles, the chapter spans a lot of time, with overlaps of information. The condensed history is more fully explored in the later chapters, more than three of which focus on the Tudor period. Then the final part returns to focusing thematically on the history, first focusing on the men who successfully escaped or failed in their attempts to regain freedom. The book then concludes with the civil wars in England (ironically, not very different from the political climate of England’s beginnings) and the final executions that occurred in the Tower during the World Wars.
I’m not sure that the book could have been organized differently, frankly. It’s hard to imagine how a strictly chronological exploration of the Tower’s history would have allowed for the detailed look at things like the menagerie. It’s hard to read about the animals, how they were mistreated either due to ignorance (the animal keepers believed that ostriches could ingest iron and fed them iron nails) or outright brutality (James I was especially vicious when it came to using and abusing the animals). But reading about them in one chapter is inevitably more distressing than the occasional mention a more chronological organization would have created. Focusing on certain parts of the Towers history by theme works, even if it is a bit confusing. Still, I found the second part, the one that takes up the bulk of the book, was easier to follow.
The entire book is fascinating and a great way to get an overview of England’s history. And, let’s face it, trying squeeze over 1000 years of very complicated politics, relationships, and more intrigue than can be imagined into under 500 words is bound to be hard to organize. Jones does a remarkable job and provides the reader with a thorough list of recommended reading in case a certain era, person, or event sparks particular interest. I’m glad I waited to read this book until after the trip but now I want to go back and revisit the Tower to see what more I can notice now that I have so much more historical context for things.