All national museums in the UK were banned from charging admission more than a decade ago, and they now receive all their funding through government grants and private donations. This is a great thing for tourists, cheapskates, and tourist cheapskates like myself – and it means that if you have to go to the bathroom, it’s cheaper to find one in the building filled with famous, priceless works of art than to shill out 30 pence for a pay toilet on the street.
However, thanks to a fair amount of bureaucracy and red tape, multiple historic sites and museums in London don’t qualify as national museums and thus continue to charge admission. Most notable among these exceptions is the Tower of London. I was quite disappointed a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to the Tower expecting free culture and was instead confronted by guards expecting me to pay 14 pounds for a ticket. I briefly considered trying to sneak in, but given the Tower’s millennium-old reputation as both an impenetrable fortress and an inescapable prison, I gave up on my plan and slunk home instead.
But I returned yesterday, 14 pounds in hand, having reluctantly accepted the fact that if indeed I want to do everything there is to do here, I might have to spend some money along the way.
First, in all seriousness, let me tell you this – should you ever be in London, just go ahead and fork over 14 pounds to get into the Tower of London. The ticket gets you into several different museums within the Tower walls, not to mention an excellent tour by a Yeoman Warder – one of those guys in funky hats who served as a prison guard and now simply condenses 1,000 years of British history into 55 minutes for tourists.
The grounds themselves put me in mind of Disneyland – not just because the whole joint is all ye olde European, but also because it’s full of tourists meandering around with people in period costume. And there are gift shops.
For those of you who, like me before I visited, aren’t totally clear on the Tower of London’s history, I’ll try to bring you up to speed. Basically, in 1078, William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, built the Tower as a fortress from which to run his campaign against the resident Britons who didn’t welcome the invading Normans as liberators.
In the intervening thousand or so years, the fortress served as a secure royal residence whenever the peasants got too uppity, and then as a prison, wherein a who’s who of European high society who had run afoul of the royal family were locked up, tortured, and executed. Listing them all would be like listing all the artists on one of those soft rock compilation albums they advertise on daytime TV – Henry IV, Thomas More, Ann Boleyn, Guy Fawkes (as seen in V For Vendetta!) and Edward IV’s two sons, commonly known as The Princes in the Tower, who were sent there by their asshole uncle Richard III and later killed.
They probably weren’t the inspiration for the Spin Doctors’ hit 1993 single ‘Two Princes’, but I like to pretend that they were.
As someone who is not a huge expert on English history, it was refreshing to see that not only is there a country with a history nearly as violent and intolerant as ours in the U.S., but also that the curators and guides didn’t sanitize it at all to try and make the Crown look better, nor did they sugarcoat the 1,000-year orgy of torture and death for the various children on the tour (all of whom seemed to enjoy themselves greatly – in your face, Grand Theft Auto).
They wouldn’t let me take pictures of the crown jewels, but honestly, for all the fanfare, I wasn’t all that impressed. It’s a bunch of incredibly ornate golden plates and crowns, inset with as many precious stones as they could fit on there. It’s mostly a testament to the royal family’s age-old pursuit of bling. What I did find impressive was the fact that they had the audacity to put a collection box and a big sign begging for donations right next to three rooms’ worth of enough jewelry to buy (and giftwrap) Guam.
What I was allowed to take pictures of were some of the highly decorative weapons on display in the royal armory, two of which I’d like to leave you with today. Sure, the Crown Jewels are nice and all, but these are like Crown Jewels that can kill people.
Truman Capps blogs about all the other stuff he’s been doing in England on his blog, Hair Guy.