‘The Tower’, they call the shortest of these buildings. Do they not get the feeling its name has been somewhat overtaken?
Upstream of Tower Bridge, the tidal Thames ebbs and flows through the current power centres of both the English nation and the larger constitutional vehicle it presently rides, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (a.k.a. ‘the Union’) – although that ride feels wobblier by the day.
Many people think of this country as a democracy, and one of the oldest in the world at that. Its civilised, courteous, tea-sipping national persona fuses in their minds with the landscape of its capital city’s riverside, where red buses link the likes of the Palace of Westminster, the Victoria Embankment and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is in pride of place at the downstream culmination of this catalogue of modern wonders that stands the Tower of London, which draws in some three million awestruck visitors per year.
But there is a problem here.
The Tower was a political prison, torture dungeon and killing field. Erected by William of Normandy as part of a network of castles to scare his conquered populace into submission, by the time the English nation consolidated under the Tudor dynasty (1509-1603) the main use of this fortress had shifted to confining, torturing, and oftentimes decapitating high-profile political dissidents and prisoners of war. Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and William Laud were among the dozens who had their heads handed to them here, and even four hundred years later it was dragging German spies in front of its firing squads in both World Wars. Yet nowadays you can pay a hefty £24.70 per head – and keep the head – to go in and take carefree selfies on top of those corpses while marvelling at this architectural symbol of a country which, they would have you believe, has political freedom and human rights in its national DNA.
That story of democratic destiny has been incredibly powerful in the English self-consciousness. But as we follow the Thames right through the middle of its ancient nuclei – the City of London and the City of Westminster – the river will have a quite different story to show us: of a heritage packed, like everyone else’s, with greed, oppression, and violent struggle. A story in which for every piece of democracy these people have scrapped together, they have had to fight and die for it and could never be sure they wouldn’t lose it again at any moment – and in which its worst enemies have not been external threats, but the impulse for the abuse of power that has ever lurked in their own culture.
Power. Yes. That will be the Dark River’s melody today.
Start: Tower Bridge (nearest station: Tower Hill)
End: Putney Bridge (nearest stations: Putney Bridge, Vauxhall)
Length: 16km (10 miles)
Location: Greater London – Borough of Southwark, Borough of Lambeth, Borough of Wandsworth
Topics: Power versus democracy amongst the City of London merchants, Southwark bishops, Bankside and Lambeth recreationalists and the English Parliament in Westminster, then escaping through Vauxhall, Battersea, Wandsworth and Putney.
Today’s exploration is long. If you want to keep to the three main discussions, they are the City of London (immediately below), the story of Parliament (skip to ‘City of Westminster’), and the Putney Debates (skip to ‘Putney’ at the end.)