The Tower of London’s whitewashed history is just as bad as the statue-topplers’


The Tate drew mockery last year for staging an exhibition of Hogarth paintings with an absurd set of apologia under them, which speculated moralistically over the works’ real or imagined links with sexism, colonialism, slavery and so on. At the risk of inciting the statue-topplers, I think it only fair to mention that over the Easter holiday I came across a similar sort of propaganda, this time written by “the other side” to defend its subject from some imagined criticism at the Tower of London.

It was in the so-called “Bloody Tower”, the torture chamber that is one of the prime attractions of the Tower, especially for children. Visitors were invited to inspect ghastly instruments of torture – the rack, some replica manacles and something called a “scavenger’s daughter”, which holds its victim in a crouching position and very slowly crushes them.

To my surprise, the information board was unchanged from when I remember seeing it more than a decade ago. It led with this: “Torture was very rare in England.” This is a rather bold statement with which to frame our understanding of the matter. Surely, though, it was backed by substantial evidence? Well, the sign offered some data – there are records of 81 tortures, 48 at the Tower – but admitted that this information was unreliable.

Then it said: “Torture was never officially a part of English law.” It was reserved, the sign said, only for those accused of treason or “being investigated for serious crimes, such as robbery and murder” and was “almost exclusively used during interrogation of prisoners”. It was impossible not to notice a self-justifying tone to all of this.

All it did was sow doubt, however. Even the most innocent Horrible History reader knows that thinking up ghastly ways to maim and dismember each other was (and is) a favoured human past-time. And forgive me, but I must have missed the “investigatory” purpose of the most famous English torturous acts I can recall off the top of my head, such as the hanging, drawing and quartering of William Wallace or the Carthusian monks. Nor can I fathom, if the Tower’s curators are right, how Bloody Mary earned her nickname, unless she was just a bloody difficult woman. Still, the oddest aspect of this pro-Tower or pro-monarchist or pro-English propaganda – whatever it is – was that the curators of the place felt the need to indulge in it. This country, like most, has a bloody past – why on earth should the Tower of London, of all places, downplay it? Who were the writers trying to defend when they wrote it, and from what?

There may be a case for presenting a brief discussion of the common law’s opposition to torture and recounting that it could be controversial even at the time. It is valuable to know that the English legal system’s notion of human dignity has deep roots. But let’s not pretend that the “official” story is the whole story. If we won’t record and present our history accurately, it is harder to defend it from extremists who want to rewrite it completely.

In the end, the only way to defeat the vandals and statue-topplers is to absorb their critique into our understanding of history, remove both the bile and the blind spots, and move on. There is no route to victory in the culture wars in defending the indefensible.


The odd Beefeater

The guardians of the Tower are the famous Beefeaters, whose welcoming, cheerful image now greets anyone who lands at Heathrow Airport. They may once have had a hand in torturous acts, but it’s fair to say that the modern Beefeaters don’t exactly exude a Spanish Inquisitor vibe. Their motley garb makes them look like a cross between soldiers and clowns, which is unfortunate, because all of them are in fact former soldiers with unblemished military records of at least 22 years. They are not, however, all beef eaters. One, I was told, is vegetarian.



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