Echoes Of History

Originally posted July 13, 2009

On a late winter day many years ago, I wandered up a slight hill and through the gate of the Tower of London, the complex that has served for more than nine hundred years as fortress, residence, bank vault, jail and more. The Tower was the fourth stop of the day for me. I recall being interested, even fascinated in the historic things I was seeing: a Seventeenth Century home, a monument to the 1666 Fire of London, bits and pieces from Roman settlements in the basement of a church. But it was like reading old stories. There were stones and walls and chairs and inscribed dates. Nothing seemed alive.

And then I came to Tower Green, an open space inside the tower walls.  I stopped at a small sign near a plaque in the pavement, and I read:

On this site stood a scaffold on which were executed:
Queen Anne Boleyn 1536
Margaret, Countess of Salisbury 1541
Queen Catherine Howard 1542
Jane Viscountess Rochford 1542
Lady Jane Grey 1554
Robert Devereux Earl of Essex 1601
also near this spot was beheaded Lord Hastings 1483

I looked at the names on that simple sign, a few of which I recognized – the crowned queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and the uncrowned queen Lady Jane Grey – though I knew very little of their stories. And I looked at the shiny metal plaque centered inside a nearby quadrangle of chains.

In even the most average and quiet of lives, I imagine that there are moments when those lives shift, moments that one can look back at and say, “I changed right then.” My life has had more than a few of those moments, and I’ve written about some of them. But only a very few of such moments were more important to me than the few seconds it took for me to read that very plain sign and look at the plaque that marked the site of the scaffold.

“Blood flowed here,” I thought. As I had that thought, history ceased to be simply names and dates in books; it became people, those men and women whose lives had intersected for good or ill – mostly for ill, in that place I was standing – with the lives of those who were greater or at least more powerful.

Since that moment, I have probably read history more frequently than anything else (although I do still enjoy plenty of fiction). For a time, I dug into World War II and the Holocaust. The exploration and the settling of the American West – especially, for some reason, the Mormon migration from Illinois to what became Utah – caught my attention for a while. I’ve dabbled in ancient Egypt and dug into the end of the Romanov dynasty during the Russian Revolution. I find myself drawn, as I was when I was very young, to the American Civil War.

And recently, I’ve been teased by a television series into the idea of examining the very era that triggered my fascination with history. And that statement will launch a side trip:

A couple of weeks ago, the Texas Gal called our our cable and internet provider from her office and asked if it were possible for both our computers – my desktop and her laptop – to run from the same modem, mine via landwire and hers as a wireless. The answer was yes, and the woman on the phone told the Texas Gal that she could disconnect our standard modem immediately. “No, no, no!” said the Texas Gal, explaining that I was using the standard modem, adding that any disconnection should only come after we’d moved the wireless modem to where my computer resides and connected my machine to the wireless modem via the landwire.

Of course, within five minutes, my Internet access went away. I called and was told my wife had ordered the access disconnected. Damn, I thought, I really made her angry about something! When she came home as I was on the phone with our provider, she sighed resignedly and said, “I knew they were going to do that, even though I told them not to, twice.” After a brief conversation, my access was restored, and we made plans to move the wireless modem during the next weekend. The next morning, my access was gone once more for the same nonexistent reason. And when I called to complain and explain, the firm’s representative apologized, reactivated my line and offered us all the premium cable channels free for a year.

Now, back to the original story: That evening, I came across the third-season premiere of The Tudors, the tale of King Henry VIII of England as told by Showtime. And I was fascinated. Often bawdy, often bloody, it seems to be fairly accurate historically, and I’ve been catching up on the first season through our DVD service. And when I finish the current pile of books in my study, I think I’m going to dig a little bit into Tudor England and learn a little more about those unfortunates – and about the people and life around them – whose lives ended so many years ago at that place that changed my life.

A Six-Pack of Queens
“Black Queen” by Stephen Stills from Stephen Stills [1970]
“Little Queenie” by the Rolling Stones from ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!’ [1970]
“Witch Queen of New Orleans” by Redbone, Epic 10746 [1971]
“Caddo Queen” by Dobie Gray from Drift Away [1973]
“Mississippi Queen” by Mountain, Windfall 532 [1970]
“Gypsy Queen, Part One” by Gypsy from Gypsy [1970]

Note: The fairly plain sign I saw at Tower Green was replaced sometime later with a more detailed sign, further identifying the individuals executed and providing a date as well as a year of execution. And the spelling of one of the names was changed, from “Catherine Howard,” when I saw it, to “Katherine Howard” on the more detailed sign. In recent years, the site of the plain sign and plaque has been marked by a fairly ornate monument. I read in one of the documents linked at the monument page that the temporary scaffold on which those victims died was built at various locations over the years. So it’s still likely that blood flowed nearby, if not exactly at the place where I stood many years ago.

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