Last year at this time, I was in London to see my Dallas Cowboys play at Wembley Stadium. Little did I know that for the 100 year anniversary of World War I, there were special plans at the Tower of London to make what is known as Remembrance or Armistice Day extra special.
What is Armistice Day?
Many Americans may not have heard about Remembrance or Armistice Day (November 11th). In the US, we now call it Veteran’s Day. November 11th marks the day the armistice (cease fire agreement) was signed between the World War I Allies and Germany. In the US, the name changed to Veteran’s Day to expand the holiday to honor all military veterans.
Every year in the weeks leading up to November 11th, remembrance poppies are given out in return for a donation that goes to support the British Military. It is a simple paper design, but very meaningful as they commemorate the sacrifices of the armed forces and show support for those currently serving.
The Tower of London Poppies
So to mark the 100 year anniversary, 888,246 ceramic poppies (one for each British fatality during the war) were placed in the Tower of London moat. The major art installation was called Blood Swept Lands and the Seas of Red and was created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. Paul Cummins actually lost a finger making the poppies. The scale of the installation was intended to reflect the magnitude of 100 year anniversary and create a powerful visual commemoration. All of the ceramic poppies from the installation were sold, raising millions of pounds for charity. I wish I could have bought one, but by the time I learned about it, they were already sold out.
So, I braved the crazy crowds to see the ceramic poppies and it really was worth it. Seeing the sea of red was incredibly moving. My favorite part of the installation was where poppies were coming out of one of the tower windows, almost like a trail of blood tears. Since the poppies exhibit closed at the Tower of London, the “weeping window” section has been on tour (currently at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, England until January 2016).
Even without the poppies, the Tower of London is worth a visit. It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you plan on visiting London, you should check out the best guide on where to stay in London.
The Tower is a complex of several buildings set within two layers of walls and a moat. The White Tower, which is the center of the complex, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078! There were several phases of expansion, mainly under Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I in the twelve and thirteenth centuries.
Prisoners at the Tower of London
The Tower of London was also a prison, mostly for prisoners accused of treason. Elizabeth I was held here before she became Queen. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was imprisoned and later executed. Twenty-two people were executed in the Tower while more than 200 executions took place nearby at Tower Hill.
It was interesting to see the area where prisoners were held. There was graffiti on the walls that allegedly was done by some of the prisoners. Especially during the Tudor period (16th century), many prisoners were mentally and physically tortured. The main ways to torture people at the Tower were the rack and the manacles, which are on exhibit. I also liked the view of the Tower Bridge from this area, it’s one of most Instagrammed spots in London. The Tower Bridge is just beautiful, almost seems like something out of a fairy tale, and definitely worth a visit itself, especially since they have a newly installed glass floor.
The Crown Jewels
Being a fan of the royal family, my favorite part of the Tower of London is seeing the crown jewels. The mystique and beauty of the diamonds and precious jewels in the collection draws large crowds. You can see several different crowns (some which are still currently in use) and many other priceless items. Several pieces on display are still used for coronations. As you can imagine, there are armed guards protecting the jewels and they are changed every two hours. There is not an elaborate ceremony to change the guards like there is at Buckingham Palace (also worth a visit).
The Bloody Tower
The Bloody Tower was the main entrance to the Tower of London from the river until the outer ward was built. Now, it is known as the site of the murder of the “Princes in the Tower.” The two young Princes in the Tower were Edward V and his brother, Richard Duke of York. While preparing for Edward’s upcoming coronation, they were put in the Tower of London by the man appointed to look after them, their uncle, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and never seen again. Richard then took the throne for himself. It has been said that the two princes haunt the Bloody Tower.
The White Tower
Lastly, be sure to also see the armory exhibit inside the White Tower. The White Tower is the oldest building in the Tower of London, so it dates back more than 900 years. Inside you can see an impressive exhibit of the armor for many the past kings (Henry VIII, Charles I and James II) and even their horses. You can also see the Chapel Royal of St. John.
Guided Tour with a Yeoman Warder
There is so much history in this place, definitely more than I can cover in this blog. If you are interested in learning more, I would recommend taking a guided tour where Yeoman Warders (popularly known as ‘Beefeaters’) will “entertain you with tales of intrigue, imprisonment, execution, torture and much more.” The ‘Beefeaters’, as they are nicknamed, have long been symbols of London and Britain. Their nickname comes from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, where they could eat as much beef as they wanted from the king’s table. Yeoman Warders are required to have served in the armed forces with an honorable record for at least 22 years and they are happy to answer your questions about the Tower or take a picture with you!
Ceremony of the Keys
The Ceremony of the Keys is the ritual that has been held every evening at the Tower of London for the last 700 years when the main gates are locked for the night. The only part of the Ceremony of the Keys that has changed over the centuries is the name of the monarch. It has never been canceled and was only delayed once – when London was being bombed during World War II. The guards apologized to the King, and he was understanding.
The public can watch the Ceremony of the Keys if they have a ticket. You need to book tickets online (which are free except for a small administration fee) at least a year in advance.
Tower of London Ice Skating Rink
If you are lucky enough to visit London during the holiday season, you can go ice skating at the Tower of London! I think that would be an unforgettable experience. At night, the Tower is lit up adding, even more, drama to the ice skating rink.
Have you visited the Tower of London? I would love to hear about your experience.
Expert Tips for Visiting the Tower of London
- Take a guided tour of the Tower of London with a Beefeater.
- Be sure to stop by and see Tower Bridge.
- Honor those that have served in the military (not just on Armistice/Remembrance/Veteran’s Day).