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“Pray, Doctor Manette,” said Mr. Darnay ... “have you seen much of the Tower?”

The Tower of London is one of the oldest and most famous of the city’s buildings. Erected in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, it was originally a strategically-placed fortress, standing on the Thames just outside London, which it defended. The Tower was gradually enlarged under subsequent kings, and became, especially from the 16th century forward, famous as the prison and site of execution of high-profile prisoners of the crown. Two unfruitful wives of Henry VIII were beheaded there, as was Lady Jane Grey (who was queen of England for nine days); Sir Thomas More and Cromwell were executed outside the Tower walls, on Tower Hill; etc. (Woodley 104).

After the Restoration (of Charles II in 1660), the Tower was less frequently used as a prison, and began to acquire its more modern aspect – that of a museum devoted to its own past (Woodley 105). Indeed, by the late 18th century, the Tower seems to have become something of a tourist attraction: Histories of London from the period describe the “extensive and noble prospect of the Thames” available from the White Tower, the pleasantness of the “Ladies’ Walks” on the walls of the fortress, and the six-pence admission price of the zoo (Harrison 82-5). This zoo – the Royal Menagerie – gave its name to what is still the “Lion’s Gate” on the west side of the Tower, and was moved to the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park in 1834 (Baedeker 131).

Despite the increasingly “touristy” aspect of the Tower in the 18th century, it is possible that Darnay would have been detained there in 1780 (as he says he was). The last prisoners to be held in the Tower were detained in the early 19th century, and Francis Henry de la Motte (the French spy whose trial was Dickens’ model for Darnay’s) was held in the Tower. De la Motte’s detention there, however, seems to have been the result of special circumstances. Newgate Prison, damaged in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and overcrowded with prisoners in what serviceable cells remained, could not easily accommodate him. Thus, it was recommended that he be incarcerated in the Tower (Annual Register … for 1781 185).

A full account of the Tower as it appeared in the late 18th century is excerpted here from Harrison’s New and Universal History, Description, and Survey of … London (1776):

The Tower of London, which is situated on the east of the city, originally consisted of no more than what is now called the White Tower, which was erected by William the Conqueror in the year 1076, with a view to secure to himself a safe retreat, in case of any sudden surprise. [The White Tower is so called because it was whitewashed, at Henry III’s direction, in 1240.]

After the death of William the Conqueror, his son William Rufus, in the year 1098, surrounded it with walls, and a broad and deep ditch, which, in some places, was an hundred and twenty feet wide.

That part where the lions and other wild beasts are now [in 1776] kept, was built by king Henry the First for the reception of those animals, which were presented to him by the emperor Frederick.

Considerable additions were made to it by succeeding kings. Edward II built the church of St. Vincula within the Tower; and in the year 1465 the fortifications were greatly enlarged by king Edward IV. The White Tower was rebuilt in 1638; and after the restoration of it was thoroughly repaired, and a great number of additional buildings made to it. 

In 1663 the ditch was cleansed, all the wharfing about it was rebuilt of brick and stone, and sluices made for admitting and retaining the Thames water as occasion might require.

At present, besides the White Tower, are the offices of ordnance, the mint, the keepers of the records, the jewel office, the Spanish armory, the new or small armory, barracks for the soldiers, and handsome houses for the chief officers who reside there; so that the Tower of London appears now more like a town than a fortress.

The situation of this building is certainly the most eligible that could have been projected for the purposes intended, it lying about eight hundred yards to the eastward of London-bridge; and consequently near enough to protect this opulent city from invasion by water.

It stands on the north side of the river Thames, from which it is separated by a convenient wharf and narrow ditch, over which is a draw-bridge for the more easy receiving or sending out [of] ammunition and naval or military stores. On this wharf is a long and beautiful platform whereon stand sixty-one pieces of cannon mounted on very handsome carriages, which are only fired on days of state, or to demonstrate any joyful news to the publick.

Within the walls, on a line with this wharf, is a platform seventy yards long, called the Ladies' Lane, because much frequented by the ladies in the summer. It is shaded within by a row of lofty trees, and without commands a most delightful prospect of the shipping on the river. The ascent to this line is by stone steps; and being once upon it, you may walk almost round the walls of the Tower without interruption, in the course of which are three batteries….

The Tower-wharf is enclosed at each end by gates, which are opened every morning for the convenience of a free intercourse between the respective inhabitants of the Tower, the city and its suburbs.

Under this wharf is a water-gate through the Tower wall, commonly called Traitor’s Gate, by which it has been customary, in former times, to convey traitors and other state prisoners, to and from the Tower….

The White Tower is a large square irregular building, no one side answering to another, nor are any of its watch-towers, of which there are four at the top, built alike. It consists of three very lofty stories, under which are spacious and commodious vaults. The top is covered with flat leads, from whence there is an extensive and noble prospect of the Thames, and the adjacent country…. Having pointed out the principal buildings within the Tower, we shall proceed to the description of those curiosities which are usually shewn to strangers. And first,

Of the Lions and other wild Beasts.

Those who are inclined to see the rarities in the Tower of London, generally take a view of the wild beasts, before any other curiosity, as, by their situation, they first present themselves; for when you have entered the outer gate, and passed what is called the spur-guard, you will see the keeper’s house before you in the corner of the right hand, directly opposite to the second gate, which you will easily know by the figure of a lion being placed over the door. By ringing a bell, which you will readily see, you will instantly gain admittance; and on paying six-pence each person, will be shewn such a noble collection of wild creatures as is well worthy the admiration of the curious. (82-5)

The existence of this menagerie is perhaps the most obviously “touristy” element of the Tower in the late 18th century. In 1776, the wild beasts included “PEDORE, a beautiful lioness brought from Senegal, and presented to his majesty by governor O’Harra” and “CAESAR, brother of Pedore … supposed to be the finest lion ever seen in England … [whose] mouth opens wide, and discovers a frightful set of teeth; and when he roars, he may be heard at a great distance” (Harrison 85). There was also Miss Zara, a lion from the Barbary Coast; Phillis, a wolf from Boulogne; Sukey, a bear from North America; Hector, a Moroccan lion who “greatly resemble[d] Caesar”; Helena, “companion to Hector”; Miss Groggery, a leopardess from Algiers; Sir Robert, a leopard from Senegal; Miss Nancy, a lioness from Senegal; a “Lion-Monkey” from the Cape of Good Hope (“This beast is of a black colour, with very shaggy hair”); an “American Black Bear”; a “large brown eagle” from Norway; an “Eagle of the Sun” (a kind of eagle said to fly higher than any other and “able to look steadfastly at the sun, even in his most refulgent splendor”); a “Racoon” from Norway; Rose, a Norway wolf; and Miss Sally, a leopardess from Morocco “brought over in the same ship with Hector” (Harrison 86). These final cautionary remarks are added:

Such was the state of the wild beasts in the Tower of London, when the writer of this work took his survey of that extensive fortress. Before, however, we quit this place, it may not be improper to observe, that, among other things, the keeper generally relates some melancholy truth which has arisen from the indiscretion of people going too near the dens of the lions. We would, therefore, advise those who may hereafter go to indulge their curiosity in the sight of those animals, to stand at a proper distance from the dens, as the situation of the beasts [is] sufficiently eligible to gratify the nicest inspection. (Harrison 86)

This illustration, from Harrison’s New and Universal History … of London (1776), gives us a “View of the Tower from the River Thames,” as it would have appeared at the time of Darnay’s acquaintance with it.

This portion of Harrison’s map of London (1777) shows the Tower on the Thames, relative to London Bridge.

Click on map for larger view

“… What that unknown prisoner had written will never be read, but he had written something, and hidden it away to keep it from the gaoler.”

The story of this prisoner’s hidden communication is an invention of Dickens’, but the walls of cells in the Tower were known to bear the inscriptions of former prisoners. Tallis’s Illustrated London (1851) describes how

The walls of [one] ancient dungeon are covered with inscriptions from the hands of those which they once confined, inscriptions telling of the sorrows felt by writers who have long since mingled with the dust. (vol. 2, 148)

The most famous inscriptions, in Dickens’ time, were those of the Beauchamp Tower. Messages in Beauchamp Tower were first found and published in 1796 (some time after Darnay’s detention) when it was converted into a mess hall for garrison officers. When it was restored in 1854 (shortly before Dickens began writing A Tale of Two Cities), copies of the “Inscriptions, Memorials, and Devices” found in Beauchamp Tower were published by W. R. Dick (Sanders 78).

The great bell of St. Paul’s was striking One … when Mr. Lorry, escorted by Jerry, high-booted and bearing a lantern, set forth on his return-passage to Clerkenwell. There were solitary patches of road on the way between Soho and Clerkenwell, and Mr. Lorry, mindful of footpads, always retained Jerry for this service: though it was usually performed a good two hours earlier.

St. Paul’s cathedral, rebuilt according to the plan of architect Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London (1666), is located a little less than a mile and a half from Soho Square. Thus, the bell would probably have been audible in Soho Square in the quiet of the night. The relative locations of Soho Square and St. Paul’s are visible on this portion of Harrison’s 1777 map of London (Soho Square is at the top left; St. Paul’s is at the lower right).

Click on map for larger view

The great dome of St. Paul’s is a familiar part of the London skyline, and the cathedral itself forms a kind of spiritual center for the city, religious edifices having existed on the grounds of St. Paul’s since the Roman occupation of England. The first Christian church, dedicated to St. Paul, was built and later burned down, 604-75 A.D.; in 685 it was rebuilt, but destroyed by Vikings in 962; and Old St. Paul’s was then built (1087-1310) in the Norman style. Old St. Paul’s stood until the Great Fire of London (1666), when two thirds of the city burned (“History Timeline,” St. Paul’s Cathedral). Afterwards, various plans for a new St. Paul’s were entertained; Christopher Wren’s was ultimately accepted, and building commenced in 1675.

Harrison’s New and Universal History, Description and Survey of … London (1776) furnishes this “View of St. Paul’s Cathedral” (above) as it appeared in the late 18th century, and describes the history and building of the new cathedral (about a hundred years old when Mr. Lorry walks home with Mr. Cruncher) as follows:

[T]he first stone … was laid by Mr. Strong, the chief mason, on the 21st of June, 1675; and the work being prosecuted without the least interruption, the cross was put up, and the whole building completed, in the year 1711.

Thus was this noble fabric begun and finished in the space of thirty-six years, by one architect, the great Sir Christopher Wren; one principal mason, Mr. Strong; and under one bishop of London, Dr. Henry Compton: whereas St. Peter’s at Rome, the only structure that can come in competition with it, was 155 years in building, under twelve successive architects, … and attended by the best artists in the world for sculpture, statuary, mosaic work, and painting…. (328)

The “footpads” of whom Mr. Lorry is mindful are highwaymen who robbed on foot (OED).



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