The whitewashed history of the Tower of London is just as bad as that of the statue topplers

The Tate was mocked last year for holding an exhibition of Hogarth paintings with a preposterous set of underlying apologies, which sanctimoniously speculated on the works’ real or imagined links to sexism, colonialism, slavery, etc At the risk of inciting statue topplers, I think it’s fair to mention that over the Easter holiday I came across a similar type of propaganda, this time written by “the other side” to defend its subject against some imaginary criticism at the Tower of London.

It was in the so-called “Bloody Tower”, the torture chamber which is one of the Tower’s main attractions, especially for children. Visitors were invited to inspect horrific instruments of torture – the rack, replica handcuffs and something called “a scavenger’s daughter”, which holds its victim in a squatting position and crushes him very slowly.

To my surprise, the information board was the same as when I remember seeing it over ten years ago. It led to this: “Torture was very rare in England. This is a rather bold statement with which to frame our understanding of the matter. However, surely it was backed up by substantial evidence? Well, the panel offered some data – there are records of 81 tortures, 48 ​​at the Tower – but admitted that this information was unreliable.

Then he said: “Torture has never been a formal part of English law.” It was reserved, according to the sign, only for those accused of treason or “under investigation for serious crimes, such as robbery and murder” and was “almost exclusively used in the interrogation of prisoners”. It was impossible not to notice a self-justifying tone to it all.

However, this only sowed doubt. Even the most innocent reader of Horrible History knows that finding gruesome ways to mutilate and dismember was (and is) a favored human pastime. And forgive me, but I must have missed the “investigative” purpose of the most famous English acts of torture that I can recall from memory, such as the hanging, drawing and quartering of William Wallace or the Carthusian monks . I also can’t understand, if the Tower curators are right, how Bloody Mary earned her nickname, unless she’s just a damn tough woman. Yet the strangest thing about this pro-Tour or pro-monarchist or pro-English propaganda – whatever it was – was that local conservatives 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?

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

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


The Strange Beefeater

The guardians of the tower are the famous Beefeaters, whose welcoming and cheerful image now greets all who land at Heathrow Airport. They may have participated in torture before, but it’s fair to say that modern Beefeaters don’t exactly exude a Spanish inquisitor vibe. Their motley costume makes them look like a cross between soldiers and clowns, which is unfortunate, since all of them are actually ex-soldiers with unblemished military backgrounds of at least 22 years. However, not all of them are beef eaters. One, I was told, is a vegetarian.

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