Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s London Travel Diary

Yesterday we visited the Tower. There is no place in England better worth seeing when we remember all that it’s old grey walls have seen. An American should feel the influence of the grand recollections attached to the Tower of London even more than an Englishman. Our common origin connects us as nearly with the English of the times preceding the settlement of America, as the English of the present day themselves can be. We claim as ours all who lived before the time when our immediate ancestors sought a home in the new world. This co would give us all that is most poetic & romantic, all that stirs the heart and excites the imagination in the history of the Tower. All the great & thrilling recollections, all the historic interest, the memories of feudalism, despotism, of the dark old times and the dawning of better days. We have with our English brethren common property in the legends, the traditions, the history of these “towers of Julius,” or of William the Conqueror. We can gaze with the same feelings on the moat, the walls, the time-worn gates & vaulted gateways. We can remember as they do the men on whom those gates have closed, Wallace & Sir Thomas More, Raleigh & Essex Our blood chills at the name of the Traitor’s Gate & at the sight of the dark stones in the Court yard which mark the spot where fell the heads of Anne Boleyn & of Essex. We have all these memories belonging to the Tower of London entirely unvulgazrized by more recent associations. We visit this remarkable spot fresh, unhacknied, happy in our knowledge of the past, our ignorance of the present.

The Tower is a town in itself which covers more than twelve acres surrounded by a moat and wall. The moat is crossed by a bridge and you pass the wall under an arched gateway. Within are houses, streets and a population of men, women, children & soldiers amounting to nearly 14.000 souls. The Tower is now a regular shew place, to which you pay for admittance as to any other raree shew. You are received and courteously treated by Wardens or Yeomen in the costume of the age of Henry 8th, a sort of frock or shirt of scarlet cloth coming to the knee & trimmed with bands passing over the shoulders & down the seams, a girdle round the waist, a round hat with a flat crown decorated with bows of various coloured ribbons, and a sword in the hand. These Wardens have likewise badges on the breast & back, the Rose, Thistle & Shamrock in gold with the Queen’s cipher. These men are old soldiers taken from various regiments to whom the place of Warden is given as a reward for good conduct. Visiters go in parties of twelve under the care of a Warden—to each party may be attached a limited number, (I believe two of each) of soldiers, police men or blue coat boys who enter as a privilege, gratis. Our Warden was a sturdy old fellow who had fought in Spain & at Waterloo.

The only places open for visiters are the Armories and the Strong Room where the Regalia are kept.

The Armories are the Horse Armory, Queen Elizabeth’s and the Grand Store House containing artillery & small arms.

The Horse Armory & Queen Elizabeth’s Armory are within the White Tower, a large massive building, a sort of citadel or Keep rising high in the midst of the enclosure & surrounded by an open, paved space. There are four turrets at the four corners of the main tower.

The Horse Armory is a room one hundred & fifty feet long by thirty three long wide. It contains a number of equestrian figures of English Kings and their attendant nobles, dressed, as well as their horses, in the armour belonging to the time in which they lived—in some cases the identical suits worn by the individuals themselves. Among these are Edward 1st, Henry 8th, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, & Charles 1st wear their own armour.

In following the dates of these military & knightly accoutrements I remarked with some surprise, that the oldest in date, Edward 1st’s is a coat of mail composed of iron rings, a sort of net work very flexible & apparently much more comfortable (if such a word can be applied to such a thing) and manageable, than the heavy plate armour of later times, covering back and breast, legs and arms with a load of steel (sometimes gilt, inlaid with gold or engraved,) enough, one would suppose, to weigh the wearer to the earth. The horses have iron petticoats that look like deep flounces, round their breasts and the lower parts of their bodies. I should like to know by what process of improvement these heavy sheets of metal were substituted for the easy, pliant coats of mail. The faces of these equestrian figures are of wax—very ugly and unnatural.

We had nothing to complain of in our guide, who repeated by rote a catalogue of the curiosities, except his hurrying us from room to room much too fast for any thing more than a hasty glance at the different objects. From the Horse Armoury we were bustled along to Queen Elizabeth’s Armory, a room said to have been the prison room of Sir Walter Raleigh, and containing many things I should have liked much to examine had I been permitted to do so, but our Yeoman was impatient and strided on, calling on us to follow and explaining as he went, as rapidly as a schoolboy repeats his lesson. Among other things which I contrived to see because they were conspicuous or vehemently pointed out, were

1. Her Highness, Queen Elizabeth. A wax figure all petticoats and pearls, mounted on a cream-coloured horse led by a page, and appearing as when she went in procession to St. Paul’s, to return thanks for her victory over the Spaniards.

2. A small room without light (or ventilation it seemed to me) except through the narrow door, dark, close & dungeon-like, I could scarcely breathe in it for one moment, said to have been Sir Walter Raleigh’s sleeping chamber.

3. Windows which shew the thickness of the tower walls, more than fourteen feet.

4. Instruments of torture, said to have been taken from the Spaniards. The collar of torment a huge ring of iron of many pounds weight, thumb screws, and the cravat, a horrible looking engine by which an unhappy wretch, bent into a stooping posture, might have his neck, hands & feet confined in iron rings & locked together. Such inventions as these make me ready to believe that some men are a little lower than the devils!

5. A model of in wood of the block & an axe of very clumsy form said (let who will believe,) to have been the very one with which Anne Boleyn & Essex had their heads stricken from their shoulders.

Against the walls were many specimens of obsolete armour, offensive & defensive, the names of which one meets with in ballads & novels particularly Walter Scott’s. I should have liked much to examine them more particularly but our driver trotted us away from the White Tower, across a paved court (in which on our return, he pointed out to us the former site of the block, marked by a square of black stones,) to a long large building wherein is a storehouse full of various things. Here are cannons of all sizes, ages & materials & some naval curiosities, among others one of the guns of the Royal George, brought up with part of it’s carriage or the frame in which it was set, after being fifty three years under water, all encrusted with shells & other things of the Sea.

From this store house you ascend a wide staircase to a sight the grandest and most imposing of all. A room 345 feet in length, filled with small arms, guns, pistols, swords, bayonets &c &c for one hundred thousand men. These are either regularly stacked in the middle, or formed into columns, whilst ranged round the walls in the most rich & varied patterns, are arms of obsolete forms or such as are used by foreign nations, Russians, Austrians, Prussians or French. The Russian patterns seemed to me the most shewy & the most deadly, just as might be expected among a people imperfectly civilized. The love of destruction and of ostentation belongs to this stage of society when almost equal pleasure is taken in ornament and in bloodshed. Here too is a beautiful brass cannon of Italian workmanship, taken by Bonaparte from the Knights of Malta and by a British sea captain from Bonaparte, and here is a musket formerly the property of Tippoo Saib. “On a pillé partout” as the Mayor of London is said to have said to Marshall Soult, complimenting him on his universal genius for depredation. See that most pious & respectable sunday paper, the Age.

Having been allowed to remain in the Armory of small arms just long enough to see how much there was to see & how many things there were that we should have been delighted to see, had such been the will of our Commander in Chief, we were marched out. When we found ourselves, somewhat vexed & disappointed, in the open space before the door, we were asked whether we were willing to pay two shillings to see England’s Regalia, valued at two millions. John Bull knows how to get in small ways the money which he spends in gross. After having been kept waiting a time as unreasonably long as the time during which we were allowed to examine the Regalia was unreasonably short, we were conducted into a strong cell, a sort of dungeon poorly lighted, where, in a stone recess barred with iron, like wild beasts in a Cage, were kept the Crowns, Sceptres, and Swords of state borne or worn on solemn occasions by the Sovereigns of Great Britain. Here likewise were various dishes, salt-cellars, flaggons and chalices of pure gold.

The old Hag wrinkled & doting, who inhabits, during a certain part of the twenty four hours, this dreary region, where precious things lie hidden as in their native mines & guarded by a Gnome, repeated in a sort of chant monotonous & rapid, the lesson from which we gathered what we could of the history of these insignia of royalty.

A crown worn by Edward the Confessor.?

A crown worn by Queen Elizabeth.

An ivory sceptre borne by Anne Boleyn, I presume as apocryphal as the Axe which cut off her head.

But then came the crown & sceptres of pretty Queen Victoria, modern & authentic. The Crown contains what seemed to my ignorant eyes “a Sea of “red” light” in the form of a ruby and a heaven of blue, in a sapphire as large as one of Juno’s eyes.

There was a gold salt-cellar as they called it in the form of the white tower itself, square with turrets that looked indeed like pepper boxes, massive and richly wrought said to have been presented to King William 3d by some town or corporation, I forget what. A font of gold for royal christenings, two round dishes of the same precious metal, with various other utensils for shew or use of equal richness. We were warned to look rapidly and take in as much at once as our eyes would hold, for other eyes were waiting for the same sights, and the den was too small to hold many persons at once. We left the light of the Gems and Gold to return to the light of Heaven, our Warder led the way, pointing out to us as we [. . .] went several traditionary spots; we repassed the Gate way, recrossed the Bridge & entered our carriage just as a drizly mist was turning into a rain.

We purpose to pay the Tower another visit and expect another six shillings in a second survey of the rooms. I do not much like this taking money at the door of such a place as the Tower. There is a sort of bathos in it; a fall from the high recollections with which one approaches the time-hallowed spot to this vulgar demand for shillings and pence before you are suffered to enter the Sanctuary. I would say to the Sovereign, were the Sovereign a man, what Sterne, when [. . .] threatened with the seizure of his black satin breeches, said to the King of France, “It is not well Sire.” Still less is it well this sordid grasping for pence under the sceptre of a fair, young girl. But poor Queen Victoria is no way accountable for it. I doubt if she knows of the existence of such an abuse, and she certainly could not reform it if she would. I doubt if the Queen of England has ever visited the Tower of London or passed her royal feet over it’s dusty threshold. What should Victoria do in the City? unless once in her life, to dine off of gold with the Lord Mayor, and think perchance of Whittington and his Cat.

MS (MHi: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Diary, Ms N-1027); in Coolidge’s hand. Published in Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. (2011), 50–6.

on a pillé partout: plundered everywhere. “Sire, it is not well done,” appears in the opening pages of Lawrence sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. Dick whittington and his cat is the story of an orphaned boy who rose to political and financial prosperity in London, partly inspired by the life of Richard Whittington (ca. 1350–1423), merchant, philanthropist, and four-time mayor of London (ODNB).