The Tower is a very tall and stately structure, and it is hard to believe it was begun in the period 1309/10.
The wall paintings are thought to have been added in the period 1320-1340.
Visitors often ask who was the King of England during these periods in the Tower’s history. They are thinking, how was this upstart family, peasants as recently as 1200, able to rise so high? And some ask, was the Tower a defensive building, was it needed as a refuge during the turbulence and violence of these centuries?
This is my History Ruler, which I have kept since my children were at Primary School, over a quarter of a century ago. Still in very good condition, not chewed, or splintered!
The Kings (and later the Queens) of England are listed in chronological order.
Our records first show the existence of the Thorpe family as peasants, tenants of the Watervilles (Norman Knights) as early as 1175.
This was during the reign of Henry II. Henry was a strong and vigorous king, who fathered many sons, the prime duty of any king being to provide an heir to ensure the stability of the kingdom.
King Henry’s first two sons died. Firstborn William died aged 3, and second-born Henry, the Young King (uniquely crowned as Young King during his father’s lifetime) died a sordid death of disease in France, aged about 27.
Henry II’s fourth son, Geoffrey, also predeceased his father, again in France, at the age of 28. Mortality rates were high in the Middle Ages, even for those born with the advantages of royalty.
Richard, the third son, survived to become King Richard the Lionheart, but died childless. On his death he was succeeded by his brother, Henry II’s youngest son, John. If King John were to have a further tag to his name, it would be John the Bad, as he is widely recognized to be England’s worst ever king. It was during his reign that Thurstan Thorpe, the ancestor of the Robert Thorpe who built the Tower, was made a free man, in 1212.
As a marker of reference on the Timeline, Magna Carta was signed in 1216. The ‘Great Charter’ was largely concerned with the rights of the Barons and other privileged and land-owning classes. It has since been immortalised as a beacon of universal human rights, but that was not how it started out. The Barons, the only class which had the power, collectively, to challenge the King, were sick of his tyrannical behaviour. They set out to force him to come to the negotiating table, and Magna Carta was the result.
John’s lawless and self-indulgent rule included seizure of his subjects’ lands, dispossession, imprisonment and physical violence. John extracted extortionate fines from anyone who opposed him, and was known to starve his enemies to death. In a chilling foreshadowing of later stories, he allegedly murdered his nephew, Prince Arthur. Arthur was the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, and therefore had a better right to the throne than John.
“He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement,” wrote the author of the 13th-century History of William Marshal, “that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty.”
The chronicler ‘Anonymous of Bethune’ wrote:
“He was a very bad man, more cruel than all others. He lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could he told lies rather than the truth… He was brim-full of evil qualities.”
“No man may ever trust him,” according to the troubadour Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly.”
A very dark period in English history befell the middle period of John’s rule. On 23rd March, 1208, the Pope laid an interdict over the whole of England. This was a punishment directed straight at the King, in retribution for John’s failure to agree with the Pope’s choice of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
Arguably, the punishment fell far heavier on the people of the country than on its King, who appeared undisturbed, and in fact accrued great financial benefit by confiscating church property and revenues.
To the people, it must have appeared that a dark cloud had fallen over the land. The church doors were sealed, and the congregation kept out. No burials were permitted within consecrated ground, and no-one was allowed to celebrate the Mass. No sacraments were permitted except the baptism of infants, and the penance of the dying. Many must have felt that they were descending into Hell.
The nearest equivalent I can imagine today is having all the supermarkets shut down, and the cinemas and TV turned off permanently. The church was as central and fundamental to medieval life as these things are to us today.
John took no notice, so the Pope went further, and in November 1209 he excommunicated John.
All the monastic chroniclers report the seizure or confiscation of church property. John appointed local men to take control over the barns and farm produce formerly controlled by the monasteries. They took the place of the monastic officials who had previously carried out the role.
In each parish or “vill”, four villagers, “rustici” were appointed in the king’s name to take charge of and administer the clergy’s barns. These men, taking church property, lived in fear of excommunication. They had to humbly appeal for absolution once the church was restored. Reference source:
The interdict went on for six years, and was finally lifted on 2nd July 1214.
In the middle of this period, we are told that the ancestor of the Thorpes who built the Tower, Thurstan de Thorpe, was made a free man. It is tempting to wonder how much the chaos and breakdown of normal rules of society had to do with this unusual event. In the medieval period, it was extremely difficult to move between social classes. I have written about this topic in my posts on the Pastons.
It is also tempting to wonder whether Thurstan de Thorpe obtained his freedom by taking on the spiritually dangerous and unpopular task of the “rustici”. Those who took on this work must have been compensated in some way.
Our records indicate that the Knight to whom Thurstan owed his tenancy was short of cash, after going on Crusade. The records indicate that Thurstan paid the Knight to obtain his freedom. Could the money have come from work done on the King’s business, taking care of produce from Church barns?
This unsettled and dangerous time was a good opportunity for an ambitious family to advance.
Effigy on King John’s Tomb, Worcester Cathedral:
The tomb was opened in 1797, and an account of the opening can be found on the British Library website.
Image: British Library