Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fun British Facts ... Or Fiction?

Fact: The Tower of London gets insanely busy as the hours go by.

Mobs of school children and droves of tourists take over the place by noon. Fortunately, we got there at 9:30 and got in with a tour group led by a delightfully jolly "beefeater" named Bob. Bob the Beefeater was full of historical anecdotes about the nearly 950-year-old White Tower and its unhappy surroundings that saw so many executions, tortures and imprisonments.

Perhaps the most memorable anecdote was the bloody tale of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. He was one of six people to be executed inside the tower walls as opposed to the usual public gore-a-paloozas on Tower Hill.

As Bob the Beefeater told it, the unfortunate duke was captured in battle while trying to claim the throne in 1685. He was the oldest of 14 illegitimate children of the apparently well-traveled King Charles II.

Upon Charles' death, his younger brother James -- a Catholic -- got the throne. The duke rallied the Protestants to battle against his Uncle James ... and promptly lost and got sent to the Tower to await his death sentence. Scott drew as his executioner a "part-time butcher and full time drunk." Allegedly, the ax man was guilty of S.U.I. (swinging under the influence). And he hacked up the Duke's shoulders before finally severing the head on the fifth try.

Gruesome, right? Well, there's more. According to Bob the Beefeater, it was required for noblemen to have portraits made of them. But the portrait police or whoever tracks those things discovered the Duke of Monmouth had somehow slipped through the cracks unpainted. So as part of the Brits' No Nobleman Left Behind program, a doctor was summoned to stitch the duke's head back on so he could be rushed to a 24-hour portrait studio. The artist painted the duke on horseback with a scarf around his neck to hide the stitches, and that painting is on the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery, said Bob the Beefeater. "If you don't believe me, go and check for yourselves," he told the tour group.

So Elizabeth and I took an unplanned detour to the National Portrait Gallery, which was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative diversion (more on that later). We found the painting as Bob the Beefeater described, but as it turns out, artist Jan van Wyck painted the portrait of James Scott circa 1675 -- a full 10 years before Scott's death. Some further research online indicates the head-stitched tale is legend.

So the ruling on that anecdote ... it's fiction.

- Ryan Alessi


  1. I can't believe you are there in London already! It makes it seem so real that the rest of us will be joining you soon. Could it be?

  2. I think you two have stumbled on a new business model. You travel the world fact-checking info spewed by (surely well meaning) tour guides and debunking -- or at least further explaining -- commonly held urban legends. Love the blog. Tell us more about what you're eating and drinking!

  3. @Beth: it's hard for me to believe too! One tip: bring lots of layers of clothes. It was so cool here today that I was wearing five layers, including a fleece I had to buy near Picadilly Circus. It felt more like a Midwestern September than July.

    @Gena: It's England! No one comes for the food! Perhaps it's just a topic you're preoccupied with lately. ; ) (Yes, I did just wink at you electronically. Call me on it later.)