I took my eldest daughter to see the Crown Jewels at the weekend. It was a warm, sunny day, and rather than the two hours I’d expected to spend at the Tower of London, we spent five. We joined a tour by a Yeoman of the Guard – a beefeater – who informed us that all Yeomen had to have served in the Armed Forces for 22 years, hold the rank of Warrant Officer and have no black marks against them. The guy’s medals are testament to his worthiness for the role.
There was also a re-enactment of the execution of Anne Boleyn (no, they didn’t actually cut off the actress’s head), who asked to be beheaded in the French fashion – by a two-handed sword. The story goes that the executioner hid the weapon behind his back, and while the queen was praying he called for a boy to fetch his sword. As she raised her head to look for the boy in the crowd, the executioner – who already had the sword in his hands – removed her head with a single blow. When he lifted it up to show the crowd, her eyes were wide open – still looking for the boy – and her lips were parted in prayer. One less fortunate victim of a different executioner took five blows of the axe to die, and even then the head was still attached (think Nearly Headless Nick!) and had to be sawed off with the executioner’s knife.
Later, we looked at the array of different crowns and other jewels. These included a golden spoon for pouring oil on the head of a newly crowned monarch – a tradition that goes back to the prophet Samuel in the Bible, who anointed King David with oil. Some of the crowns bore bejewelled Fleur de Lis, a symbol of the French throne and a reminder of the English monarch’s age-old claim to it. The most prominent emblem, though, was the cross. This relates to the monarch’s role as God’s representative on earth, establishing that his or her legitimacy comes not from men, but from God, and that he or she is answerable only to Him.
On looking at the Royal Coat of Arms, Tabitha asked why it included a lion. It’s a good question, as lions aren’t native to the British Isles (I’m not sure about unicorns, though). I told her that it was because Richard the Lionheart had three lions on his coat of arms, and this has remained the symbol of England ever since.
Why Richard chose lions for his personal symbol is beyond my knowledge. Kings have used many animals to represent their power throughout history, including boars, eagles and even frogs. But the lion certainly has pedigree. Jesus is referred to as the Lion of Judah. But there are other uses of the lion as a symbol of power that predate the New Testament. I remember my visit several years ago to Mykenos in the Peloponnese. There, as I walked between Cyclopean walls towards the city gates, I looked up to see a pair of stone lions, sitting on either side of a pillar. They are ten feet tall and their faces have eroded with time, probably because they were made from a softer stone. Some even think they might have had jewels for eyes when they were first set in place. But the lions remain, over three thousand years later – faded symbols of the once unquestionable authority of the kings of ancient Mycenae. I wonder if the Tower of London will still be there in another two thousand years.