Tower Of London Unveils Memorial To The Executed

By Richard Moss | 04 September 2006
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a photograph of two beefeater wardens of the tower of London pointing towards a circular glass sculpture

Two Wardens of the tower point to the sculpture, which marks the approximate site of scaffold, chopping blocks and executions. Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

English Queens, nobles and a trio of unfortunate Scottish soldiers are amongst the names commemorated on a new permanent memorial, unveiled at the Tower of London on September 4 2006.

Designed by British artist Brian Catling, the circular memorial focuses on the ten executions that have taken place on Tower Green, within the Royal castle’s walls. It is intended to remember all those executed over the years at the Tower - providing a focal point for contemplation, reflection and remembrance.

“What struck me was that here you had one of the most interesting, significant and moving places, not just within the Tower but actually within the whole country,” said Michael Day, Chief Executive of Historic Royal Palaces. “Here’s a spot where some extraordinarily important national events happened and also some events of amazing human intensity.”

The new memorial replaces a modest aluminium plaque and small plastic notice that listed the names of the people put to death there.

“We could have just put up another plaque,” added Michael, “but I’m interested in what artists can bring to bear on interpreting spaces because it helps people see the place in a different way and I think this is what this project has done.”

a photograph of a man sat on a low circular rail in a courtyard

Artist Brian Catling beat off competition from four other shortlisted artists to produce the memorial. Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

Comprising two engraved circles with a glass-sculpted pillow at its centre, the larger circle of dark stone bears a poem - written by the artist - around its rim, whilst the upper glass circle bears the engraved names of the ten famous and not so famous individuals executed in front of the Chapel Royal.

“I wanted to make people walk around the piece,” said Brian Catling. “Before, people would come and stand in front of the small plaque that used to be here – they just stood and didn’t know what to do so I thought: 'let’s give them something to do', they now have to walk around it to read the poem – they have to engage with it.”

“None of the names on here are really traitors,” added Brian. “Monuments are usually to people who have died in a war or a battle, this is different. You can’t really illustrate the brutal acts of dying that took place here but this I hope is a way of suggesting it.”

The polished memorial is a neat mix of the practical and poetic. As well as the circular poem, the arches supporting the upper glass disk engraved with the names of the executed, allows leaves and other debris to blow harmlessly through it whilst symbolically reflecting the arches of the chapel where the remains of the executed ten still lie.

These include the tower’s most famous executed Queen, Anne Boleyn, accused of infidelity and beheaded by a French swordsman near Tower Green on May 19 1536. It is reported that as the executioner held up her head to show the crowd, her eyes were still moving and her lips were still framing her dying prayer.

a close up photograph of a glass pillow seated within a circular glass table

Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

Even more grisly was the execution on May 27 1541, of the Catholic martyr, Margaret Pole. Tried and convicted for attending a Catholic protest known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, for which she swore innocence, the executioner took several blows to finish her off. Some say this was due to the executioner’s incompetence – others that she put up a fight and tried to flee the scaffold.

A lesser-known execution highlighted by the memorial is that of the three Black Watch soldiers. In 1743 the Highland regiment, en route to Scotland for leave, was summoned to London by the King. About 100 soldiers went absent from duty and were rounded up and marched to the tower on charges of mutiny.

All but three of the soldiers were eventually pardoned and on July 19 1743 Farquar Shaw together with brothers Samuel and Malcolm Macpherson were shot by a firing squad made up of their comrades. A large slab of black marble is set into the floor in the southwest corner of the Chapel, marking the spot where the three bodies lie. Now their names are also inscribed beside those of famous queens and nobles.

“I was really keen to include them,” said Michael Day. “To leave them out would have said somehow we don’t think their lives and indeed their deaths were as important and significant as these other lives and deaths. Symbolically they seem to be just as important, and we thought it was an interesting juxtaposition to have them on the memorial.”

“What we’re really interested in doing is exploring stories and the tower and the other palaces are the repositories of these amazing stories – these are stories that characterise the nation and its identity and this is part of that story. This is the spot where they met their death, which is a very powerful thing.”

a photograph of a small crowd of people looking at a circular sculpture

The public get their first glimpse of the memorial. Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

It is the first time Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that cares for the Tower of London along with the four other unoccupied palaces, has commissioned a contemporary visual artwork for permanent display.

To mark the unveiling of the memorial, the Tower of London’s flashlights will turn red for two weeks after dark, whilst a special concert of memorial music will be held in the Chapel Royal on September 15 2006.

Brian Catling was awarded the commission in 2005 after five artists submitted proposals to interpret the execution site in a dignified and sympathetic way. Their ideas were judged by public consultation and a selection panel.

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