To be born at the Tower of London, you didn’t have to be royal. This is a story of one baby born a long time ago and another almost within living memory.
The tragic death of Queen Elizabeth, mother of King Henry VIII
Queen Elizabeth I (lived 1533 to 1603) was the daughter of King Henry VIII (1491-1547) and was a very successful monarch in her own right. The less well-known Queen Elizabeth before her was her paternal grandmother, the former Princess Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). This Elizabeth had the title of Queen through being married to the King.
Toward the end of the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth of York was married to Henry Tudor who became King Henry VII. The marriage was the sort of political arrangement that lies between a chess game and purebred cattle breeding. This strategic joining of the Houses of York and Lancaster is where the Tudor rose emblem comes from: white for York and red for Lancaster.
Against the odds, Henry and Elizabeth were happy together. Elizabeth was a caring mother, doing the job she was chosen for by producing heirs.
By the age of 36, this Queen had had seven children, four boys and three girls. Little Elizabeth, Edward, and Edmund all died young. As tragic as these deaths were, for the newly minted Tudor dynasty, the worse blow was when the eldest son and heir Prince Arthur died suddenly of “sweating sickness” in April 1502 at the age of 15. No one saw that coming. Arthur’s parents were devastated with sorrow.
Arthur had been married to Princess Catherine of Aragon for six months, even though they were both very young by our conventions today. Catherine caught the same disease as Arthur, at the same time, but survived it.
Everyone had expected Arthur to be king one day and then, suddenly he was gone. It’s because of this death that Henry, his younger brother, became King Henry VIII when their father died seven years later.
When Elizabeth fell pregnant after Arthur’s death, she and the King saw a glimmer of hope to relieve their grief. Maybe the baby would be another boy to carry on the Tudor dynasty, in case something happened to Henry junior.
Instead of hope and happiness came tragedy. Little Princess Katherine was born on the 2nd of February 1503 and died on the 10th. Queen Elizabeth herself only lived a day longer. She died on her 37th birthday.
I heard about this story on a free guided tour of the White Tower given by one of the Tower of London Warders. We walked through the cavernous stone space of the upper floor, trying to imagine it converted to a cozy maternity room fit for a Tudor queen. There would have been tapestries on the walls, rugs on the floor, and fireplaces blazing for warmth and light in bleak February. Elizabeth wouldn’t have cared about any of that by the end. She must have spent her last days weak, quite possibly delirious from fever, depressed and dispirited, and yet I don’t think she would have given up easily.
There are different versions of what happened after Elizabeth died. The story I like best may not be exactly correct in the details, but the general outline is plausible and credible. It is that Henry ordered that Elizabeth and baby Katherine should lie in the Chapel of St John’s next to the Queen’s apartment, with a thousand candles burning. He kept watch through the night, sending everyone else away, knowing that Elizabeth hated the dark.
Elizabeth’s body was duly prepared and taken in a grand procession to Westminster Abbey for her royal funeral. Katherine was also buried at the Abbey, but not in a way that would draw attention from her mother.
Atop her coffin was placed what was said to be a beautiful effigy of the Queen. I have just read that both Elizabeth’s and Henry’s funeral effigies will be on display at Westminster Abbey in 2018.
The death of little Katherine and her mother is a sad story but at least the sadness comes from love, which can’t be said of all Tower stories. Remember, this has been, among other things, a prison and a place of execution in its long history.
If you visit the Tower of London, please try and see the Chapel of St John the Evangelist in the White Tower. It is a warm and peaceful room, and it’s easy to conjure up that dark February night with a thousand candles burning and the King sitting alone, trying to accept his losses.
After this tragedy, the royal family stopped living in the Tower, and there were no more royal births there.
A much happier Born at the Tower story of an ordinary boy
In contrast to the sombre story of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Katherine, I found a much happier one about an ordinary family, if there is such a thing.
The Tower has been many things in its long life, including the home of the Royal Fusiliers. In 1873 one soldier, Donald Adams, and his wife Emma became parents for the first time. Their baby wasn’t the first commoner to be born at the Tower, but still, it’s something unusual compared to the rest of us.
Every ten years that baby’s parents and then the grown man himself had the proud pleasure of telling the census taker, “My name is Arthur Charles Adams and I was born at the Tower of London.”
If Arthur was born in a hospital within the Tower’s walls I’m assuming it would have been the Old Hospital Block. That is a prominent building near the Crown Jewels, but it hasn’t been used as a hospital for many years. Instead of the fine Caen stone imported from France in the 11th century to build the White Tower, the Old Hospital Block is made of more humble bricks and mortar. It’s a fine looking building but not a palace or fortress.
Arthur might have been born at home rather than in hospital. To be at home and still inside the Tower would have meant the family was living in some kind of married quarters. I wonder what that was like.
Some Tower employees live in the Tower now, but it’s not the army garrison it was in Arthur Adams’ day. For much of its life, the Tower has been home to many people, living in an unusual kind of village hidden behind the great stone walls and heavy doors.
Arthur’s life ran from 1873 to 1936, into his 64th year. Thanks to his father’s Army career, Arthur was born at the Tower, his younger brother William was born at Windsor (possibly Windsor Castle), and the family lived at the Chelsea Barracks before Arthur was 10. Sometime in the 1880s, Donald returned to civilian life.
At age 18 Arthur had left home and in 1891 he was living with his employer’s family, working as porter to a jeweller on Clapham High Street. His parents were living in Kensington.
In the next ten years after that, leading up to the 1901 census, Arthur had some big life changes. He got married to Edith and they had a daughter, Millicent. Arthur left off being a jewellery porter and became an electrician and an electrical inspector for the light company.
I have a theory about how Arthur got into the electrical business. In 1891, his father Donald was working as the building porter – the all-round maintenance man – for the new and fancy Kensington Court Mansions, which are still fancy today, though no longer new. The job came with a porter’s flat in the basement.
Kensington Court Mansions had electricity and the Kensington Court electrical station was nearby. During Arthur’s early life, homes in England, and many in London, were still being lit by any of four methods – candles, oil lamps, gas lights, and electricity. It wasn’t until after the First World War that electricity became the standard.
(I got that from “Lighting in the Victorian Home“, an article by Jonathan Taylor.)
Since electricity was a fairly new thing, not brand new but not entirely commonplace, a curious boy or man might just wander over to the Kensington Court electrical station from time to time and learn a bit about electrics on the fly. It’s just a guess that Arthur might have been that kind of person and maybe that’s how he got into the electric business.
In February 1895, there was an accident at the Kensington Court electrical station, and the foreman’s child died from suffocation. I mention this because Arthur’s family would have known all about the fire. Maybe they were friends with the foreman and his family. Having seen the danger of the job close up, I wonder if Donald and Emma were ever nervous about Arthur going into the electrical business.
They didn’t need to worry too much. Arthur was an electrical inspector for many years.
He and Edith had a son, Leslie, a little brother for Millicent. Leslie was born too late for the First World War, and Arthur died before the Second, so if his son did go off to fight, he didn’t know about it.
Edith died on Christmas Eve in 1935 and Arthur the following December. They are buried together in west London.
Arthur had a brother and a sister, and everyone in the family lived a pretty good, normal life as far as I can tell from this distance.
It’s not a dramatic story but it’s a true one: this non-royal boy was born at the Tower of London. He grew up, got a good job, and raised a family, the same things most of us hope for no matter where we start out.
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