London is a city of giants. Above the historic skyline there is a titanic struggle for prominence being waged by colossal towers which, if size matters, for now at least has found a champion in the Shard.
Giants are not newcomers to London. They have been residents of the City for centuries controlling, protecting and guiding it forwards and upwards. The gigantic guardians of the City of London, Gogmagog and Corineus (sometimes just known as Gog and Magog), still reside, as they have done since at least the 15th century, in the Guildhall, and make their annual appearance at the Lord Mayor’s Show.
They are not alone. There is an ancient legend written down in the medieval texts of the Mabinogion which tells that the head of the vanquished Welsh giant Brân the Blessed was carried to London and buried beneath the ‘White Hill’. The ‘White Hill’, it has been suggested, is Tower Hill upon which the Tower of London stands.
Brân’s head, so the legend goes, was buried facing France to protect Britain from invasion. Make of the legend what you will, but if it was so then in 1066 Brân’s head must have been sleeping – a clear dereliction of duty – for it did little to hold back the waves of Norman invaders disembarking at Pevensey. It did less still to prevent William the Conqueror’s victory over Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.
It was a victory that soon brought a new giant to Tower Hill. As the dust settled over the battlefield William and his army marched on London, securing a quick victory and positioning William as the new king of England. On Christmas Day 1066 he was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
London had been easily won but the threat of insurgency hung over the invaders. They quickly established defensive positions on Tower Hill encircled by ditches and banks topped with palisades. Above them, timber watchtowers provided vantage points from which to observe the native population in their low-lying houses.
The wooden palisades and watchtowers were temporary and insufficient. However, they provided shelter behind which the Normans gave birth to their own giant: the White Tower. The first blocks of stone were laid in about 1075 and the walls of the great fortress rose rapidly. When the scaffolding platforms from which the stone masons worked were finally dismantled in about 1100 to reveal an uninterrupted view of the White Tower for the first time, the citizens of London must have stared up in amazement. The few amongst them who had travelled in northern France may have seen similar towers at Ivry-la-Bataille or in a host of other towns, but for the majority whose lives took them no further than the countryside around London, the White Tower was gigantic. There would be nothing else in London on this scale until St Paul’s Cathedral rose above the rooftops over a century later. Today the 90ft tall White Tower is diminutive next to its colossal neighbours, the Shard and the Gherkin, but standing next to it and looking upwards is still an awe-inspiring experience.
Like the legendary giants of London, the White Tower offered protection. Unlike Gogmagog or Brân, however, it was not a guardian of the City. This new giant perched on the edge of the city was in the service of the king and protected him from the city itself. It was no BFG but an imposing, brooding watchman that subdued, controlled and proclaimed the might of the crown to the Londoners living in its shadow.
Curator of Historic Buildings, Tower of London