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The Tower of London, despite being a royal palace, figures less in the public imagination for the opulence of its accommodation than for its grisly history. General the Lord Dannatt, the current Constable of the Tower, unlocks a door from the hall and descends into the 12th-century Bell Tower: a cold, dank stone cellar, with arrow-slit windows and a curious ogive vaulted ceiling that suggests a chapel. “The architecture poses a puzzle to historians,” he says. “But this is where Sir Thomas More was held, for 15 months, before his execution in 1535.”
The Bell Tower connects directly with the Queen’s House, which, in his capacity as constable, Dannatt uses as his London home. In the Ceremonial Office, by the hall, hang pictures of about 30 of his predecessors, from the Duke of Wellington onwards. “The role of constable — the senior appointment and the sovereign’s representative in the tower — was created by William the Conqueror,” he says. Although now largely a ceremonial position, it has traditionally been held by military men. Dannatt, 64, having served as chief of the general staff from 2006, became the 159th incumbent in 2009. Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of military policy, having criticised the west for failing to defend religious minorities in Iraq and accused Britain of sending “useless” armoured vehicles to Ukrainian forces.
Dannatt leads the way to the upstairs kitchen where he prepares tea (“you can’t find the staff,” he jokes). The Queen’s House was built in about 1540 and is the oldest timber-framed structure in London to have survived the Great Fire. “By tradition, the constable ‘lodges’ in the tower, as opposed to ‘residing’ in it. But four years ago, it was decided I would take occupancy of the house, on the basis that we’d open it up for entertaining — potential donors for example — on behalf of the tower. It makes people more sympathetic to what we do, and helps our fundraising.”
The rooms used for entertaining — which have helped raise £1.5m to refurbish the chapel — overlook the river Thames. “It’s lovely to sit on the window seat in the evenings with a glass of wine,” says Dannatt as he walks into the drawing room, light reflecting off the large mirrored alcove and broad yellow regency stripe wallpaper. “The furniture belongs to the house, and most of the paintings to the Historic Royal Palaces and the Government Art Collection, but the Afghan rugs and smaller objects are our own.”
Family photographs are dotted about: Dannatt’s middle son in the uniform of the Grenadier Guards (“he’s now a fund manager”), three grandchildren dressed as pages for the wedding of his youngest son in the tower’s chapel, and one of his late father-in-law with the West Norfolk hunt. There are also numerous mementos and gifts from military colleagues: a regimental carriage clock above the fireplace and a drum inscribed with battle honours beneath a table. “I commanded the 1st Battalion, The Green Howards, and this was a spare drum that was given to me.”
Other details are provided by his wife, Pippa [Lady Philippa Dannatt, the current High Sheriff of Norfolk]. “She collects enamel boxes,” he says, indicating a display table which he commissioned from David Wyndham, a soldier-turned-cabinet maker. The collection of enamel objects overflows on to a side table, along with other homely touches: a lapis box, a silver pincushion pig, a snuff box, a porcelain cup. On the wall are imposing engravings of the Prince Regent on horseback, the Duke of Wellington carrying the Sword of State and a gouache of the Queen’s House in 1848, by Franz Michelis. “It was a present from my wife for Christmas,” says Dannatt.
Opposite, a small room serves as a study and television room. “When we’re alone, we tend to sit here,” he says. Cosily chaotic, the sofas are strewn with cushions representing a bulldog dressed as a Beefeater, a raven on a Yeoman, and the Houses of Parliament. Only a framed photo of Dannatt with the Queen on the occasion of his knighthood in 2004, hints that the room might be just a private part of a somewhat grander whole.
Dinners, both personal and official, are held in the dusky pink formal dining room — usually adorned with family silver, which has not yet returned from Christmas in Norfolk. Among the guests who have graced this table are the Sultan of Oman, Prince Michael of Kent and a small stuffed bear in military fatigues currently sunning himself by the window. “The 2nd Battalion, The Rifles had a difficult tour in Basra in 2007-8, then a difficult time in southern Afghanistan,” says Dannatt. “My wife and I visited their families stationed in Northern Ireland, to offer encouragement, and the commanding officer’s wife gave us the bear to thank us for our support. Sometimes one gets the numbers wrong, and the bear makes up 14 for dinner.”
We climb the wood-panelled stairs to the top of the house, ancient floorboards undulating underfoot, to the Council Room, where a wooden sculpture of James I is recessed in the wall. In this room, in 1605, eight privy councillors sat to interrogate Guy Fawkes. “As Fawkes wasn’t going to talk, the privy council applied to the king for permission to torture him, and Fawkes had to sign an acknowledgment that he would be tortured. He held out for three days so his co-conspirators could escape.”
Nowadays, drinks receptions are held in the room. “At Christmas in 2013, I invited the chapel choir for drinks,” says Dannatt. “Somehow, the invitation was mislaid, and the whole congregation turned up. I was afraid that the floor would collapse.”
The master bedroom, where Dannatt sleeps three or four nights a week, is also on this level, along with two guest bedrooms. One of them formerly held Lord Nithsdale, who took part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. “His wife, a feisty woman, came to visit him, with her retinue, the night before his execution, bringing beer and wine for the warders. She disguised her husband as a serving woman and sprung him from the Tower to a waiting coach, which took him to Dover, then Rome. She came back, asked the guards not to disturb him till morning so he could make his peace with his maker, and joined him in Rome, where they lived for another 30 years”.
With so much history, one might expect a few ghosts, and the Queen’s House does not disappoint. “This was Lady Arabella Stuart’s room, another [early 17th-century] claimant to the throne,” says Dannatt, showing me into a small chamber, with a huge stone fireplace. “She married without permission, was held in this room, and died of a broken heart. It is said to be the most haunted room in the Tower of London.” It is also the room that Dannatt’s daughter, Richenda, shared with a friend for two years after university. “We decided it would not be helpful to tell them the story”, he laughs. But unfortunately a Beefeater spilled the beans. “That night, [the girls] said to Arabella: ‘Arabella, we know this is your room, thank you for letting us stay. You can come and join us whenever you like’. And they put a poster of Britney Spears behind the door to keep her company in case she came when they were out.” Britney has also since departed to be replaced by a photograph of the two girls.
Ghosts are not the only hazard of living in a royal palace. “If we plan to come back after midnight, we sign a book to let the Yeoman Warder on duty know in advance,” says Dannatt. “Once, my daughter came back very late, and no one answered the bell, so she tried going over the wall. She was discovered on top of the spikes and was gently helped down. I advised the deputy governor to have a word with her next day.”
Photographs: Chris Winter