The Tower of London. A Historical Romance. Illustration for Book the Second, Chapter XXIX. 10 cm high x 14 cm wide, framed, facing page 313: running head, "Attack of the Brass Mount." Although no such assault probably occurred during the Kentish uprising, Ainsworth and Cruikshank use the thunderous battle scenes in this chapter to showcase the intrepid bravery of Cuthbert Cholmondeloy and Sir Thomas Wyat. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]— George Cruikshank. Tenth instalment, October 1840 number. Seventy-second illustration and and thirtieth steel-engraving in William Harrison Ainsworth's
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. . . Dudley gave the signal of assault. Dashing down the sides of the moat, his men launched their rafts on the water, and pushed them across with long poles. The noise they made betrayed them to the sentinels. The alarm was instantly given, and a tremendous fire opened upon them from the batteries and casemate of the Brass Mount, as well as from the eastern and western line of ramparts.
The Brass Mount has already been described as the largest bastion of the Tower, standing at the north-east angle of the fortress, and its walls were, and still are, of such immense thickness, and it was so well fortified, that it was regarded as impregnable. Notwithstanding this impression, it formed the main object of the present attack. Amid a slaughterous fire from the besieged, Dudley embarked with Cholmondeloy, who carried his standard, in a small skiff, and waving his sword above his head, pointed to the Brass Mount, and urged his men to the assault. They wanted no encouragement; but in some degree protected by the showers of arrows discharged by the archers stationed on the sides of the moat, and the constant fire of the arquebussiers, succeeded in placing two ladders against that part of the eastern ramparts immediately adjoining the bastion.
These were instantly covered with men, who mounted sword in hand, but were attacked and hurled backwards by the besieged. Another ladder was soon planted against the Brass Mount, while two more were reared against the northern ramparts opposite the postern gate, which had been stormed and taken by Wyat’s party, several of whom were descending the banks of the moat, and firing upon the fortress, assisted by three culverins placed in a temporary battery composed of large baskets filled with sand.
All this had not been executed without severe loss on the part of the insurgents. Several of the rafts were swamped, and their occupants, embarrassed by the weight of their arms, drowned. One of the ladders planted against the northern battlements was hurled backwards with its living load; and such was the vigour and determination of the besieged, that none of the assailants could set a foot on the ramparts.
Considerable execution, however, was done by the showers of arrows from archers, as well as by the discharges of the arquebussiers. But success did not, as yet, declare itself for either side. Constantly repulsed, the insurgents still resolutely returned to the charge; and though numbers fell from the ladders, others were instantly found to take their place.
Seeing how matters stood, and aware that some desperate effort must be made, Dudley, who had hitherto watched the progress of the fight from the moat, exposing himself to the full fire of the batteries, resolved to ascend the ladder placed against the Brass Mount. Cholmondeley agreed to follow him; and amid the cheers of the assailants and the unrelaxing fire of the besieged, the boat was run in to the side of the bastion. [Chapter XXIX. — "The Siege of the Tower," pp. 313-14]
The historical novel as instituted by Sir Walter Scott — The Waverley Novels — established the convention of involving the fictional hero in actual battles in order to show his resourcefulness and courage, and to bring history to life through the lived experience of a character with whom the reader is familiar. That focal character in Ainsworth's historical romance is Cuthbert Cholmondeley, whose political allegiance to Lady Jane Grey remains constant throughout the novel, and whose fortunes engage the reader from the opening to the closing chapters. However, as with Scott, the story also has a secondary, historical hero, Sir Thomas Wyat, leader of the Kentish rebellion against "The Spanish Match." The fierce battles at the north walls of the Tower of London in this chapter enable Ainsworth to generate considerable suspense by placing both protagonists in grave danger.
Thus, the novelist must produce an exciting plot-line that actually deviates from history, for Ainsworth is not merely recounting or dramatizing history; rather, he is romanticizing it, sensationalizing the period of 1553-54. In point of fact, although Wyat's forces infested the suburbs south of the Thames, they were never able to launch a concerted assault on the Outer Ward of the Tower of London such as we see in the next illustration, in which Wyat and the rebels attack the Brass Mount. Since an account of strategic withdrawals on either side is not the stuff of romance, Ainsworth must have felt compelled to offer exciting battle scenes worthy of the pageant of Tudor history that he has promised in the preface, and that Cruikshank has realised with gusto: Attack upon the Brass Mount by Lord Guildford Dudley, Attack upon St. Thomas's Tower by the Duke of Suffolk, and Sir Thomas Wyat attacking the By-Ward Tower in Chapter XXIX. "Desirous of exhibiting the Tower in its triple light of a palace, a prison, and a fortress" ("Preface," p. iv), Ainsworth must furnish a narrative that shows the Tower of London functioning in all three ways.
The large semi-circular bastion known as the Brass Mount derives its name from the brass canons installed there to ward off attack from the landward side of the Tower, as suggested by a large townhouse behind the moat in the previous wood-engraving. The Brass Mount and Legge's Mount are not, properly speaking, towers, but artillery basions built into the northern outer curtain wall, beyond the moat and attached to the medieval London Wall. The Brass Mount, although probably somewhat altered in the Victorian era, dates from the reign of Edward I, and was built between 1275 and 1285 to enclose the inner wall completely in order to provide a concentric double defence on the north side of the Tower, adapting the complex to withstand the assault of canon. On the north face of the outer wall are three semicircular bastions, the Brass Mount, the North Bastion, and Legge's Mount, and it is at these points in Ainsworth's fictionalized history that the rebels launch assaults which feature Wyat prominently among the attackers.
Renouncing caricature entirely, Cruikshank approaches his material with a high seriousness that does not admit situational or character comedy in a series of battle scenes which William Feaver describes as "formidably detailed reconstructions of alarms and skirmishes" (249) of the kind he developed for W. H. Maxwell's The History of the Irish Rebellion (1845). The focal point of Cruikshank's composition is Lord Guildford Dudley and the protagonist, Cholmondeley, in the wherry, lower left, the largest figures in the sprawling epic canvas: "Dudley embarked with Cholmondeloy, who carried his standard, in a small skiff, and waving his sword above his head, pointed to the Brass Mount, and urged his men to the assault" (lower left). Cruikshank includes "the constant fire of the arquebussiers" (lower right), but not the three culverins, and only one raft (at the foot of the Brass Mount) appears to have swamped, but without loss of life. Whereas Ainsworth indicates that "One of the ladders planted against the northern battlements was hurled backwards with its living load," Cruikshank depicts extremely long ladders being pushed back, left and right of centre. These battle scenes and the interview between Queen Mary and Wyat that precedes them demonstrate Cruikshank's "technical excellence . . . in their fidelity to historical detail" (E. D. H. Johnson, p. 18) in terms of arms and armour, architectural setting, and Tudor costume, giving the reader a strong sense of the sweeping narrative. The text furnishes Cruikshank with plenty of material for a grand historical canvas, although the scale of the book illustration does not permit Cruikshank to move in for a close-up and retain the effect of a large-scale canvas.
These mid-1840 illustrations are the high point in Cruikshank's new "documentary" style that he initiated in Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard (1839) before applying it to an historical work without a fictional component, Maxwell's History of the Irish Rebellion. Although his work as a caricaturist for Punch was, as Feaver remarks, "on the wane" (249), Cruikshank would never become a true realist in the sense that the New Men of the Sixties such as Fred Walker and Fred Barnard would be, he would tackle a serious issue in The Bottle (1847) and The Drunkard's Children (1848), the disastrous personal and social consequences of alcoholism.
Blanchard Jerrold on these Rembrandt-like scenes
Blanchard Jerrold, Cruikshank's first biographer, recalls the relationship of the illustrator and Ainsworth during their collaboration, and extols Cruikshank's historical canvasses in The Tower of London:
On the retirement of Ainsworth from Bentley's Miscellany, business relations were resumed between himself and the artist; and Cruikshank was advertised as illustrator of Ainsworth's Magazine. And at this point Cruikshank passed from his humorous to his more ambitious and higher phase.
The Tower of London appears to have made a strong effect on Cruikshank's mind. In the Omnibus he drew some curious bits of observation of the wreck of that part of the Tower which the fire had attacked, and in his illustrations to Ainsworth's story he manifested a desire to express the historical power as an artist that was in him. He composed pictures free from exaggeration, and grand and impressive both in conception and treatment. Having substituted steel plates for copper, he felt that he was upon more lasting work, and he laboured hard to produce pictures of the highest finish. He was right: some of the finest work he has left lies between Ainsworth's pages, and indicates a range of power in the artist which he was never destined to prove fully. The fates had been against him in early life; and he was, although even much later he could not bring his eager and intrepid mind to admit it, too old to take his seat in an academy, and get through the drudgery, without which not even the most bountifully gifted artist can do himself justice. In these Rembrandt-like scenes in the Tower, he taught the world that his idea that he was a great historical painter who had lost his way, was no wild and vain fancy. [Blanchard Jerrold, Chapter 9, "Illustrations to Harrison Ainsworth's Romances"]
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Last modified 23 October 2017