London is the largest city we visited during this part of the trip and it’s steeped in history and culture. A part of this history, the Tower of London stands along the River Thames and is a reminder of the militant past of Britain’s rulers. William the Conqueror built the core of the tower in 1078 when he invaded from Normandy and took over the British crown. The tower was originally erected to pacify the city’s population and establish his authority as King. While this bit of history is interesting, what really fascinated me was William’s changing identity. As a Norman he was a Frenchman, but his recent ancestry had come from Vikings who had invaded France years earlier. The French King Charles the Simple thought the best way to deal with this constant threat was to simply grant land titles to the invaders, thus creating new defenders of the territory (thus the name Normandy, from Norsemen or “North Men”).
All of this history made us start to question identity in general. I always naively thought that the British Monarchy was an unbroken bloodline going back thousands of years when in fact just 1,000 years ago it was essentially taken over by Viking blood. Then, in 1714, George the Elector of Hanover became King, giving the crown the primarily German blood it retains even today (Queen Elizabeth comes from this line).
Clifford's Tower in York
This inquiry into identity was heightened during our visit to York, when I saw that in York around 1190, my identity as a Jewish person would have seen me burned in Clifford’s Tower due to the capricious desires of a mob envious of perceived wealth and eager to wipe out their debts.
These examples of how identity can be used to claim power over people’s lives (in the case of the Monarchy) or the right to claim another’s life (in the case of the Jews) proves what a destructive concept it can be. It is useful to define ourselves in relation to others for the purposes stimulating creative thought and giving us a lens to interpret the world. But we must recognize that this lens is simply a mental fabrication that our ego uses as it sees fit to get what it wants. With this understanding, we can start to be less attached to our identity. This doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate who we are, but it does mean that we don’t take that concept so seriously that it causes pain for others.
In a more practical sense, it felt wonderful to appreciate a part of my identity and see my cousin Amanda and her husband Sean in York after nearly a year of seeing no family from my side. York contains the buried Viking city of Jorvik that came to be when the Vikings conquered York and lived there from 875 to 954. It also has ancient Roman walls, haunted pubs, and beautiful churches to explore. The rest of our trip to London (before York) brought us a wonderful day with our friends Jeff & Karen from Austin, a visit by Neda to ancient Stonehenge, and beautiful walks around the city as it prepares for the Olympics.
See all the pictures of London and York here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjAkqahW