Stamps: A Brief British History

The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.

Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.

Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.

Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.

During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.

In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.

Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.

Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.

The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.

The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.

Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.

Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.

The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.

In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.

The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “12d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.

On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.

Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.

The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.

All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 12d, 2d, 2 12d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.

Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 12d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.

The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.

Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.

When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.

The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 12d green, the 1 12d brown and the 2 12d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.

George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.

In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 12d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.

During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.

Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.

The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.

Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.

Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

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The Tower of London

A royal palace for kings and queens, a zoo, a prison, and now a tourist attraction, the Tower of London has a long and colourful history. With the mighty White Tower at its centre, the fortress has seen many changes throughout its 1000 year existence. Today, the Tower is home to the Yeomen Warders, an unkindness (that’s the collective term, honest!) of ravens, and the Crown Jewels, attracting over three million visitors a year. Being the best place to visit to discover the history of British royals, it is no wonder Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London has become such a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The history of the Tower of London begins with the invasion of the Normans in 1066. As nearly everyone knows, William the Conqueror (1028-1087) defeated Harold Godwinson (1022-1066) at the Battle of Hastings, crowning himself king at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day later that year. One of the first things William I did as king of England, was to order the construction of a castle on the banks of the River Thames, then withdrew to Barking Abbey “while several strongholds were made ready in the City to safeguard against the fickleness of the huge and fierce population.” (William of Poitiers)

With stone imported from Caen, France – William’s native land – an immense building of a height of 27.5 metres (90 ft) was completed by 1100, the first structure of its kind on British soil. From here on, several buildings were added, demolished, rebuilt and perfected until it resembled the impressive castle that can be seen today.

It takes more than one visit to see everything the Tower has to offer and, whilst the entry fee provides access to all public areas, it is best to plan in advance what sections to see, bearing in mind that some areas will be more popular than others. The busiest building within the grounds is, of course, the Waterloo Barracks: the home of the Crown Jewels.

In 1649, King Charles I‘s (1600-49) reign ended with his head lying separately from his body outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. For seven years, the King and Parliament had been involved in a long and bloody civil war, with Parliament coming out on top. With Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) as Lord Protector, the late King’s possessions were sold and the Crown Jewels were destroyed with the instructions to “melt down all the gold and silver and sell the jewels to the best advantage of the Commonwealth.” The only items to survive this destruction were three 17th-century ceremonial swords and a 12th-century Coronation Spoon.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a new set of jewels was created for the new king, Charles II (1630-85). Since then, the splendid collection has grown to an impressive 140 items, the most recent being made for Queen Elizabeth II’s (b.1926) coronation in 1953.

Until 1649, the Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia were kept at Westminster Abbey, however, after Charles II’s coronation, his new regalia was safely stored in the Tower of London. Here, in the Martin Tower – supposedly named after a bear who was once kept there – the Crown Jewels were placed on public display for the first time in 1669. Today the jewels are kept tightly secured, yet in those days, for a fee visitors could touch and hold them.

Although new jewels have been made for all the monarchs who followed Charles II, those used during Coronation ceremonies are the same items that were produced in 1661. These include the Orb, which is placed in the monarch’s right hand, and the Sceptre, which was transformed in 1910 to include the Cullinan I diamond, also known as the First Star of Africa, which weighs an impressive 530 carats. Despite their age, they remain in near perfect condition; the orb still contains the majority of its original 17th-century gems, including most of the 365 rose-cut diamonds.

The orb, a hollow gold sphere, represents the sovereign’s power and is topped with a jewelled cross to represent the Christian world. The sceptre is also made of gold and represents the sovereign’s temporal power. Like the Orb, the sceptre is also topped with a cross representing Christ, however, during the coronation ceremony, the monarch is also presented with another sceptre, surmounted by a dove, which represents the Holy Spirit.

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One of the most important items in the Crown Jewels collection is St Edward’s Crown. This is the crown that was placed upon Queen Elizabeth II’s head at her coronation. The crown was made for Charles II back in 1661, however, it was modelled on a much older crown, which has sadly been lost. It has been named St Edward’s Crown after King Edward the Confessor (1003-66), the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. It is thought that a couple of the pearls adorning the crown may once have belonged to Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

At the end of a coronation ceremony, St Edward’s crown is traditionally exchanged for the Imperial State Crown, which the current Queen still wears at every State Opening of Parliament. The crown contains 2868 diamonds (who counted them?) as well as 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 5 rubies and 273 pearls, making it a rather heavy headpiece.

“Really tired after wearing the crown for three hours … it hurt my head as it is pretty heavy.”
George V, 1911

As previously mentioned, the White Tower sits in the centre of the Tower of London and remains Europe’s most complete and preserved early-medieval secular building. When it was completed in 1100, it was the tallest building in London and a complete contrast to the wooden houses nearby. Today, the White Tower showcases the Royal Armouries collections, the 350-year-old Line of Kings exhibition and an interactive room in which visitors can pretend to be soldiers from the past.

The White Tower is entered via a wooden staircase that leads to a door well above ground level. This style of entrance is a 12th-century security feature; if under attack, the stairs could be easily removed, thus preventing the enemy from entering the building. Although the current stairs were constructed in 2015, the traditional carpentry techniques echo the original Norman entry.

The original purpose of the entry hall is unclear, however, its size would have made it a great space for communal dining and entertaining. On the floor above are a suite of chambers where the kings and family may once have resided. These chambers lead on to the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, which is believed to have been the king’s private place of worship.

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The White Tower was not used as a place of residence for long; by the 14th century, it had become a military storehouse and many of these items remain there today. The Line of Kings, thought to be the oldest exhibit in the world, displays the armour each monarch is thought to have worn in battle or in training. This includes armour for young princes and horses, the latter being demonstrated on life-size wooden horses.

The most famous suit of armour once belonged to the formidable Henry VIII (1491-1547), which had been specifically made for him and his wide girth in 1540. Despite the amount of metal used, it was designed so that he could move easily and, supposedly, in comfort. Unlike earlier suits of armour, which had a purely functional purpose, Henry’s was decorated with gilt borders designed by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), emphasising his importance as the king.

As well as being a place of residence and storehouse, the White Tower served as a prison for state prisoners. The first prisoner to be held at the tower was Ranulf Flambard (1060-1128), the medieval Norman Bishop of Durham, on charges of embezzlement. He was also the first prisoner to escape from the Tower. After befriending his guards, Flambard persuaded them to bring him casks of wine, which they were welcome to drink with him. On one occasion when the guards had drunk too much, Flambard used the ropes that tied the casks together to abseil down the wall of the White Tower.

Whilst the legend of Flambard’s escape is amusing, there are darker stories regarding the prisoners in the White Tower. Within the basement, it is believed some prisoners were tortured, including the famous Guido Fawkes (1570-1606) who was discovered trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Under torture, Fawkes revealed some of the other Catholic Gunpowder Plot conspirators, including the leader of the group, Robert Catesby (1572-1605). After this confession, Fawkes was scheduled to be hung, drawn and quartered, however, he died on route to his execution.

Those interested in the huge amount of prisoners and executions that took place at the Tower of London are drawn towards the so-called Bloody Tower. Originally named the Garden Tower, this was the prison or “secure home” where Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618) stayed on and off for many years until he was executed on the orders of James I (1566-1625). During his stay, he wrote most of his book History of the World and conducted scientific experiments in the gardens next to the tower.

The most famous legend regarding the Bloody Tower, for which it earned its name, is the incarceration and death of the “Princes in the Tower”. Historical records state that the soon to be Richard III (1452-1485) locked his nephews – the 12-year old King Edward V (1470-c.1483) and the 9-year old Richard, Duke of York (1473-c.1483) – in the tower. Depending on whose account you read, this was either for the boys’ protection or to remove them from Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s pathway to the throne. What happened to the boys afterwards remains a mystery, however, mostly due to Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) historical play Richard III, it is believed that the boys were murdered.

In 1674, two skeletons were discovered under the staircase leading to the Chapel of St John. Charles II, the monarch at the time, believed them to be the bodies of the murdered king and prince and reburied the bones in Westminster Abbey. Later, in 1933, the bones were forensically examined and confirmed to belong to boys of roughly 10 and 12 years old, thus the murder case was concluded. Yet, there is still not one hundred per cent proof that these bones are the remains of Edward and Richard, however, George V (1865-1936) forbade anyone from reexamining the boys.

So, the mystery of the Princes in the Tower will never be resolved, however, the legend creates a good story. Discovering that the bodies are not who they are believed to be would put a damper on the Bloody Tower’s notoriety. After all, their Uncle Richard was discovered under a car park in Leicester, thus debunking the tradition that his remains had been thrown into the river.

Other buildings that make up the Tower of London are also associated with prisoners and executions. The Wakefield Tower, which now contains the history of torture methods, once held 200 prisoners of war after the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. The Beauchamp Tower in the inner defensive wall takes its name from Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (1313-69), who was imprisoned there at the end of the 14th century. As well as Thomas, the Beauchamp Tower held many prisoners throughout the years, which is evidenced by the graffiti that remains scratched into the walls.

The final prisoners at the tower were the notorious London gangsters Ronald (1933-95) and Reginald Kray (1933-2000) who were held in 1952 for failing to report for National Service. Whilst this is an interesting fact, it tends to be the terrible Tudors that draw the biggest crowd.

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During the reign of the Tudors, which began in 1485 up until 1603, countless prisoners were imprisoned within the walls of the Tower. Even Elizabeth I was imprisoned during the reign of her sister Mary I (1516-1558). Many of these prisoners ended up on Tower Hill where they lost their head (if they were noble) or hanged (if they were “ordinary”). In total, an estimated 440 people were executed on that site.

Within the Tower’s grounds is an Execution Site Memorial sculpture that recalls the deaths of the comparatively few executions that took place on Tower Green (an area of grass rather than a physical tower – something which confuses foreigners). On this site, ten people were executed including three English queens. These were Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn (1507-36) and Catherine Howard (1523-42), who had been accused of adultery; and Lady Jane Grey (1537-54), a 16-year old who had been queen for only nine days before Mary I took the throne from her.

Despite the Tudor’s ill-fame, very little evidence remains of their lives at the Tower. Many buildings that the Tudor’s erected or refurbished have now been demolished, including the Great Hall and palace that Henry VIII modernised in order to celebrate the coronation of his new wife, Anne Boleyn. By 1660, the palace had fallen out of disuse and plans were made to demolish it and build new storehouses and offices.

Remains of the older, medieval palace still exist as the towers that make up parts of the Tower’s battlements. These are St Thomas’s Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower, which Henry III (1207-72) and his son Edward I (1239-1307) built during the 13th century. At this time, monarchs did not stay at the Tower for long, for instance, it is recorded that Edward I only stayed for 53 days of his lengthy reign, however, the palace was still fit for royalty.

The room believed to be Edward I’s bedchamber has been reconstructed using details discovered in inventories, accounts and artworks. The four-poster bed is positioned close to a fireplace, the only source of warmth in the palace at that time. From his bed, the king would have been able to look out of the window, which was directly over the river Thames – the outer wall had not yet been built.

The Wakefield Tower was used as Henry III’s private lodgings between the years 1220 and 1240. The throne room has been reconstructed but lacks furnishings, which at that time would have often been dismantled and transported wherever the king went throughout the country.

On the upper floor of the Wakefield Tower is a small chapel complete with stained glass windows. A plaque on the floor states that King Henry VI (1421-71) died in that very place, where he was being held as a prisoner during the War of the Roses. The circumstances of his death are disputed, however, in his honour, the Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses has been held here every year since 1923 on the evening of his passing, 21st May. This ceremony is attended by representatives from Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, both of which had been founded by Henry VI.

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View from the Battlements

Visitors are able to walk along the mighty Battlements between the Towers, which provides stunning views across the River Thames and a clear sighting of Tower Bridge. By peering over the edge of the wall, a steep drop can be seen, ending in a grassy area, which would have been filled with dirty water, once upon a time. In roughly 1285, Edward I reclaimed some land from the Thames and built an Outer Ward. Between this wall and the existing buildings, he developed a moat to strengthen the Tower’s defences.

Throughout the Tower’s history, it only ever “fell” once. In June 1381, a poorly-armed bunch of peasants infiltrated the fortress walls, attacked Archbishop Simon Sudbury (1316-81) and beheaded him on Tower Hill. Whilst it seems unlikely that a group of poor people could successfully attack a castle, it helped that someone had left the gates open!

The Peasant’s Revolt was sparked by an increase of compulsory taxes, which many people could not afford to pay. King Richard II (1367-1400), who was only fourteen at the time, had fled to safety with his royal household, however, the rebels were not angry with the king and, in fact, remained loyal to him. Their target was the aforementioned Archbishop of Canterbury who also acted as the King’s Chancellor and tax collector, thus responsible for the peasant’s anger.

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Traitor’s Gate

Since this event, the defences and security measures have been increased and no one has been able to breach the walls. The only way the enemy could enter the Tower was via Traitor’s gate on their way to prison and, inevitably, their death. The gate and archway were erected by Henry VIII’s Master Carpenter James Nedeham (d.1544) in 1532 as part of the king’s refurbishments in honour of his new queen, Anne Boleyn. Ironically, Anne was later brought through this gate on the way to her imprisonment. The gate may once have been used for merchants to deliver produce to the tower, however, with the number of prisoners arriving by boat, the traders’ gate quickly became known as Traitor’s Gate.

Those traitors who were deemed important enough to have a private execution on Tower Green came through Traitor’s Gate like everyone else, however, they spent their remaining days in relative comfort. After their deaths, they were buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, the Tower’s parish church, which already existed when William the Conqueror first proposed the construction. Prisoners such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), are all buried in the church, however, until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), their graves were unmarked.

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Billy the Warder, in action

Whilst visitors are allowed to enter the Chapel of St Peter, they can only do this as part of the Yeoman Warder Tours. Tours begin at regular intervals by the entrance and last roughly an hour, ending in the chapel. The Yeoman Warders provide an entertaining version of events that occurred at the Tower and can answer any questions visitors may have.

Yeoman Warders are recognised by their navy blue and red tunics, breeches and Tudor bonnets, which is their “undress” uniform when they are on duty. To become a Yeoman Warder, they must have at least 22 years of military service experience, reached the rank of Warrant Officer and received the Long Service and Good Conduct Award. They must also be between the ages of 40 and 55 years old on their appointment at the Tower.

“Halt, who comes there?”

Not only do the Warders assist the day-to-day running of the Tower of London and the thousands of visitors, but they also retain the traditions that have been a part of Tower life for hundreds of years. Every night, at precisely 9:53pm the Yeoman Warder’s perform the Ceremony of the Keys. Taking it in turns, one warder is given the task of returning the Tower’s keys to the monarch’s representative – the Resident Governor. On hearing footsteps, a sentry cries, “Halt, who comes there?” to which the Yeoman Warder replies, “The keys.” This is followed by the phrases “Whose keys?”, “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” and “Pass then, all’s well.”

The Tower of London is so steeped in history, it is impossible to take in everything in one visit. As well as the various towers and Crown Jewels, there’s the Mint and Records Office and Fusilier Museum still to explore. Also, look out for wire sculptures by Kendra Haste (b.1971) that represent some of the animals that once lived at the Tower. Animals were given as gifts from other countries, such as a polar bear from the king of Norway in 1252 and an elephant from the king of France in 1255.

Sadly, the animals did not survive for long due to their unsatisfactory living conditions, however, the menagerie continued to grow. It was not until 1826 that the animals were finally dispatched to what would become today’s London Zoo. The only creatures that remain are seven ravens, although Charles II did try to get rid of them once.

“These ravens must go!” Charles said.
“But, Sire, it is very unlucky to kill a raven,” replied Flamstead, “If you do that the Tower will fall and you will lose your kingdom, having only just got it back!”

Legend says, so long as six ravens remain at the Tower, it will not fall. So, look out for the seven ravens (one spare) who receive honours in the form of 170 grams of raw meat per day, and the occasional crisp left by messy visitors.

The Tower of London is open until 16:30 every day and tickets can be bought on site or online, the latter being cheaper (£22.70 for adults). Bearing in mind the number of things to do at the Tower, it is recommended that you arrive during the morning to give yourself time to see the highlights.

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