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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.