Tower of London
The Tower of London has been a vital landmark in England’s capital for over 900 years. This historic castle has served as a royal residence, prison, mint, menagerie, and even a zoo! Today it stands as one of London’s most popular tourist attractions, guarded by the legendary Beefeaters. So what is this iconic stronghold all about?
A Fortress Fit for Kings
The origins of the Tower date back to 1078, when William the Conqueror ordered its construction to intimidate and subdue the conquered Saxon population. Sitting strategically adjacent to the city walls on the River Thames, this imposing fortress comprised the White Tower keep surrounded by two rings of defensive walls and a moat. It was primarily built as a demonstration of Norman power.
Over the following centuries the Tower took on more roles. It continued to function as a royal residence until the Tudor period. But arguably its most notorious purpose was as a prison for high-profile inmates.
The Tower’s Infamous Prisoners
From 1100 right up until 1952, the Tower of London acted as prison for some surprising occupants. These include Queen Elizabeth I, Guy Fawkes, Sir Walter Raleigh and even the Princes in the Tower.
Popular myths around torture taking place stem mainly from 16th-century propaganda. But nonetheless an execution on Tower Hill continued to end the journey for many inmates right through the 20th century.
Despite its ominous reputation, the Tower provided comfortable lodgings for those of noble birth. But lower class prisoners could expect much worse conditions without the luxury of servants.
Where the Crown Jewels Dazzle
Ever since the 13th century, generations of British monarchs have stored their precious Crown Jewels safely with the walls of the Tower. This priceless collection includes lavishly decorated crowns, sceptres, swords and other regalia essential for coronation ceremonies.
Some even claim the valuable regalia were once pawned by medieval kings when they needed to raise funds! What we see today mainly dates from around 1661, when Charles II ordered spectacular new jewels to replace those melted down in the post-revolution Commonwealth period.
The 5000+ jewel collection has been on public display since the 1600s. But it was only in 1994 that it moved to its current location within the Waterloo Block, now renamed the Jewel House. Glass catwalks and moving walkways allow visitors to gaze at the gold and glimmer housed in the old vaults.
Exploring This Historic Royal Palace
Today the Tower of London operates as a tourist attraction under the stewardship of the charity Historic Royal Palaces. Over 2.9 million eager visitors flock each year to this World Heritage Site. Numbers have increased exponentially since tours were first offered in Elizabethan times.
Within the ancient walls, visitors can get lost inspecting weapon displays in the White Tower, gazing upon royal graffiti in the Beauchamp Tower, or imagining the roar of caged lions that once populated the royal menagerie. And legend says you might even glimpse the headless ghost of Anne Boleyn stalking the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula after dark!
For Brits and foreign visitors alike, this site encapsulates a compelling slice of our shared history. The excellent Yeoman Warders are always on hand provide a wealth of factual and folkloric insight.
The enduring heritage of the Tower is perhaps best captured by the iconic bearded ravens who patrol the grounds. Myth dictates that should these formidable black birds ever vacate, the kingdom and Tower itself will fall! Their continued residency is thus dutifully maintained by the Ravenmaster.
Why Does the Tower Captivate Our Collective Imagination?
The Tower of London stands as so much more than your average medieval castle. Across over 900 years, it has born witness to some of the most momentous events in the development of this nation. Kings have risen, been imprisoned and executed behind these walls. Wars have been plotted, won and lost. This ancient royal fortress binds together the bloody, brutal and beguiling history of the British crown.
We visit this riverside castle to reimagine those moments from the past, and to connect with an echo of all those who have walked its stone floors before us. It is the ravens, not the stone itself that brings the magic and mystery of this monarchical monument to life for new generations. Their black feathers rustle with the whispers of history, inviting our curiosity about those who built these walls and wore the crown jewels so closeby.
Each individual brick at the Tower tells its own unique story, one small piece of the ever unfolding historical puzzle. As one of our capital’s most precious heritage treasures, these timeless tales will continue enthralling many more generations yet to come.
Q: How much of the Tower is original medieval?
A: The White Tower dates from 1078, with some other 13th century structures, but substantial Victorian additions exist. About 50% is original.
Q: Did the Princes in the Tower really die there?
A: In 1483 King Edward V and his brother seemingly vanished from their residence at the Tower, widely blamed on Richard III. But their fate has never been conclusively proven.
Q: Where exactly were people executed at the Tower?
A: Although the Tower of London was a prison, executions typically took place on the scaffold at Tower Hill rather than inside.
Q: How does access to the Crown Jewels display work?
A: The Jewel House provides great visibility via moving walkways. But expect queues in peak season! Entry is included with all Tower tickets.
Q: Do the ravens at the Tower have clipped wings?
A: Their wings are only trimmed minimally to prevent injuries. This keeps them flightworthy but unlikely to stray beyond the castle walls!