Medieval Tower

Medieval Tower

Inside the Medieval Palace

The medieval Tower of London: a refuge and a base for royal power.

Powerbase and fortress

As a powerbase in peacetime and refuge in times of crisis, the Tower’s fortifications were updated and expanded by medieval kings. A series of separate building campaigns ensured that by about 1350, the Tower was transformed into the formidable fortress we see today.

These building works started in the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189-99), who, on gaining the throne, left England almost immediately on crusade. He left the Tower in the hands of his Chancellor, William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely who doubled the fortress in size with new defences.

They came just in time. In the King’s absence his brother John seized the opportunity to challenge the Chancellor’s authority and mount an attack. He besieged the Tower and its new defences held out, until lack of supplies forced Longchamp to surrender.

The first lions at the Tower

On his return in 1194 Richard regained control, John begged for forgiveness, and was later named as Richard’s successor.

As king, John (1199-1216) often stayed at the Tower and was probably the first king to keep lions and other exotic animals there. His reign was characterised by political unrest: John made concessions to the barons by issuing Magna Carta in June 1215, but went back on his word as soon as he could. His opponents, who were in control of London and the Tower, invited Prince Louis of France to come and take the throne.

Louis launched an invasion in 1216, but King John died suddenly in the midst of fighting for his crown.

Henry III – the boy king

At the age of only 9, John’s son Henry III (1216-72) inherited a kingdom in crisis. However, within months the French were defeated at the Battle of Lincoln, and attention turned to securing the kingdom, with reinforcing the royal castles at the top of the agenda.

The boy king’s regents began a major extension of the royal accommodation at the Tower, including the building of two new towers on the waterfront: the Wakefield as the king’s lodgings and the Lanthorn, probably intended as the queen’s.

When rebellious barons caused Henry to seek refuge at the Tower in 1238, the nervous King soon noticed the weakness of the castle’s defences.

In 1238 he embarked on the building of a massive curtain wall on the north, east and western sides, reinforced by nine new towers and surrounded by a moat flooded by the Flemish engineer John Le Fossur (the ditch-digger).

Beauchamp Tower collapses

This very public display of the King’s power began to alarm Londoners. Contemporary writer Matthew Paris recorded their glee when a section of newly built wall and a gateway near the site of the Beauchamp Tower collapsed.

Some people believed their guardian saint, Thomas Becket, had made a heavenly intervention. Evidence of one of the collapsed buildings was found during archaeological excavations in the 1990s.

An aggressive Edward I

King Edward I (1272-1307) was a more confident and aggressive leader who managed his country’s rebels, but he was determined to complete the defensive works his father had begun at the Tower.

 Between 1275 and 1285 he spent over £21,000 on transforming the Tower into England’s largest and strongest concentric castle (with one ring of defences inside another).

He filled in the moat and created another curtain wall enclosing the existing wall built by his father, and also created a new moat. In spite of all this work and building comfortable royal lodgings, he seldom stayed at the Tower.

Other uses for the Tower

However, Edward’s reign saw the Tower put to uses other than military or residential. It was already in regular use as a prison (the first prisoner being Ranulf Flambard in 1100); and Edward used the castle as a secure place for storing official papers and valuables.

A major branch of the Royal Mint was established, an institution that was to play a significant part in the castle’s history until the 19th century.

Edward II seeks refuge

Edward I’s less warrior-like son, Edward II (1307-27), lacking in either military skill or statesmanship, soon put the efficiency of the Tower’s new defences to the test.

The discontent of the barons reached a level comparable with his grandfather Henry III’s reign, and Edward was often forced to seek refuge there. He took up residence in the area around the present Lanthorn Tower.

The former royal lodgings in the Wakefield Tower and St Thomas’s then began to be used by courtiers and by the Wardrobe (a department which stored valuables and dealt with royal supplies).

Edward III

Unlike his father, Edward III (1327-77) was a successful warrior and the captured kings of France and Scotland were held at the Tower.

He carried out minor building works at the fortress and extended the wharf, before Richard II (1377-99) shepherded in another period of intense domestic strife.

The Peasants’ Revolt

In 1381 the peasants revolted and 10,000 rebels under Wat Tyler burnt and plundered the capital. An unarmed but determined group managed to enter the Tower after the King had ridden out to pacify the rioters.

Eventually, in 1399, Richard, accused of tyranny by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, was forced to renounce his crown while he was held in the Tower.

Henry IV and V

Henry IV (1399-1413) was declared king the next day.

His reign and that of his successor Henry V (1413-22) were quiet ones for the Tower, with very little building work or domestic unrest, but instability soon returned with Henry VI (1422-61 and 1470-1) and the Wars of the Roses.

Wars of the Roses

During this struggle between the royal houses of Lancaster and York, the Tower was of key importance, and for the victorious it became a place of celebration.

Henry VI held tournaments at the Tower; it saw splendid coronation celebrations for Edward IV (1461-70 and 1471-83) and victory parties for Henry VII (1485-1509), who entertained his supporters in grand style.

However, for the defeated the Tower was a place of murder and execution; victims included Henry VI himself in 1471 and the young Edward V and his brother in 1483.                     

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