William becomes King
In 1066, Edward the Confessor died childless, leaving several claimants vying for the throne. Edward’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, was crowned immediately but William, Duke of Normandy, a distant blood relative, said he too had been promised the throne.
William invaded and defeated the English under King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Realising he must next secure England’s most powerful city – London – he did not attack directly but first laid waste to the surrounding countryside.
Seeing that the game was up, the city’s leading men came to William to submit.
Early strongholds and fortresses
William’s determination and faith in his own military might is reflected in the account of his biographer, William of Poitiers, who tells us that he sent an advance guard to London to construct a fortress and prepare for his triumphal entry into the city.
After his coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, the new king withdrew to Barking in Essex, ‘while several strongholds were made ready in the City to safeguard against the fickleness of the huge and fierce population, for he saw that his first task was to bring the Londoners completely to heel’.
Archaeological evidence suggests one of these strongholds was built in the south-east corner of the Roman city walls, on the site of the future Tower of London. These early defences were replaced with a great stone tower (the White Tower) proclaiming the physical power and prowess of the new Norman monarch.
Building work begins
It is not clear exactly when work started on the Conqueror’s White Tower or precisely when it was finished but the first phase of building work was certainly underway in the 1070s.
Gundulf, the new Bishop of Rochester, was in charge; Norman masons were employed and some of the building stone was specially imported from William’s native Normandy. Labour, however, was provided by Englishmen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments in 1097 that ‘many shires whose labour was due to London were hard pressed because of the wall that they built around the Tower’. By 1100 the White Tower was complete.
The mighty Tower
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in England before. The building was immense, at 36m x 32.5m (118 x 106ft) across, and on the south side where the ground is lowest, 27.5m (90ft) tall; the Tower dominated the skyline for miles around.
The Tower was protected by Roman walls on two sides, ditches to the north and west up to 7.5m (25ft) wide and 3.4m (11ft) deep and an earthwork topped by a wooden palisade.
Although many later kings and queens stayed at the Tower, it was never intended as the main royal residence. Palaces like Westminster had more opulent rooms. Equally the Tower was not the first line of defence against invading armies, though it could rise to this challenge.
The Tower’s primary function was as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century.