You are at the top of the page

Skip to content or footer

Start of main content

A Tudor wall under the White Tower

Date: 25 February 2016

Author: George Roberts

Hundreds of years of history mean that simple building work at the Tower of London is never straight forward. Whenever we have to dig down, there’s a high chance that we could find archaeological remains from the Tower’s past.

Sometimes we don’t find very much, but during recent renovations to the White Tower shop we came across something we didn’t expect.

The White Tower is the oldest building at the Tower of London. William the Conqueror started its construction, and it has hundreds of years of alterations and additions to its fabric. Some of this work is well recorded in surviving documents and accounts, but some parts have only been identified through archaeology.

The White Tower shop is located in the building’s basement which underwent major alterations in the 1730s when brick vaults were installed to help support the floors above. The area was converted into a large storage area for saltpetre (potassium nitrate), an important component of gunpowder.

We began by opening up a small trial trench in the floor which identified some bricks underneath a modern concrete floor. After expanding the trench it became clear that the bricks formed part of a wall which was still 74cm high. Opening up other trenches around the site revealed a similar wall running parallel on the other side of the room.

A general view of the White Tower basement before an archaeological excavation project. Showing its 18th-century brick vaults.

Image: Before the excavations began: The basement of the White Tower showing its 18th-century brick vaults © Historic Royal Palaces

We also found other features related to the wall, including a small stone tile which was probably part of the Tudor floor, originally at a much lower level than the current floor. Unfortunately the wall has many gaps in it where the eighteenth-century brick vaults were built.

From the size and style of the wall’s bricks we know that they date from the Tudor period, and we were also able to see that many of them had been re-used as a foundation for the later vaults.

Close view of one of the Tudor brick walls discovered under the White Tower shop during an archaeological excavation.

Image: One of the Tudor walls discovered under the White Tower shop © Historic Royal Palaces

Our challenge now is to understand and interpret what we have found. The walls are marked on a plan of the basement drawn in 1729, just before the modern vaults were built, and were used to hold large wooden posts which supported the floor above.

Now we have seen these walls and know that they were built in the Tudor period we can begin to draw some conclusions about them. The White Tower had a third floor added to it in 1490 during the reign of Henry VII, and we believe that these walls were built to help support the extra weight of the levels above, probably soon after the new floor’s construction.

A display of eight pieces of pottery discovered during an archaeological excavation in the White Tower basement.

Image: Some pieces of pottery found during the recent dig © Historic Royal Palaces

Further investigation might help us to date this new discovery more certainly. This includes looking at historic building accounts and plans as well as analysing the small collection of pottery and other objects we have found.

Once again, it shows that you never know what you might be walking over when you visit the Tower of London!

George Roberts
Assistant Curator of Historic Buildings, Tower of London

More from our blog

Astronomy at the Top of the White Tower

12 March 2018

The White Tower of the Tower of London has three square turrets and one that is circular. One of the most interesting uses for this circular turret took place in 1675 when it became Britain's first temporary royal observatory.

Caring for the Tower of London through lockdown

11 May 2021

While the Tower of London was closed to the public during the Covid-19 pandemic, much work was underway to protect the fabric of the building and the future of the palace. Assistant Curator Alfred Hawkins reveals one of the important projects that he has been working on behind the scenes.

Excavations at the Tower of London's chapel

21 October 2019

Earlier this year, once-in-a-generation excavation works taking place outside the entrance to the Tower's Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula uncovered amazing finds, which shed new light on the history of the Chapel and what life was like for those who lived at the Tower 500 years ago. Historic Buildings Curator Alfred Hawkins explains the process of archaeological excavations.

Share this on:

Twitter Facebook