The story of the Tower of London

Infamous as a prison, this iconic fortress was also once a luxurious royal palace

Infamous as a prison, this iconic fortress was also once a luxurious royal palace

When William the Conqueror built a mighty stone tower at the centre of his London fortress in the 1070s, defeated Londoners must have looked on in awe. Now nearly 1000 years later, the Tower still has the capacity to fascinate and horrify.

As protector of the Crown Jewels, home of the iconic Yeoman Warders and its mythical guardians, the pampered ravens, the Tower now attracts over 3m visitors a year. Here, the Ceremony of the Keys and other traditions live on, as do the  Gothic-inspired ghost stories and terrible tales of torture and execution.

But the Tower has a richer and more complex history, having been home to a wide array of operations and institutions.

Aerial view of the Tower of London from the north west with Tower Bridge in the distance.

Fortress. Palace. Prison.

As a secure fortress, the Tower guarded royal possessions and the monarchs themselves in times of war and rebellion.  However, it was more than an austere bastion.

For 500 years monarchs also used the Tower as a surprisingly luxurious palace. The most secure castle in the land, it could protect their most valuable possessions and themselves, at times of war and rebellion.

Kings and queens also imprisoned their rivals and enemies within its walls. The stories of prisoners, rich and poor, still haunt the Tower.

King William I ('The Conqueror') by Unknown artist

The Conqueror’s fortress

In the 1070s, William the Conqueror, fresh from his victory but nervous of insurrection, began to build a massive stone tower at the centre of his London fortress.

Nothing like it had ever been seen in England before.

The ruthless William, crowned as William I, intended his mighty castle keep not only to dominate the skyline, but also the hearts and minds of the defeated Londoners.

The Tower took around 20 years to build. Some of the building stone was imported from Caen in France, and Norman masons were used. However, labour was provided by Englishmen.

Image: King William I ('The Conqueror') by an unknown artist, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The fortress expands

As a powerbase and a refuge, the Tower’s fortifications were updated and expanded by medieval kings.

Henry III (1216-72) built magnificent royal lodgings and a mighty curtain (defensive) wall defended by a series of smaller towers.

Did you know?

In 1240, Henry III had the Tower’s great keep painted white, making it the White Tower.

The Medieval Tower

Henry III's son Edward I (1272-1307) was determined to complete his father’s defensive work.

Between 1275 and 1285 he added another curtain wall and transformed the Tower into England’s largest and strongest concentric castle (with one ring of defences inside another).

Edward also enlarged the moat and established the Tower Mint.  

Image: Illustration of how the Tower may have looked, c1300 by Ivan Lapper.

Tower of strength

Kings and queens used the Tower in times of trouble to protect their possessions and also themselves, retreating here in times of rebellion and revolt. Arms and armour were made, tested and stored here until the 1800s.

The Tower also  controlled the supply of the nation’s money from the reign of Edward I.  All coins of the realm were made here until 1810. Kings and queens also locked away their valuables and jewels at the Tower and even today, the Crown Jewels are protected by a garrison of soldiers.

Did you know?

The Tower’s defences failed once. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, rebels ran in through the open gates!

A photograph featuring the painted timber screen and stained-glass window of The King's Private Chapel at The Wakefield Tower Thrown Room at the Tower of London.

The Bloodier Tower

As well as a symbol of royal power, the Tower was also the stage for royal crises.

During the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI and, later, the children of Edward IV – the Princes in the Tower - were murdered within its walls at some point in the summer of 1483. 

In 1674, two skeletons were unearthed at the Tower. The bones were re-examined in 1933 and proved to be those of two boys aged about 12 and 10, exactly the same ages as the princes when they disappeared.

The King's Private Chapel at The Wakefield Tower is associated with Henry VI who was supposedly murdered while at prayer in the chapel in 1471.

The palace guards

The iconic Yeoman Warders, recognised as symbols of the Tower all over the world, have been there for centuries. They were originally part of the Yeomen of the Guard, the monarch’s personal bodyguard who travelled with him.

Henry VIII (1507-47) decreed that some of them would stay and guard the Tower permanently.

Did you know?

Henry VII's personal guards were the first 'Beefeaters', so named as they were permitted to eat as much beef as they wanted from the King's table.

Ceremony of the Keys

Today the Yeoman Warders or the 'Beefeaters' guard the visitors, but still carry out ceremonial duties, such as unlocking and locking the Tower every day in the Ceremony of the Keys.

They wear their red state ‘dress uniforms’ for important occasions at the Tower, and also for special events such as the firing of the huge canon on the Wharf, known as the Gun Salutes.

Anne Boleyn by Unknown English Artist, late 16th century.  Primary collection of National Portrait Gallery, NPG 668

Royal life and death

The Tower has also served as a royal palace. Medieval kings and queens lived in luxurious apartments at the Tower. They worshipped in the Chapel Royal, kept a menagerie of exotic animals (which lasted until the 19th century) and welcomed foreign rulers at magnificent ceremonial occasions. 

Although long since vanished, there were once splendid royal apartments in the area to the south of the White Tower. Henry VIII modernised and refurbished these in preparation of the coronation of his new bride, Anne Boleyn in 1533. She and the King feasted here in splendour the night before Anne processed in triumph through the City of London to Westminster Abbey.

Three years later Anne was back at the Tower, this time accused of adultery and treason. She was held in the same luxurious lodgings during her hastily-convened trial at the Tower, before being executed by sword on Tower Green.

Image: Anne Boleyn, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey by Hendrik Jacobus Scholten.

Sent to the Tower

For over 800 years, men and women have arrived at the Tower, uncertain of their fate. Some stayed for only a few days, other many years.

During the Tudor age, the Tower became the most important state prison in the country. Anyone thought to be a threat to national security came here.

The future Elizabeth I, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Ralegh and Guy Fawkes were all ‘sent to the Tower’. Even in the 20th century, German spies were brought here and shot.

Image: The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey, Hendrik Jacobus Scholten (1824-1907).

The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula

This Chapel is perhaps best known as being the burial place of some of the most famous Tower prisoners. This include three queens of England: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey.

Henry VIII's wives were accused of adultery and treason. Lady Jane Grey was an unfortunate pawn in a Protestant plot to replace Mary I and was executed for high treason in 1554, aged only 17.


Did you know?

At the time, their headless bodies were buried quickly and carelessly under the nave or chancel without any memorial.

Resting in peace

In 1876, when the Chapel was restored, the remains unearthed in the chancel, including those of Anne Boleyn, were reburied beneath a marble pavement, in which were inserted their names and coat of arms.

St Thomas's Tower and the Wakefield Tower at the Tower of London, viewed from Tower Bridge at night.

Legends and ghosts

Visitor figures increased dramatically in the 19th century. The Victorians were fascinated with England’s turbulent and sometimes gruesome history, particularly the episodes at the Tower. 

Many buildings were ‘re-medievalised’ by leading Gothic revivalist architect Anthony Salvin. Also, many of the bloodiest legends and ghost stories were told and re-told to thrill visitors.

Stories persist of two small spectres, thought to be the murdered princes in the Tower.  Arabella Stuart, who starved herself under house arrest at the Tower for marrying without royal permission, is said to haunt the Queen’s House.

Most famously, a headless Anne Boleyn is said to stalk the site of her execution on Tower Green. Yeoman Warders today tell a chilling tale of a huge ghostly bear that appeared in one of the towers, frightening a witness to death.

The Tower Ravens

One of the most famous legends of the Tower surrounds the ravens.  The story goes that should the ravens leave the Tower, both it and the kingdom will fall.

Seven ravens enjoy a pampered existence at the Tower today (six and one spare just in case!), and are cared for by a dedicated Yeoman Warder known as the Ravenmaster.

Did you know?

These highly intelligent, handsome birds have one flight feather painlessly trimmed to stop them flying away.

The Tower today

After surviving second world war bombs, the Tower is still one the world’s leading tourist attractions and a world heritage site, attracting nearly three million visitors a year from all over the world.

And when the gates are locked and all the visitors have gone, the Tower embraces a different kind of life.

There is a thriving community within its walls, home to the Yeoman Warders and their families, the Resident Governor, and soldiers.  There is a doctor and a chaplain. And there is even a pub!

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