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The Story of the Tower of London

Mighty fortress. Royal palace. Infamous prison.

Mighty fortress. Royal palace. Infamous prison.

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 Yeomen Warders and its legendary guardians, the pampered ravens, the Tower now attracts over three million visitors a year. Here, the Ceremony of the Keys and other traditions live on, as do the ghost stories and terrible tales of torture and execution.

But the Tower also has a richer and more complex history, having been home to a wide array of institutions including the Royal Mint, the Royal Armouries and even a zoo.

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

Fortress. Palace. Prison.

As the most secure castle in the land, the Tower guarded royal possessions and even the royal family in times of war and rebellion.

But for 500 years monarchs also used the Tower as a surprisingly luxurious palace.

Throughout history, the Tower has also been a visible symbol of awe and fear. Kings and queens 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

William the Conqueror's fortress

In the 1070s, William the Conqueror, fresh from his victory but nervous of rebellion, began to build a massive stone fortress in London to defend and proclaim his royal power. Nothing like it had ever been seen in England before.

William 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. Masons arrived from Normandy, bringing with them stone from Caen in France. Most of the actual labour was provided by Englishmen.

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

The fortress expands

Throughout history, the Tower has been adapted and developed to defend and control the nation.

Henry III (1216-72) and Edward I (1272-1307) expanded William’s fortress, adding huge 'curtain' (defensive) walls with a series of smaller towers, and enlarging the moat.

They also transformed the Tower into England’s largest and strongest ‘concentric’ castle (with one ring of defences inside another).

Inside, the medieval kings built magnificent royal lodgings.


Did you know?

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

Tower of strength

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

The Tower also controlled the supply of the nation’s money. All coins of the realm were made at the Tower Mint from the reign of Edward I 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 Throne Room at the Tower of London.

Henry VI and the Wakefield Tower

The Tower of London has also been the infamous setting for stories of royal tragedy and death.

During the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was murdered here in 1471 and, later, the children of his great rival Edward IV – the Princes in the Tower - vanished within its walls in 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.

Image: Henry VI was supposedly murdered while at prayer in the King's Private Chapel in the Wakefield Tower.

Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London

The famous Yeoman Warders, recognised as symbols of the Tower all over the world, have been here 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 showing the Chief Yeoman Warder posing with soldiers. The Tower of London looking south towards the Bloody Tower.

Ceremony of the Keys

Today the Yeomen 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 cannon 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

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 was once a splendid royal palace to the south of the White Tower. Henry VIII modernised the rooms inside in preparation for 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 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 Raleigh 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

The 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 Jane Grey, all of whom were executed within the Tower in the 16th century.

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


Did you know?

After their execution, the headless bodies of the queens were buried quickly and carelessly under the Chapel without any memorial.

View of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula.

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, inscribed with their names and coats of arms.

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

Legends and ghosts

The Tower has been a visitor attraction since the 18th century, but numbers of tourists increased dramatically in the 1800s. Visitors were fascinated by the stories of England’s turbulent and sometimes gruesome history.

Stories of ghosts haunt the Tower. Anne Boleyn is said to stalk the site of her execution on Tower Green.

Arbella Stuart, the cousin of Elizabeth I who starved while under arrest for marrying without royal permission, is said to frequent the Queen’s House still.

Two smaller ghosts are thought to be the 'princes in the Tower', and the Yeomen Warders even tell a chilling tale of a huge bear who occasionally appears to frighten visitors 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.

The ravens at the Tower today are cared for by a dedicated Yeoman Warder known as the Ravenmaster.


Did you know?

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

The Tower today

The Tower of London is still one the world’s leading tourist attractions and a world heritage site, attracting visitors from all over the world.

And when the gates are locked and all the visitors have gone, the Tower embraces a thriving community within its walls. The Tower of London is still home to the Yeomen Warders and their families, the Resident Governor, and a garrison of soldiers. There is a doctor and a chaplain. And there is even a pub!


The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula

Explore the Chapel on our podcast

In the third part of our podcast mini-series on spaces we love, we're joining Assistant Curator Alfred Hawkins, who has chosen to take us into the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower of London.

As the burial place of Anne Boleyn, the Chapel Royal holds a special place to many history fans, but there is so much more to this community place of worship. Alfred reveals that the myths of history can be just as important as the truth.

More episodes

Discover more Tower of London history

Jewels on Display

A short history of the Jewel House at the Tower

Tom Drysdale, Archivist and Curator of Architectural Drawings at the Tower of London, explores the fascinating history of the Jewel House at the Tower.

Test your Tower knowledge

Download the Royal History Quiz App

What will you find within the ancient walls of this world-famous fortress, witness to nearly 1000 years of history? Test your knowledge of Yeoman Warders, torture and execution, rogues and ravens.


The Princes in the Tower

Murdered or survived – what happened to Edward and his younger brother Richard?

Thomas Cromwell

The life and death of Henry VIII’s 'most faithful servant'

LGBT Royal Histories

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer histories in our palaces


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Walk the defensive inner battlements and huge towers that have guarded the Tower of London for centuries.

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The Tower Moat

Immerse yourself in the sights and smells of millions of wildflowers by journeying around the Tower of London moat.

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Members-only access to the traditional locking up of the Tower of London, the Ceremony of the Keys.

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