Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, more commonly known as the Tower of London, is a historic castle on the northern bank of the Thames. Founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England, it lies within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, separated from the eastern edge of the City of London by the open space known as Tower Hill.
The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078, and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was used as a prison since at least 1100, although that was not its primary purpose. A grand palace early in its history, it served as a royal residence. As a whole, the Tower is a complex of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. There were several phases of expansion, mainly under Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I in the 12th and 13th centuries. The general layout, established by the late 13th century, remains despite later activity on the site.
The Tower of London has played a prominent role in English history. It was besieged several times and controlling it has been important to controlling the country. The Tower has served variously as an armoury, treasury, menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. From the early 14th century until the reign of Charles II, a procession would be led from the Tower to Westminster Abbey on the coronation of a monarch. In the absence of the monarch, the Constable of the Tower is in charge of the castle. This was a powerful and trusted position in the medieval period. In the late 15th century the castle was the prison of the Princes in the Tower. Under the Tudors, the Tower’s significance as the royal residence decreased, and despite attempts to refortify and repair the castle, its defences lagged behind developments to deal with artillery.
The Tower has been a tourist attraction since at least the Elizabethan period, when it was one of the sights of London that foreign visitors wrote about. Its most popular attractions were the Royal Menagerie and displays of armour. Also the Crown Jewels still garner much interest, and have been on public display since 1669. The Tower steadily gained popularity with tourists throughout the 19th century, despite the Duke of Wellington’s opposition to visitors.
The peak period of the castle’s use as a prison was in the 16th and 17th centuries, when many figures who had fallen into disgrace, such as Elizabeth I before she became queen, were held within its walls. This purpose has led to coining the phrase ‘sent to the Tower’. Despite its enduring reputation as a place of torture and death, popularised by 16th-century religious propagandists and 19th-century writers, only seven people were executed within the Tower before the World Wars of the 20th century. Executions were more commonly held on the notorious Tower Hill to the north of the castle, with 112 occurring there over a 400-year period. In the latter half of the 19th century, institutions such as the Royal Mint moved out of the castle to other locations, leaving many buildings empty. Anthony Salvin and John Taylor took the opportunity to restore the Tower to what was felt to be its medieval appearance, clearing out many of the vacant post-medieval structures. In World Wars I and II, the Tower was again used as a prison, and witnessed the executions of 12 men for espionage. After World War II, the damage caused during the Blitz was repaired and the castle reopened to the public. Today the Tower of London is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. It is cared for by the charity Historic Royal Palaces and is protected as a World Heritage Site.
At least six ravens are kept at the Tower at all times, in accordance with the belief that if they are absent, the kingdom will fall. They are under the care of the Yeomen Warders. The earliest known reference to a Tower raven is a picture from 1883.
The ghost of Anne Boleyn, beheaded in 1536 for treason against Henry VIII, allegedly haunts the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where she is buried, and has been said to be walking around the White Tower carrying her head under her arm. Other ghosts include Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole, and the Princes in the Tower.
The castle covers an area of almost 12 acres, with a further 6 acres around the Tower constituting the Tower Liberties, land under the control of the castle and cleared for military reasons. Despite some claims in popular fiction, the Tower never had a permanent torture chamber, though the basement of the White Tower housed a rack in later periods.
The castle is made up of three ‘wards’, or enclosures. The innermost ward contains the White Tower and is the earliest phase of the castle. Encircling it to the north, east, and west is the inner ward, built during the reign of Richard the Lionheart.
Finally, there is the outer ward which encompasses the castle and was built under Edward I. Although there were several phases of expansion after William the Conqueror founded the Tower of London, the general layout has remained the same since Edward I completed his rebuild in 1285. Tower Wharf was built on the bank of the Thames under Edward I and was expanded to its current size during the reign of Richard II.
Over the 18th and 19th centuries, the palatial buildings were slowly adapted for other uses and demolished. Only the Wakefield and St Thomas’ Towers survive. The 18th century marked an increasing interest in England’s medieval past. One of the effects was the emergence of Gothic Revival architecture. In the Tower’s architecture, this was manifest when the New Horse Armoury was built in 1825 against the southern face of the White Tower.
The White Tower is one of the largest keeps in the Christian world. Keep was often the strongest structure in a medieval castle, and contained lodgings suitable for the lord – in this case the king or his representative.
The White Tower, not including its projecting corner towers, measures 36 by 32 metres at the base, and rises to the height of 27 m at the southern battlements. The structure was originally three-storeys high, comprising a basement floor, an entrance level, and an upper floor. The entrance, as is usual in Norman keeps, was above ground, in this case on the southern face, and accessed via a wooden staircase which could be removed in the event of an attack.
Each floor was divided into three chambers, the largest in the west, a smaller room in the north-east, and the chapel taking up the entrance and upper floors of the south-east. At the western corners of the building are square towers, while to the north-east a round tower houses a spiral staircase. At the south-east corner is a larger semi-circular projection which accommodates the apse of the chapel. As most of the Tower’s windows were enlarged in the 18th century, only two original – albeit restored – examples remain, in the south wall at gallery level.
The tower was terraced into the side of a mound, so the northern side of the basement is partially below the ground level. Although the layout has remained the same since the tower’s construction, the interior of the basement dates mostly from the 18th century when the floor was lowered and the pre-existing timber vaults were replaced with brick counterparts.
The entrance floor was probably intended for the use of the Constable of the Tower and other important officials. The south entrance was blocked during the 17th century, and not reopened until 1973. Those heading to the upper floor had to pass through a smaller chamber to the east, also connected to the entrance floor. The top floor was added in the 15th century, along with the present roof. The upper floor contained a grand hall in the west and a residential chamber in the east – both originally open to the roof and surrounded by a gallery built into the wall – and St John’s Chapel in the south-east.
St John’s Chapel was not part of the White Tower’s original design, as the apsidal projection was built after the basement walls. The crypt of St John’s Chapel occupied the south-east corner and was accessible only from the eastern chamber. Due to changes in function and design since the tower’s construction, except for the chapel little is left of the original interior. The chapel’s current bare and unadorned appearance is reminiscent of how it would have been in the Norman period. In the 13th century, during Henry III’s reign, the chapel was decorated with such ornamentation as a gold-painted cross, and stained glass windows that depicted the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity.
The innermost ward encloses an area immediately south of the White Tower, stretching to what was once the edge of the River Thames. As was the case at other castles, the innermost ward was probably filled with timber buildings from the Tower’s foundation. It was originally surrounded by a protective ditch, which had been filled in by the 1220s.
The lodgings were renovated and elaborated during the 1220s and 1230s, becoming comparable with other palatial residences, such as Windsor Castle. It was also around 1220 when the construction of Wakefield and Lanthorn Towers, located at the corners of the innermost ward’s wall along the river, began.
The earliest evidence of how the royal chambers were decorated comes from Henry III’s reign: the queen’s chamber was whitewashed, and painted with flowers and imitation stonework. A great hall existed in the south of the ward, between the two towers. Near Wakefield Tower was a postern gate which allowed private access to the king’s apartments.
Between 1666 and 1676, the innermost ward was transformed and the palace buildings removed. The area around the White Tower was cleared so that anyone approaching would have to cross open ground. The Jewel House was demolished, and the Crown Jewels moved to Martin Tower.
The inner ward was created during Richard the Lionheart’s reign, when a moat was dug to the west of the innermost ward, doubling the castle’s size. Henry III erected the ward’s eastern and northern walls, and the ward’s dimensions remain to this day. Most of his work survives, and only 2 of the 9 towers he constructed have been completely rebuilt.
The main entrance to the inner ward would have been through a gatehouse, most likely in the western wall on the site of what is now Beauchamp Tower. The 13th-century Beauchamp Tower marks the first large scale use of brick as a building material in Britain, since the 5th-century departure of the Romans.
The Beauchamp Tower is one of the 13 towers that top the curtain wall. Anti-clockwise from the south-west corner they are: Bell, Beauchamp, Devereux, Flint, Bowyer, Brick, Martin, Constable, Broad Arrow, Salt, Lanthorn, Wakefield, and the Bloody Tower. While these towers provided positions from which flanking fire could be deployed against a potential enemy, they also contained accommodation.
As its name suggests, Bell Tower housed a belfry, its purpose to raise the alarm in the event of an attack. The royal bow-maker, responsible for making longbows, crossbows, catapults, and other siege and hand weapons, had a workshop in the Bowyer Tower. A turret at the top of Lanthorn Tower was used as a beacon by traffic approaching the Tower at night. The Bloody Tower acquired its name in the 16th century, as it was believed to be the site of the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
As a result of Henry’s expansion, St Peter ad Vincula, a Norman chapel which had previously stood outside the Tower, was incorporated into the castle. Henry decorated the chapel by adding glazed windows and stalls for himself and his queen. It was rebuilt by Edward I and again by Henry VIII in 1519; the current building dates from this period, although the chapel was refurbished in the 19th century.
The Waterloo Barracks were built in 1845 on the site of the burned down Grand Storehouse and remain to this day, housing the Crown Jewels.
A third ward was created during Edward I’s extension of the Tower, as the narrow enclosure completely surrounded the castle.
At the same time a bastion known as Legge’s Mount was built at the castle’s north-west corner. Brass Mount, the bastion in the north-east corner, was a later addition. Although the bastions have often been ascribed to the Tudor period, there is no evidence to support this; archaeological investigations suggest that Legge’s Mount is Edwardian. Blocked battlements in the southern side of Legge’s Mount are the only surviving medieval battlements at the Tower of London – the rest are Victorian replacements.
Edward extended the southern side of the Tower of London onto land that had previously been submerged by the River Thames. He built St Thomas’ Tower between 1275 and 1279; later known as Traitors’ Gate, it replaced the Bloody Tower as the castle’s water-gate. The dock was covered with arrowslits in case of an attack on the castle from the river; there was also a portcullis to control who entered.
Edward also moved the Royal Mint into the Tower; its exact location early on is unknown, although it was probably either in the outer ward or the Lion Tower that no longer exists. By 1560, the Mint was located in a building in the outer ward near Salt Tower. Between 1348 and 1355, a second water-gate, Cradle Tower, was added east of St Thomas’ Tower for the king’s private use.
Victorious at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, the invading Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, spent the rest of the year securing his holdings by fortifying key positions. Between 1066 and 1087 William established 36 castles along the way, but took a circuitous route toward London.
William sent an advance party to prepare the city for his entrance and celebration of his victory and to found a castle. The fortification that would later become known as the Tower of London was built onto the south-east corner of the Roman town walls, using them as prefabricated defences, with the River Thames providing additional protection from the south.
At the time, London was the largest town in England; the foundation of Westminster Abbey and the old Palace of Westminster under Edward the Confessor had marked it as a centre of governance, and with a prosperous port, it was important for the Normans to establish control over the settlement.
Most of the early Norman castles were built from timber, but by the end of the 11th century a few, including the Tower of London, had been renovated or replaced with stone. Work on the White Tower – which gives the whole castle its name – is usually considered to have begun in 1078, however, the exact date is uncertain. The White Tower is the earliest stone keep in England, and was the strongest point of the early castle. It also contained grand accommodation for the king.
At the latest, it was probably finished by 1100 when Bishop Ranulf Flambard was imprisoned there. Flambard was loathed by the English for exacting harsh taxes. Although he is the first recorded prisoner held in the Tower, he was also the first person to escape from it, using a smuggled rope secreted in a butt of wine. He was held in luxury and permitted servants, but on 2 February 1101 he hosted a banquet for his captors. After plying them with drink, when no one was looking he lowered himself from a secluded chamber, and out of the Tower.
The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ records that in 1097 King William II ordered a wall to be built around the Tower of London; it was probably built from stone and likely replaced the timber palisade that arced around the north and west sides of the castle, between the Roman wall and the Thames.
The castle probably retained its form as established by 1100 until the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189–1199). It was extended under William Longchamp, Richard’s Lord Chancellor and the man in charge of England while he was on crusade. Longchamp was also Constable of the Tower, and undertook its expansion while preparing for war with Richard’s younger brother, Prince John, who in Richard’s absence arrived in England to try to seize power. As his main fortress, Longchamp made the Tower as strong as possible. The new fortifications were first tested in October 1191, when the Tower was besieged for the first time in its history. Longchamp capitulated to John after just three days, deciding he had more to gain from surrender than prolonging the siege.
John succeeded Richard as king in 1199, but his rule proved unpopular with many of his barons, who in response moved against him. In 1214, while the king was at Windsor Castle, Robert Fitzwalter led an army into London and laid siege to the Tower. Although under-garrisoned, the Tower resisted and the siege was lifted once John signed the Magna Carta. The king reneged on his promises of reform, leading to the outbreak of the First Barons’ War.
In the 13th century, Kings Henry III and Edward I extended the castle, essentially creating it as it stands today. Most of the work was focused on the palatial buildings of the innermost ward. The tradition of whitewashing the White Tower (from which it derives its name) began in 1240. Beginning around 1238, the castle was expanded to the east, north, and north-west. The work lasted through the reign of Henry III and into that of Edward I, interrupted occasionally by civil unrest. New creations included a new defensive perimeter, studded with towers, while on the west, north, and east sides, where the wall was not defended by the river, a defensive ditch was dug.
In 1258, the discontented barons, led by Simon de Montfort, forced the King to agree to reforms including holding regular parliaments. Relinquishing the Tower of London was among the conditions. Henry III resented losing power and sought permission from the pope to break his oath. Eventually, a truce was agreed with the condition that the King handed over control of the Tower. Henry won a significant victory at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, allowing him to regain control of the country and the Tower of London.
Cardinal Ottobuon came to England to excommunicate those who were still rebellious. He was granted custody of the Tower, which didn’t appeal to Gilbert de Clare, 6th Earl of Hertford, who then marched on London in April 1267 and laid siege to the castle. Despite a large army and siege engines, Gilbert de Clare was unable to take the castle.
Edward I was a seasoned castle builder, and used his experience of siege warfare during the crusades to bring innovations to castle building. At the Tower of London, Edward filled in the moat dug by Henry III and built a new curtain wall along its line, creating a new enclosure. A new moat was created in front of the new curtain wall. The western part of Henry III’s curtain wall was rebuilt, with Beauchamp Tower replacing the castle’s old gatehouse. A new entrance was created, with elaborate defences including two gatehouses and a barbican. In an effort to make the castle self-sufficient, Edward I also added two watermills.
When Richard II was crowned in 1377, he led a procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. This tradition began in the early 14th century and lasted until 1660. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 the Tower of London was besieged with the King inside. When Richard rode out to meet with Wat Tyler, the rebel leader, a crowd broke into the castle without meeting resistance and looted the Jewel House. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, took refuge in St John’s Chapel, hoping the mob would respect the sanctuary. However, he was taken away and beheaded on Tower Hill. Six years later civil unrest ensued again, and Richard spent Christmas in the security of the Tower rather than Windsor, as was more usual. When Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile in 1399, Richard was imprisoned in the White Tower. He abdicated and was replaced on the throne by Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV.
In the 15th century, there was little building work at the Tower of London, yet the castle still remained important as a place of refuge. When supporters of the late Richard II attempted a coup, Henry IV found safety in the Tower of London. During this period, the castle also held many distinguished prisoners. As a result of Henry V’s victories in the Hundred Years’ War against France, such as the Battle of Agincourt, many high-status prisoners were held in the Tower of London until they were ransomed.
Much of the latter half of the 15th century was occupied by the Wars of the Roses between the claimants to the throne, the houses of Lancaster and York. During the wars, the Tower was fortified to withstand gunfire, and provided with loopholes for cannons and handguns: an enclosure was created for this purpose to the south of Tower Hill, although it no longer survives.
The beginning of the Tudor period marked the start of the decline of the Tower of London’s use as a royal residence. During the reign of Henry VIII, the Tower was assessed as needing considerable work on its defences. Although the defences were repaired, the palace buildings were left in a state of neglect after Henry’s death. Their condition was so poor that they were virtually uninhabitable.
In the 16th century, the Tower acquired an enduring reputation as a grim, forbidding prison. But the Tower’s reputation for torture and imprisonment derives largely from 16th-century religious propagandists and 19th-century Romanticists. As a royal castle, it was used by the monarch to imprison people for various reasons, however, these were usually high-status individuals for short periods rather than common citizenry as there were plenty of prisons elsewhere for such people. Among those held and executed at the Tower was Anne Boleyn. Contrary to the popular image of the Tower, prisoners were able to make their life easier by purchasing amenities such as better food or tapestries. High-status prisoners could live in conditions comparable to those they might expect outside; one such example was that while Walter Raleigh was held in the Tower, his rooms were altered to accommodate his family, including his son who was born there in 1605. After Lady Jane Grey’s execution in 1554, Queen Mary I imprisoned her sister Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, in the Tower under suspicion of causing rebellion as Sir Thomas Wyatt had led a revolt against Mary in Elizabeth’s name.
In 1649, during the English Civil War, the contents of the Jewel House were disposed of along with other royal properties. Metal items were sent to the Mint to be melted down and reused. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the only surviving items of the coronation regalia were a 12th-century spoon and three ceremonial swords. The rest of the Crown Jewels had to be recreated. In 1669, the Jewel House was demolished and the Crown Jewels moved into Martin Tower where they could be viewed by the paying public. The Crown Jewels are currently stored in the Waterloo Barracks at the Tower.
The last monarch to uphold the tradition of taking a procession from the Tower to Westminster to be crowned was Charles II in 1660. At the time, the castle’s accommodation was in such poor condition that he did not stay there the night before his coronation. Under the Stuart kings the Tower’s buildings were remodelled, mostly under the auspices of the Office of Ordnance.
As holding prisoners was originally an incidental role of the Tower – as would have been the case for any castle – there was no purpose-built accommodation for prisoners until 1687 when a brick shed, a ‘Prison for Soldiers’, was built to the north-west of the White Tower. Executions were usually carried out on Tower Hill rather than in the Tower of London itself, and 112 people were executed on the hill over 400 years.
Although only one bomb fell on the Tower of London in World War I (it landed harmlessly in the moat), World War II left a greater mark. On 23 September 1940, during the Blitz, high-explosive bombs damaged the castle, destroying several buildings and narrowly missing the White Tower. After the war, the damage was repaired and the Tower of London was reopened to the public.
During World War I, eleven men were tried in private and shot by firing squad at the Tower for espionage. During World War II, the Tower was once again used to hold prisoners of war. One such person was Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, albeit just for four days in 1941. He was the last state prisoner to be held at the castle. The last person to be executed at the Tower was German spy Josef Jakobs who was shot on 14 August 1941. The executions for espionage during the wars took place in a prefabricated miniature rifle range which stood in the outer ward and was demolished in 1969.
In 1974, there was a bomb explosion in the Mortar Room in the White Tower, leaving one person dead and 41 injured. No one claimed responsibility for the blast, but the police investigated suspicions that the IRA was behind it.
In 1988, the Tower of London was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, in recognition of its global importance and to help conserve and protect the site.
The collective term Crown Jewels denotes the regalia and vestments worn by the sovereign of the United Kingdom during the coronation ceremony and at other state functions. The term refers to the following objects: the crowns, sceptres (with either the cross or the dove), orbs, swords, rings, spurs, colobium sindonis, dalmatic, armill, and the royal robe or pall, as well as several other objects connected with the ceremony itself.
Guy Fawkes was brought to the Tower on 6 November 1605. After torture he signed a full confession to the Gunpowder Plot.