Soon after he became king in 1066, William the Conqueror built a castle to guard the entrance to London from Thames Estuary. In 1097, the White Tower, standing today at the center of the complex, was completed in sturdy stone; other fine buildings were added over the centuries to create one of the most powerful and formidable fortress in Europe. The tower has served as a royal residence, an armory, a treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for enemies of the crown. Many prisoners were tortured, and among those who met their death here were the “Princes in the Tower”, the sons and heirs of Edward IV. Today, the tower is a popular attraction, housing the Crown Jewels and other Priceless exhibits – powerful reminders of royal might and wealth.
THE LEGEND OF THE RAVENS
The tower’s most celebrate residents are a colony of seven ravens. It is not known when they first settled here, but these scavenger birds would have arrived soon after the castle was constructed to feed off the abundant refuse. Their presence has been protected by a legend that says that should the birds desert the tower, the kingdom will fall. In fact, they have their wings clipped on one side, makin flight impossible. The Ravenmaster, one of the “Beefeaters”, look after the birds.
The tower has been prison to kings, queens, and notorious characters throughout its history. One of the first monarchs to be held here was Henry VI, who was murdered while at prayer in 1471. The Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, was convicted of treason and killed by drowning in a cask of wine in 1478. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, and his former chancellor, Sir Thomas More, were beheaded here. Even Elizabeth I was held in the tower for two months, and on her death in 1604, Sir Walter Raleigh, her favorite explorer, was imprisoned and later executed. The last prisoner, held in the Queen’s House in 1941. was Rudolf Hess, deputy leader of the Nazi party.
THE WINTER TOWER
Work on the White Tower, the oldest surviving building in the tower, was begun in 1078. It was designed as a palace-fortress to accommodate the king and the Constable of the Tower, the garrison commander. Each had their own rooms, including a hall for public occasions, a partitioned chamber, and a chapel. When the fortress was enlarged a century later, both king and constable moved to new residences. On the upper two stories, the monarch’s elegant royal suite was used to hold distinguished prisoners. The ceremonial chambers were twice their present height. Rising through two floors is the Chapel of St. John, an exquisite early-Norman church. This was once decorated rich furnishing, painted stonework, and stained-glass windows, but these were removed in 1550 during the English Reformation. In the 1600s, the tower served as a storehouse and armory.
Among the magnificent Crown Jewel is the Scepter with the Cross of 1660, which contains the world’s biggest diamond.
When the tower was completed in 1097, it was the tallest building in London, at 90 ft (27m) high.
Many high-raking prisoners were held in this tower = built by Edward I around 1281 – often with a retinue of servants.
This Tudor building is the sovereign’s official residence at the tower.
Prisoners’ inscriptions are carved into the walls of this tower’s two residential rooms, which were used as prison cells during Tudor times.
Thirty-seven Yeoman Warders guard the tower and live here. Their uniforms harken back to Tudor times.
Chapel of St. John
This austerely beautiful Romanesque chapel is particularly fine example of Norman architecture.
This infamous entrance was used for prisoners brought from trail in Westminster Hall.
Edward IV’s two sons were put in the tower by their uncle, Richard of Gloucester (subsequently Richard III) after their father died in 1483. The princes, depicted here by John Millais (1829-96), mysteriously disappeared and Richard was crowned later that year. In 1674, the skeletons of two children were found nearby.
Favored prisoners were executed at this site, away from the crowds on Tower Hill. Seven people died here, including two of Henry VIII’s six wives. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
THE CROWN JEWELS
One of the world’s best-known collections of precious objects includes the regalia of crowns, scepters, orbs, and swords used at coronations and other state occasions. Most date from 1661, when Charles II commissioned replacements for regalia destroyed by Parliament after the execution of Charles I. Only a few older pieces survived, hidden until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 – notably, Edward the Confessor’s (r. 1327-77) sapphire ring, now incorporated into the Imperial State Crown. The crown was remade for Queen Victoria and has been worn at every coronation since.
TORTURE AND DEATH
Early prisoners in the Tower of London, who were sentenced to execution, could look forward to a drawn-out death. In the 14th and 15th centuries, many would have been hanged, drawn, and quartered, or burned at the stake, although some may have been stretched on a rack first. Others were disemboweled or hacked to piece.
1078: Work begins on building the White Tower
1533: Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn at the tower.
1601: The last victim of the ax is beheaded on Tower Green.
1841: Fire destroys part of the White Tower.