The Tower of London has been sitting on the north bank of the Thames, watching the tides of a great city ebb and flow, for around a thousand years. Imagine all that it has witnessed over that time: great moments in history, pageantry, celebration, rebellion, construction, industry, fire, murder, bombing – and, of course, generations of ordinary Londoners going about their daily lives.
There is an enormous amount you can see in London for free. The Tower of London is a paid attraction, but, in my opinion, one that you must visit if you can. The Tower of London has actually been so many things – fortress, royal palace, treasury, armoury, prison, mint – even a menagerie. It famously houses the Crown Jewels as well as part of the Royal Armouries (the UK’s National Museum of Arms and Armour) – both of which are amazing and should not be missed – and the Fusilier Museum, which tells the story of the Royal Fusiliers since 1685. The Tower has a morbidly fascinating gory side too, of course, and, as you would expect, a few ghosts. Quite frankly, there is enough in the Tower of London to keep most intelligent people captivated, so to speak, for several hours: there’s quite a good café too, so treat yourself to tea and a bun.
I’m a little surprised that the Tower isn’t in the Reader’s Digest book of ‘The Most Amazing Places to Visit in Britain’ – I can only guess that entries in this guide had to be paid for and Historic Royal Palaces, who look after the place, decided they had absolutely no need to pay Reader’s Digest a penny.
For all that modern Britain is comprised of many races, and that today’s London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, the Tower should be seen as a symbol of the sometimes terrible power of the monarchs of England. Because for more than half its history, that is exactly what it was.
Essentially, the tower of London is a castle, a great medieval fortress. You might want to remember, as you leave the safety of the 21st century pay desks, head under the twin portcullises of the Middle Tower, across the causeway and through the defensive chill of the Byward Tower, that you are entering a mainly medieval compound. For some, the only trip out again was as far as the scaffold. Just past here is Traitor’s Gate, through which the condemned were brought from the river. When I was a child, there was an old book at home with a piece about the Tower in it. I can still see the grainy black and white photo of Traitor’s Gate; it had quite an impact on a small boy and, even now, it is a rather forbidding structure – despite the fact that it was, really, just an entrance from the river.
It is partly the dark history of the Tower that people find compelling. Its walls have held captive the enemies of kings and state, including kings of Scotland, France – and, yes, England too. The Scottish patriot William Wallace (or should that be Mel Gibson?) was imprisoned in the Tower before his execution; the future Queen Elizabeth I stayed there at the pleasure of her half-sister, Queen Mary. Sir Walter Raleigh was incarcerated in reasonable conditions in what used to be the Garden (now the Bloody) Tower for awhile, growing tobacco on Tower Green, before losing his head in 1618. Guy Fawkes, one of the terrorists who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, was one of many unfortunates that were tortured here; and a more recent prisoner was the unhinged Nazi, Rudolf Hess. Lord Nithsdale, sentenced to death for his part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, actually managed to escape – thanks to the wit of his wife, Winifred Maxwell – by dressing as a woman.
Most of those held awaiting execution actually met their grisly ends in a glare of publicity elsewhere – such as on nearby Tower Hill, or at Smithfield. These included Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Monmouth and the Scottish lords executed after the rebellion of 1745. But of course there have been murders and executions within the precincts of the fortress itself. Poor, confused, King Henry VI was done away with in the Wakefield Tower, next to what is now known as the Bloody Tower, where two small princes were reputedly detained – and never seen again. The young sons of Edward IV, 12 year old Edward V and his 9 year old brother, Richard, were held on the orders of their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester – later Richard III. Two skeletons, believed to be those of the boys, were found hidden in the White Tower in 1674. Was Uncle Richard a murderer, or a nice cuddly, albeit slightly curved, chap whose body unfortunately turned up in a Leicester car park in 2012? What do you think?
There have been just ten executions on Tower Green, all of the victims condemned on dubious grounds, including three queens of England. Lord Hastings was beheaded in 1483. In 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn was decapitated with one stroke of a sword by a specially imported Frenchman. In 1541, the elderly Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, suffered a clumsy execution that took at least 10 strokes of the axe to remove her head. 20 year old Queen Catherine Howard and her lady in waiting, Viscountess Jane Rochford, in 1542, young Lady Jane Grey (just 16 years old) in 1554 and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in 1601 – all met their terrifying ends on the executioner’s block. Then, in 1743, three members of the crack Scottish regiment, the Black Watch, were shot nearby for mutiny.
During World War One, 11 men faced the firing squad elsewhere in the Tower for alleged espionage activities. The last execution in the Tower, so far as anyone is letting on, was that of a German spy, Joseph Jakobs, in 1941.
As for the ghosts, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole, Henry VI and the young princes have all been seen; some more than once. A popular location is in the vicinity of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in chains), where some of those whose restless spirits walk are buried – though Anne Boleyn seems to turn up just about anywhere, the little minx.
Then there’s the phantom bear – a projection, perhaps, of the one of the beasts that used to be in the Royal Menagerie. The menagerie existed from 1235 for the next 600 years or so, at which point many of the animals decamped to establish Regent’s Park Zoo. The three lions on English football shirts used to live here – as did an elephant (a gift from the King of France) and a polar bear (who used to go fishing in the Thames). ‘Tis said that people contributed toward the welfare of these wild, exotic, creatures by donating a spare dog or cat – in return for a peek.
You will hear all the good tales if you attach yourself to a Yeoman Warder tour. The 12 Yeoman Warders (they don’t like being called ‘Beefeaters’), were established by Henry VIII in 1509 and are the official guards at the Tower. Their tours are invariably captivating – and usually very amusing. They may tell you about the six resident ravens, whose departure would result in the Tower, and the Nation, falling. The Yeoman Warders have also conducted the ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ to secure the Tower, every night for about 700 years. It’s easy to confuse the Yeoman Warders with the Yeoman of the Guard, who were formed in 1485 by Henry VII as the monarch’s personal bodyguard; both wear similar, traditional, Tudor uniforms.
At 9.53pm precisely, the Chief Yeoman Warder meets the military escort, comprised of members of the Tower of London Guard. The Chief Yeoman Warder and the Yeoman Warder Watchman lock the main gates of the Tower. As their party marches back down Water Lane, they are challenged by the sentry:
Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys.”
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All is well.”
The Yeoman Warder and escort then proceed into the fortress, through the archway under the Bloody Tower, to the Broadwalk Steps. On the top of the steps, the Tower Guard present arms and the Chief Warder raises his hat, proclaiming:
“God preserve Queen Elizabeth.”
“Amen!” comes the reply.
The Warder then takes the keys to the Queen’s House for safekeeping, while the Last Post is sounded.
[It is possible to witness the Ceremony of the Keys. You need to book online at the Historic Royal Palaces website – and it normally gets booked months in advance.]
The complex of different buildings that now forms the Tower of London actually began life as a simple fortress on a small hill. William the Conqueror started building on the site almost as soon as he had been crowned King of England on Christmas Day in 1066. There had been a fort there since ancient times, but what William had in mind was something that struck fear and awe into the hearts of the recently subjugated Saxons. The massive central keep, the White Tower, was built between 1075 and 1100 of limestone brought from Caen – an enormous undertaking in the 11th century. It must have terrified Londoners at the time, who were more familiar with little wood and thatch buildings. The Tower was replicated, usually on a smaller scale, at scores of stone castles the Normans constructed across their new territory to help keep the population in check. Larger curtain walls and the moat were added in the 13th century and the basic layout was established by the 14th century. It didn’t quite stop there, of course – for example, the Royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula is 16th century, the New Armouries building is 17th century and the enormous Waterloo Barracks were added in the 19th century. It’s a relatively big place.
In 2014, an art installation in the moat of the Tower captured imaginations all over the world. “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”, created by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. From July to November 2014, 888,246 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British life lost in the fighting, progressively filled the Tower’s famous moat. It was an awesome sight – as were the thousands of visitors that shuffled past every day to see the display, and to mentally commemorate all of those lost, of every nation. The poppies were later sold, raising millions of pounds for charities.
I feel I should apologise for the poor quality of some of the pictures in this article. Though I have visited the Tower half a dozen times, the last occasion was pre-A Bit About Britain – I paid less attention to photography in those days. I have also supplemented my own photographs with some from Pixabay.
The Tower of London is looked after by Historic Royal Palaces. Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory to discover a bit more about the Tower and other palaces in Britain.