Visit the Tower of London

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:25 pm

Tower of London, the CityThe 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.  The city has grown up around it and it is part of it; it is impossible to imagine London without the Tower.  Think of all that it has witnessed in its 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.

Tower of LondonThere is an enormous amount you can see in London for free.  The Tower of London is a paid attraction but, in my opinion, one of the best .  It  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, one or two ghosts.  Quite frankly, there is enough in the Tower of London to keep most people with half a brain cell captivated, so to speak, for several hours: there’s quite a good café too, so treat yourself to tea and a bun.

White Tower, Tower of London

The Tower of London in 1647.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.

Water Lane by Wakefield Tower.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 on nearby Tower Hill.  Just past here is Traitor’s Gate, through which some of 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.  The grainy black and white photo of Traitor’s Gate 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.

Traitor's Gate. This is where the young Princess, later Queen Elizabeth I, entered the Tower. Tudor womanIt 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, kings of 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.

The executioner's block and axe at the Tower of London.Tower Green, scaffoldMost of those held awaiting execution actually met their grisly ends in a glare of publicity elsewhere – such as on 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?

Edward I, PalaceThere 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. Cruelly, Lady Jane Grey had been allowed to see her husband, Guildford Dudley’s, headless body brought into the Tower from his execution on Tower Hill, before being taken outside to meet her own end.  In 1743, three members of the crack Scottish regiment, the Black Watch, were shot nearby for mutiny.

Henry Vi, Wakefield TowerDuring 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, on 15 August 1941.  Jakobs was shot by firing squad whilst sitting in a chair, because he had broken an ankle when parachuting into Britain.  The chair was broken in the process and is now on display in the White Tower – the huge central keep that was built by William the Conqueror.

Joseph Jakobs, executions, Tower of LondonAs 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 Royal 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.  The three executed queens of England – Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – are all buried in the Chapel.

Bear, menagerie, Tower of LondonThen 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.

Guards at the Tower of London.Scots' Guards, Tower GreenYou 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 fall of the Tower, and the Nation.  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.

Yeoman Warder[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.]

Chapel of St John the Evangelist, part of the original Norman construction and still a Royal Chapel. (Credit: Public Domain Pictures).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.

Beauchamp Tower, graffitiArmour, Tower of LondonCannon, mortar, Royal ArmouriesThe rackNot to be missed is the astonishing graffiti carved into the walls of the Beauchamp Tower by  many of those held prisoner there, many facing imminent execution, some of high rank.  There’s a phenomenal amount on display throughout the complex, including armour and armaments – fascinating, once you’ve got over Henry VIII’s codpiece.  Not all of the collection can be shown.  I visited the Tower in a professional capacity once and was privileged to see a little behind the scenes.  When I had the temerity to enquire whether all the weapons they had there actually worked, I was given a pitying look and told, “My dear boy, there’d be no point having them otherwise.”

Gold-plated machine gunIn 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.

Poppies, Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of RedThe Tower of London is looked after by Historic Royal Palaces.  Go to A Bit About Britain’s listings to discover a bit more about other palaces in Britain.

Lion of St Mark

13 thoughts on “Visit the Tower of London”

  1. Of course, it would be fascinating if the Tower were still used as a prison today! I had a tour of the Crown Jewels with my mother when we were there in the early 60s, and I remember the chapel too. Interestingly, last night I watched an old episode of Who Do You Think You Are, the British version, re the British actress, Celia Imrie, and her forebears. People such as William Lord Russell, Frances Howard (Norfolk’s daughter) who was married to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, for a while, then to Robert/John Carr (I’ve forgotten already!), and all the drama that went with their life at Court, divorce, murder and beheadings. Celia’s 9th great-grandmother was Frances’ only child, her daughter Anne by Carr. In the episode, we got to hear all about the history…totally gripping! Your post is full of interest too…all those animals! Of course, I did see some ravens too…

  2. Hi Mike – an exemplary essay on the Tower – full of necessary information and fun detail. It’s an amazing edifice … I went to the “Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red” Memorial art work commemorating the start of WW1 – it was an incredible sight. Cheers Hilary

  3. This was so fun to read. The most thrilling for me was attending the Ceremony of the Keys, not to mention the really fancy ticket that comes in the mail. That whole place is fascinating. Definitely a must visit at least once. Is one of your photos the room (chapel) where Catherine and Arthur were married, or am I making that up? I would love to have seen the flood of poppies. What a beautiful and powerfully evocative tribute to the fallen. I so enjoyed this post, Mike.

  4. I visited the tower when I was a young girl (aka a long time ago). Then I went back after I read a lot about the Tudor times. My last visit was with my pupils after I studied with them the Tudor period. I enjoyed each visit.

  5. Last visit for me was to see the poppy’s. I have been round the Tower like you and would love to revisit, problem is so does every one else. A great place to go round

  6. It’s a fascinating place, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy it too much these days. I surprised myself when we visited the Leeds branch of the Armouries by becoming very distressed about all the implements of death and torture. I had to leave before I saw half of what was on offer. I’m just an old softy these days, I guess. The Tower’s not quite so concentrated on horror – but its basic function, as you say, is as a symbol of terrible power.

  7. I very much agree…the Tower of London is a must see. I am very grateful that I was able to see the Poppies when they were in the moat, It was a very moving sight.

  8. I think the Tower is one of the best places to visit in London. How can it fail with all that history. I visited the Tower regularly during the weeks and months prior to 11th Nov 2014 to see those poppies being placed one by one around the tower. A moving experience.

  9. That poppy project was simply amazing, even just following it online and through images as it developed. Must have been overpowering to experience the installation firsthand.
    A Ravenmaster from the Tower posts interesting pictures of the ravens on twitter now and then – such impressive birds. I’ve rarely seen one in the wild here.

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