The Tower of London​—Historic Monument to a Turbulent Past


DOMINATING the Thames River in East London stands one of the most famous monuments in the world​—the Tower of London. For nearly a thousand years, this great fortress, palace, and prison played a central role in England’s turbulent history. Through its gates passed kings, queens, courtiers, churchmen, politicians, and judges​—some to emerge in triumph, others never to be seen alive again. Why was the Tower built, and what human dramas inside its walls shaped the course of English history?

Royal Fortress

After Duke William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, he constructed a series of castles to intimidate the hostile Anglo-Saxons. The most formidable building came to be in the city of London. The wooden fort initially erected inside the southeast corner of the old Roman walls was soon replaced by a huge stone structure, the Great Tower. Roughly square, measuring 106 by 118 feet [32 x 36 m], it loomed 90 feet [27 m] into the sky, instilling fear in the local inhabitants. When a later king had it whitewashed, it became known as the White Tower.

Subsequent kings added towers of varying sizes, two massive encircling walls, and a deep moat, making the complex one of the most impregnable fortresses in Europe. Indeed, sometimes monarchs had to seek refuge behind its walls to escape their rebellious  subjects. In times of civil war, the victorious side was the one that gained control of the Tower, seen as a symbol of power and authority. In more peaceful times, it was the starting point for impressive coronation-day processions. When in residence, the king and his entourage lived in richly ornamented palace apartments, where they entertained their friends with lavish banquets. However, the king’s enemies got a different reception.

State Prison

Known to house its first prisoner in 1100, the Tower was a prison with a difference. It was reserved for people of rank and importance. Among its high-profile detainees were defeated kings of Scotland and France as well as members of the aristocracy and churchmen who had fallen out of favor or turned traitor. On occasion, there were executions and even murders. Henry VI was killed in the Tower, and so were 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother.

Prisoners were accommodated wherever there was space and were either closely confined or allowed to wander within the castle precincts. Some prison sentences were short, others long. William Penn, later the founder of the American colony of Pennsylvania, was imprisoned for eight months for his religious beliefs. After a defeat in battle, the French king’s nephew, Charles, Duke of Orléans, was held intermittently for 25 years until an enormous ransom was paid. The courtier, explorer, and writer Sir Walter Raleigh whiled away 13 dreary years writing his History of the World before his temporary release and eventual execution.

Executions Increase

The Tower’s reputation for harsh treatment of prisoners really dates from the time of the Reformation. Henry VIII, desperate for a male heir, broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and began executing people who refused to acknowledge him as head of the Church of England. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, failed to produce a son and was beheaded in the Tower for alleged treason and adultery, along with her brother and four others. Catherine Howard, the fifth of Henry’s wives, suffered the same fate. In addition, many nobles with royal blood, who were thus threats to the throne, were put into the Tower and died on the scaffold.

When Henry’s young son the Protestant Edward VI became king, he continued the brutal executions. He died within six years and was succeeded by Henry’s daughter  Mary, a zealous Roman Catholic. She lost no time in beheading 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey and her young husband, pawns in the struggle for power. Now it was time for Protestant enemies to die. Mary’s half sister Elizabeth spent many anxious weeks in the Tower before she was released, but on becoming queen herself, she imprisoned and executed those who refused to give up their Catholic faith or who opposed her rule.

Although thousands were imprisoned in the Tower, only five women and two men were beheaded within its precincts, being spared the embarrassment of a public execution. Three of the women were queens​—Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and, after reigning just nine days, Jane Grey. Most of the other executions, usually beheadings, took place on nearby Tower Hill and were watched by huge, unruly crowds. The severed head was displayed on a spike on London Bridge as a warning to others, and the headless body was taken back to the Tower for burial under a chapel floor. Eventually, over 1,500 corpses were interred there.

Sometimes, usually only with official sanction, prisoners were tortured to extract confessions. In 1605, Guy Fawkes, who had attempted to blow up the king and the Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot, was stretched on the Tower’s rack to make him reveal the names of his accomplices before he was executed.

For a short time in the 1600’s, England and the Tower came under the control of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, but after Charles II was restored to the throne, fewer prisoners were sent to the Tower. In 1747 the last beheading took place on Tower Hill, but the Tower’s role as state penitentiary was not quite finished. During the first world war, 11 German spies were confined there and executed by firing squad. In the second world war, the Tower briefly held prisoners of war, including Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy reichsführer. The final victim to die within its walls was the spy Joseph Jakobs, shot in August 1941.

Yeoman Warders and the Crown Jewels

Since the Tower’s beginning, warders have guarded both prisoners and buildings. But the specially chosen yeoman warders date their origin from 1485. In those days prisoners often arrived by river and entered the Tower through Traitor’s Gate. If the accused was returning from his trial, spectators watched to see which way the accompanying yeoman gaoler (jailer) held his ax. A blade facing the prisoner signaled another execution.

Today yeoman warders still guard the Tower but act as knowledgeable guides for the many visitors. On ceremonial occasions they wear their resplendent Tudor livery of a scarlet-and-gold tunic topped with a high white ruff, but for normal duties they dress in their navy-and-red Victorian uniforms. Warders are popularly known as beefeaters, a nickname that probably started as a term of derision during times of famine. While Londoners went short of food, the yeoman warders were always given a ration of beef to make sure that they stayed loyal to the crown.

The yeoman raven master is responsible for the Tower’s large ravens. Superstition has it that disaster will befall England if the birds ever leave the Tower, so their wings are kept clipped.

Jewel House wardens guard the famous British crown jewels, on public display since the 17th century. The largest top-quality cut diamond in the world, the Cullinan I, is one of the priceless stones in the crowns, orbs, and scepters still used by the royal family.

 Zoo, Mint, and Armory

Early in the 13th century, King John kept lions in the Tower, but the royal menagerie really began when his successor, Henry III, received three leopards, a polar bear, and an elephant from European sovereigns. Although the animals were intended for the amusement of the king and his court, when the bear went swimming in the Thames on the end of a lead to catch fish, all London could enjoy the spectacle. More exotic animals arrived over the years, and the menagerie was open to the public from Elizabethan times. It was closed in the 1830’s when the animals were moved to the newly opened zoo in Regent’s Park in London.

For over 500 years, a major branch of the Royal Mint operated within the Tower’s precincts. One of its busiest times occurred during Henry VIII’s reign, when it made coins from silver confiscated from the recently dissolved monasteries. The Tower also safeguarded important State and legal records and manufactured and stored military equipment for the king and his army.

A Reminder of the Past

Today the Tower of London is one of Britain’s major tourist attractions. It looks much as it did in earlier times, so one can hardly walk around the grim, gray towers and cobbled streets without being reminded of the violence, suffering, and human tragedy experienced within the Tower’s walls over the centuries. Its turbulent past is well summed up at the site of the scaffold on Tower Hill. There a small plaque commemorates ‘the tragic history, and in many cases the martyrdom, of those who for the sake of their faith, country, or ideals staked their lives and lost.’

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Anne Boleyn

Catherine Howard

Jane Grey

William Penn

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Boleyn and Howard: From the book Heroes of the Reformation, 1904; Grey: From the book The World’s Famous Events; Penn: From the book The Library of Historic Characters and Famous Events, Vol. V, 1895

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A tower apartment later used for prisoners

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Copyright Historic Royal Palaces

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The yeoman gaoler

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Copyright Historic Royal Palaces

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Some of the crown jewels

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Crown ©/The Royal Collection © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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A 16th-century coin depicting Henry VIII

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Top: © London Aerial Photo Library/CORBIS; inset: Copyright Historic Royal Palaces