The Tower of London is arguably the world’s most famous castle. It is certainly the largest and best-preserved medieval castle in Britain. It is also one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Thousands of visitors flock to the Tower of London on a daily basis, to marvel at its impressive battlements and brood over its fascinating history. The Tower is literally saturated in sites woth seeing, including the famous Tower Green, Traitor’s Gate and Bloody Tower, where many noteworthies were imprisoned or executed at the behest of the crown. There is also to be found spectacular collections of artuifacts, from the armory museum to the world famous collection of crown jewels. The Tower of London is also home to living exhibits in the form of ravens and beefeater guards, both of which are an integral part of any visit to this greatest of royal castles.
In 1078 AD, about a decade after the Norman conquest of southern England, William I began construction on the White Tower, the original building of the Tower of London, amidst what was still a very hostile local Anglo-Saxon population. The White Tower was completed around 1100 AD, at which time it became a royal residence of the English monarchs. The royal family soon relocated the primary seat of government to the Palace of Westminster, but retained the White Tower as a royal posession. From the 12th to the 14th centuries, there were many expansions to the original castle. The most significant additions took place during the reigns of Richard I, Henry III and Edward I, who expanded the Tower grounds significantly and enclosed them in two concentric walls and a moat. The present-day form of the Tower of London mostly dates from 1285 AD.
The history of the Tower of London was relatively peaceful for more than three centuries following its initial construction. The Tower was not genuinely threatened until the 1390s during the great Peasant’s Revolt. Ironically, the massive fortification, which was designed to keep large enemy armies at bay, fell to a disorganized mob of angry English peasants after only a short siege. Although Richard II was forced to capitulate and agree to numerous reforms, the Tower remained intact. For the next 86 years after Richard’s abdication in 1399, the Tower of London was caught in a vicious tug-of-war between the Lancaster’s and York. Henry VI of Lancaster died a prisoner here in 1471, while the Little Princes of the House of York were assassinated here a dozen years later.
By the days of the Henry VIII, the Tower of London was rarely if ever lived in by the royal family, who were solidly ensconced in the Palace at Westminster and later at Whitehall. The Tower was even eclipsed by Windsor Castle which was a regularly-used royal getaway. Nevertheless it remained an important fortress and prison, and probably entered its most infamous period under the Tudors. The Tower became the chief site of royal executions, including such notables as Anne Boleyn & Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Sir Walter Raleigh was among the noteworthies who were imprisoned in the Tower but survived.
By the 17th century the Tower of London had become obsolete both as a royal residence and as a military installation. However, as a beloved institution of the City of London, the Tower is maintained as a royal residence. Unofficially it became London’s chief tourist destination, with paying visitors touring as early as Elizabeth’s reign. It was also maintained as a royal treasury and has remained the home of the crown jewels until the present day. In one of the Tower’s last famous incidents, Colonel Thomas Blood made off with the jewels in one of history’s most daring robberies. The Tower of London was ceded to hordes of tourists in the 19th century, when most of the remaining instutions within the Tower, including the menagerie and the mint, were removed. However, the castle and crown jewels remain, and the Tower is now one of the most visited tourist sites in England.
The Tower of London as it stands today largely dates back to the 13th century. The massive, double-concentric castle stands along the north banks of the Thames River. Although the moat has been filled in for almost two hundred years, the ancient water entrance, known as Traitor’s Gate, can still in theory be entered by boat. The main entrance is through the Middle Tower, over a short bridge and through the Byward Tower. Altogether ten towers protect the outer wall, and thirteen protect the inner wall. Among the famous inner towers are the Beauchamp Tower, where Walter Raleigh and other famous prisoners were kept; and the Bloody Tower, where the little princes were murdered.
All of the major buildings of the Tower of London stand within the inner wall. The centerpiece is the original White Tower which dominates the fortress at a height of ninety feet. Built of stone quarried in France, this former royal residence now houses a spectacular museum. The collection includes numerous artifacts from the royal family over the centuries. Most notably there is a spectacular collection of arms, armor and weapons from the old Tower armory, including pieces owned and used by former kings. To the west of the White Tower is the Tower Green, site of many of the fortress’ fabled executions. North of the White Tower is the Waterloo Barracks, built on the site of the former royal palace and now home to the crown jewels. The crown jewels, and the entire tower, are guarded tirelessly by the Yeoman of the Guard, or Beefeaters, who with their 16th century livery have become something of a tourist attraction unto themselves.
The Tower of London is located in the City of London proper, just north of the River Thames and the Tower Bridge. It is open every day of the year except for December 24-26 and January 1. From March to October the Tower is open from 9:00am-6:00pm (Tu-Sa) and 10:00am-6:00pm (Su, Mo); and from November to February from 9:00am-5:00pm (Tu-Sa) and 10:00am-5:00pm (Su, Mo). Admission is L15.00 for adults and L9.50 for children (discounts for students and senior citizens). Web: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon (official website).
The area immediately in and around London is home to literally dozens of spectacular castles and palaces. These include Windsor Castle, the other major pre-Tudor royal residence extent in the area, and the later palace at Hampton Court. Most of the other great royal residence palaces around London date from later periods.