The Tower was originally one of many Norman forts built by William the Conqueror following his invasion from Normandy in 1066. In 1078 William ordered the building of a huge stone stronghold, to replace an earlier wooden fortification, which he named the Tower of London. The central White Tower was completed by 1100, standing through the Norman period. Then into the Plantagenet era, 1190 saw Richard I instructing Chancellor Longchamp to improve the Tower defences. Work continued through the reigns of Richard's successors John and Henry III. From 1300 Edward I expanded the Tower defences still further, giving us roughly the Tower we know today.
Entering the castle at Byward Tower you walk into Water Lane. This marks the former position of the river Thames before it was pushed back to make way for the outer curtain walls. Following steps up onto the curtain walls beside the river, a walk takes you through the rule of Henry III. In the Wakefield Tower when I visited there was a video presentation describing Henry's struggle with England's powerful barons, led by Simon de Montfort. After initial defeats Henry III decided to fight back. He held court in the Wakefield Tower on 22nd of March 1261, planning his strategy. By September he was back in power.
The Salt Tower
Henry III's son Edward I was a ferocious king who had no trouble keeping the nobles under control. Walking into St Thomas's Tower, Traitor's Gate will be beneath you. This gate, originally opening directly to the river, was built by Edward between 1275 and 1279, and is a powerful symbol of his ruthless authority. People would have come in by boat, appearing in the castle at the lowest level. New arrivals would have looked up to see accusing eyes staring down at them from above. A sense of intimidation would have been overwhelming from the outset. Along the wall from St Thomas's Tower you come to the Salt Tower. It was here that Edward I incarcerated John Balliol, King of Scotland. Balliol was an appointee of Edward. When the Scottish king had the temerity to suggest he might think for himself, he was ritually humiliated at Kincardine Castle by Edward, his royal insignia torn from his chest, before being confined to the Salt Tower.
In St Thomas's Tower are rooms where Edward held court. When I visited a video presentation described Edward's rule.
Moving on through history we return to the Wakefield Tower for the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses. The Wakefield Tower is the traditional place of Henry VI's murder at the hands of his Yorkist enemies. Then the Lower Bowyer Tower is the setting for famous events in the reign of Henry VI's successor Edward IV. Edward's troublesome and rebellious brother the Duke of Clarence is supposed to have been drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine in the Bowyer Tower. This is a famous episode in Shakespeare's play Richard III. In this play the Tower appears almost as a character, symbolising both protection, and fearful danger. When the young sons of Edward IV are confined to the Tower by Richard III in 1483, their mother asks the castle walls to protect them. The young princes were traditionally kept in what is now known as the Bloody Tower. In fact they were much more likely to have been confined in secure cells on upper floors in the White Tower. The Princes in the Tower disappeared in July 1483, and were presumably murdered. In 1674, workmen digging out foundations of a staircase leading up to the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, high in the White Tower, found a chest containing the skeletons of two boys. Tests carried out by medical experts in 1933 confirmed that these bones were those of two children of the ages of the Princes in the Tower in September 1483.
The Tower holds evidence of many other incarcerations. In Broad Arrow Tower Sir Everard Digby, one of the Gunpower Plotters carved his name into the stone of the wall. The names of many Catholic priests or sympathisers are here too. They give a poignant insight into sixteenth century religious divisions following on from Henry VIII's decision to switch England's official religion from Catholicism to Protestantism. Back in Water Lane you would already have passed the Bell Tower, where Henry's chancellor Thomas Moore was probably held in 1534 after refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England. On Tower Green is the scaffold site where Anne Boleyn, the woman who caused Henry VIIII to embrace Protestantism, was executed.
The Line of Kings
I walked round the Tower along with hundreds of other people. Watching the crowds both inside and outside the walls I tried to imagine the scene of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381, when a young Richard II took shelter in the White Tower. June 13th 1381 was a day of riot, pillage and anarchy in London. After Richard went out to meet the rebels at Mile End the mob broke into the Tower and rampaged around it. Archbishop Sudbury and Sir Robert Hales, Treasurer of England, were dragged out of St John's Chapel in the White Tower and beheaded on Tower Green. It is strange to see a distant echo of that day in the peaceful ambling of tourists, and in children running about.
The Tower has actually been a tourist attraction open to the public for a very long time, and is perhaps one of the first ever historical locations to be treated in this way. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he used the Tower as a symbol of the continuity of monarchy. A display of weapons was created in the White Tower, and as part of this display Charles ordered the creation of a "Line of Kings". This consisted of a line of life size model horses beside a sequence of English kings represented by suits of royal armour. The Line of Kings can still be seen at the White Tower today, being viewed by tourists as it was in the seventeenth century. The crown jewels have also been on display at the Tower since the seventeenth century. A number of stones in the present state crown were originally mounted in Charles II's crown.
St John's Chapel
Many other exhibitions and events are presented at the Tower, some of a temporary nature to coincide with topical themes. Continuity, however, is really what the Tower is all about. Every night the Ceremony Of The Keys takes place, when Yeoman Warders and the military guard lock the outer gates and deliver the keys to the Resident Governor. This has happened nightly for seven hundred years. Members of the public can attend this ceremony. Tickets are free but must be applied for in advance, giving two months notice, or three during July and August. Visitors are met by escort at precisely 9.30pm at the West Gate, and escorted to the ceremony. The Tower's ravens can also be depended upon. These birds have lived at the Tower for hundreds of years, and legend has it that should they ever leave the Tower, the White Tower will fall and a great disaster will befall England. Strangely the raven, which has always been considered a bird of ill-omen in English folk-lore, has become a lucky charm. There is now a full-time keeper making sure the ravens are well cared for. A fortress that was built by William the Conqueror as a stronghold for occupying forces, and became an almost mythically feared prison, is now, like the ravens, a national symbol viewed with affection.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Address: Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB
Directions: Take Circle or District Line to Tower Hill station, and then follow the signs. Circle and District Lines are subject to occasional closure. Check before hand, and as an alternative use Central and Northern Line to Bank station, or Jubilee and Northern Line to London Bridge. Alternatively take the River Bus from Charing Cross, Westminster or Greenwich to Tower Pier. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Tower of London.
Access: As an historic building much of the Tower of London is inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. The Jewel House is accessible to all visitors. A limited number of wheelchairs are available for hire at the Group Ticket Office at the West Gate. Adapted toilet facilities are available behind the Jewel House. Improvements are constantly being made. Go to the web site www.hrp.org.uk for up to date information.
telephone: 0844 482 7777 from the UK
or 44 20 3166 6000 from outside the UK
web site: www.hrp.org.uk
group bookings telephone: 0844 482 7799
school bookings telephone: 020 3166 6654