If you are visiting London, then you cannot miss a visit to the Tower of London. One alluring character about this Tower is that it never became an unimportant never-to-be-used castle. All through the ages, the control of this Tower has been so vital that kings have been made and unmade just because they won or lost the Tower.
The White Tower
Though it is called a Tower, it is in reality, a historic castle built at the end of the Normal Conquest in 1078 by William the Conqueror. Previously known as the White Tower, the castle was looked upon as a symbol of oppression by the masses. The Tower has played a very important role in English history, despite the many uses it has been put into. Through the centuries, it has been used as a royal residence, a prison, an armory, treasury, a menagerie, royal mint, public records office and finally the home to the crown jewels of the Queen.
It all began when King Edward the Confessor died without a direct heir, which started a fratricidal strife among his relatives. His brother-in-law Harold Godwinson was crowned as King, which was contested by William, Duke of Normandy who was also a distant relative. Wiiliam declared war again Harold and defeated him in the Battle of Hastings. He immediately claimed the throne and sent an advance guard to London to construct a fortress in honor of his victory. In 1066, he was crowned the King in Westminister Abbey after which he stayed in Essex while his stronghold; the White Tower was being built. The White Tower was unlike any construction built in England during those times and it represented the might of the New Normal King.
The Tower was further expanded and more buildings were added during of Richard the Lionheart (1189-99). King John, the brother of King Richard also used the Tower as a powerbase and also kept Lions and many other exotic animals at the Tower.
King Henry III (1216-72) also known as the Boy King was just nine years old when he ascended the throne after his father King John. Many renovations were undertaken at the Tower during Henry’s reign. The Tower was expanded to include royal residence for the King and two new Towers were built on the Waterfront. And it was during his reign that a huge curtain wall was built around the tower fortifying the castle complete with a moat.
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During the reign of Edward I ((1272-1307), the tower was further fortified and two concentric castles were built making it impregnable. Ironically, Edward I rarely stayed at the Tower preferring to use it as a prison and to store important documents and valuables. The office of royal mint was also established at the Tower during his reign.
During the War of Roses, tournaments and celebrations were held here when a battle was won and Edward IV (1461-70 and 1471-83) was crowned here. Alternatively, the Tower also became a symbol of terror, when Henry VI and Edward V were imprisoned and executed.
During the reign of Tudors the Tower became more sinister than ever. The royal residences were rarely used and King Henry VIII imprisoned and executed Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher of Rochester and two of his queens Anne Bolyn and Catherine Howard. Many important protestant figures were imprisoned here during the reign of Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII. She also imprisoned and executed Lady Jane Grey on charges of treason. Elizabeth her half sister (who would later become the Queen) was herself imprisoned in the Tower.
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During the civil war between the Commonwealth and Charles I, the Tower fell into the control of the Parliament. This, is in fact considered as the most important drawback of the King and the reason for his defeat. During this period, Oliver Cromwell, used the Tower as a garrison to control the masses, a practice which was followed by the later monarchs.
When Charles II became the king, he installed the headquarters of Ordnance here to supply ammunition and weapons. And a new set of crown jewels was put on display, since the Commonwealth had melted down the old ones!
In the 19th century, the old moat whose waters had become smelly and slushy were drained and turned into a dry ditch and new barracks were installed. The royal mint office was moved from the Tower followed by the menagerie, which was installed in the present London Zoo. In 1855, the Office of Ordnance and the office of records were also moved out of the Tower.
Murder and Execution
If you were in Tudor England and someone says that you will be ’sent to tower’ it basically means that you will be imprisoned and possibly executed. Many high-profile prisoners have been locked up here and executed. Some have been murdered too.
According to historical sources, the Tower was the last residence of young princes Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury who were the sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The parliament declared to both the brothers illegitimate and their uncle Richard of Gloucester was crowned as King Richard III. They were last seen playing in the grounds of the Tower after which they vanished and nothing was known about them, except for speculation that they were murdered in the Tower. The mystery of the princes is still not resolved even to this date though history points accusing fingers towards their uncle Richard III
In 1674, two skeletons of children were discovered in the Tower under the staircase that leads to the chapel. Charles II who was the king then, had them buried in Westminister Abbey, lending credence to the belief that they might actually be the remains of the lost princes.
With so many executions and murder it is no surprise that the Tower is haunted. Queen Anne Bolyn (Mother of Queen Elizabeth I) is often seen roaming in the Chapel holding her beheaded head in her arms. Some have also spotted her near the Queen’s House walking down in a procession with her Lords and Ladies in attendance. King Henry VIII executed her on charges of infidelity. Though the real reason was her inability to give him a son.
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Some workmen who were renovating the castle also spotted the young Princes of the Tower who were murdered here. They were seen sliding down the stairs in their nightshirts and then they disappeared near the stairs where their bodies were later discovered.
Sir Walter Raleigh, who was imprisoned in the Tower by James I, still has a furnished room, which is kept exactly as it was during his time. He is also spotted on and off in the room looking exactly like his painting.
Many have also seen the ghostly enactment of the execution of Countess of Salisbury who refused to put her head down on the chopping block and the executioner hacked her to pieces when she tried to run away.
Lady Jane Grey is another tragic figure that was beheaded here for political reasons, which were not of her making. Seen as a threat, Queen Mary I had this 17 year old girl beheaded along with her husband. Many have spotted her ghost standing on the battlements and weeping inconsolably.
The Tower Today
Apart being a historical landmark, it houses the Crown Jewels of the British Monarchy including the famous Kohinoor diamond. It also houses the Fusilier Museum where many notable artifacts related to the army are on display. The medieval palace houses the rooms and quarters that were occupied by Queens and Kings preserved and remodeled exactly as it had been in the medieval period. You can also visit Fit for a King, an exhibition that displays five centuries worth of history through artifacts such as armors, chain mail, swords etc.
As the Yoemen Guards conduct the tours inside, you will also learn about the six resident ravens who according to legend protect the Tower. King Charles II believed that as long as the six ravens live in the tower, it would be protected against enemies. Since then, the Tower guards have protected the ravens and have ensured a comfortable stay for them.
To visit the Tower of London, the easiest way is to book tickets online. They also have group tickets (15 members) available online. Advance tickets purchased online can be used within seven days of purchase.