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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Tower of London

What is the Tower of London?

The Tower of London is an 11th-century castle on the north bank of the Thames in London that was founded by William the Conqueror and has served as a fortress, palace, prison, and tourist attraction.

Tower of London

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Tower of London History

Wearing a damask gown trimmed with fur to shield her from the May morning cold, Anne Boleyn was led to the scaffold. In 1536, Henry VIII’s second wife left the apartments which had been her coronation rooms just three years earlier.

Looking up to the assembled crowd she said: ‘Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die’. She had been sent to the Tower of London.

The Tower, officially called His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, was founded by William the Conqueror in 1066 to secure his conquest of England and subjugation of its local inhabitants.

Over its 900-year history, the Tower of London has held many roles: from a palace housing jewels to a prison, grim site of execution and subjugation; from a medieval defensive keep with working menagerie and currency mint, to a contemporary tourist attraction.

Tower of London Guards

As a stronghold, the complex remains a masterpiece of Norman defensive engineering, of its kind one of the most complete in Europe. The central keep, known as the White Tower, was constructed in 1078. Expansion began in the 12th century under Richard the Lionheart, that celebrated but absentee crusading king, and was continued in the 13th century by Henry III and Edward I, who added the two concentric curtain walls.

The formidable structure was never attacked by a sieging army but in 1381, 400 discontents managed to gain entry during the Peasants’ Revolt and murder Simon Sudbury the unpopular Archbishop of Canterbury. In the Second World War, plans were drawn up to deploy the castle as one of the last defences of the capital.

A disconcertingly elegant jail, the Tower has incarcerated over 8,000 people between its construction and 1952, when Ronnie and Reggie Kray, East London gangsters, had the honour of being some of the last prisoners held here. Most infamously, on the death of Edward IV in the 15th century his two sons were placed in the Tower by his brother Richard for their protection.

Many believe that their uncle, having been crowned king, quietly had the little boys murdered; such is the story Shakespeare tells with unforgettable drama in his Richard III. Although the princes’ bones were found in a buried chest in 1674, we’ll never know who really ordered their deaths.

It was in the 16th century, under the Tudors, that the Tower secured its reputation in collective memory as a forbidding, if stately, prison. Among the crowd who saw Anne Boleyn’s head severed in one clinical swing was Thomas Cromwell, the man who had engineered her downfall. Despite being the son of a blacksmith, Cromwell rose to become the king’s effective political premier.

Only four years later Cromwell himself was accused of treason, locked in the Tower, and 28th July 1540 he looked up to the assembled crowd and said: ‘I am come hither to die’. His decapitated head was set on a spike on London Bridge. On the same day, 30 kilometres away in Surrey, Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who would meet the same fate just two years later.

The Tower, as a secure location, was home to the Royal Mint from 1279 until the early 19th century. It also held government records and the Crown Jewels, which were melted down in the 17th century under Oliver Cromwell, though promptly replaced by Charles II – you can see the priceless coronation regalia here in the Jewel House.

Most curious of all, however, was the Royal Menagerie of wild animals established in the 13th century, and which grew, over the centuries, to become a popular tourist attraction. Today, the only animals are a flock of ravens kept by The Ravenmaster, one of the castle’s traditional Yeoman Warders, or ‘Beefeaters’ (a term probably derived from the rations they were given).

Wisdom has it that if the resident ravens of the Tower of London fly away, then the Tower and the monarchy will fall.

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