The Tower of Lon­don

Take a tour of the land­mark and discover its grue­some past

How It Works - - CONTENTS - Words by Jodie Ty­ley

Af­ter his con­quest of Eng­land in 1066, Wil­liam of Nor­mandy set about se­cur­ing his throne by send­ing a clear mes­sage that he was here to stay – a mes­sage writ­ten in stone. The king built cas­tles all over the coun­try to stamp his au­thor­ity, and the big­gest and most im­pos­ing of them all was Lon­don’s White Tower.

To con­struct the Tower, Wil­liam shipped stone over from Caen in France, while An­glo-sax­ons pro­vided most of the labour. It took around 20 years to com­plete and when it was fin­ished it stood at 27 me­tres tall with walls 4.5 me­tres thick; walls de­signed to in­tim­i­date the de­feated Lon­don­ers and act as a de­fence against them.

The sec­ond and third floors – the most se­cure parts of the keep – were re­served for roy­alty and no­bles. This also in­cludes St John’s Chapel, one of the ear­li­est Nor­man chapels in the coun­try. The first floor was used by do­mes­tic staff, and the cel­lar stored pro­vi­sions and wine racks. Years later it would house a dif­fer­ent kind of rack – one de­signed for stretch­ing limbs and break­ing bones.

The orig­i­nal en­trance was on the first floor. Now ac­ces­si­ble via a wooden stair­case, in Nor­man times this would have been a lad­der that could be quickly with­drawn to pre­vent in­trud­ers. If en­e­mies did gain ac­cess, the spi­ral stair­case would have put them at a dis­ad­van­tage. Right-handed at­tack­ers wouldn’t have been able to swing their swords as ef­fec­tively as the de­fend­ers – the wall would have got in the way. What’s more, the steps vary in size, so any­one un­fa­mil­iar with the lay­out could lose their foot­ing if they weren’t care­ful, of­ten fa­tal in a sword fight.

First and fore­most, the Tower of Lon­don was a palace, not a prison. How­ever, the first in­mate was also the first es­capee! Ran­ulf Flam­bard, Bishop of Durham, was im­pris­oned in 1100. A year later his friends smug­gled in a rope in­side a wine cas­ket, which the guards heartily con­sumed. As they slept, Ran­ulf is said to have used the rope to ab­seil to free­dom.

The Tower of Lon­don con­tin­ued as a royal res­i­dence for Wil­liam the Con­queror’s de­scen­dants, who made their own mark on the fortress. Henry III (1216–72) and his son Ed­ward I (1272–1307) added royal apart­ments and built not one but two con­cen­tric walls of de­fence and a 50-me­tre-wide moat – fur­ther than an archer could shoot ac­cu­rately. How­ever, in 1843 this moat was drained when sewage, car­casses and the bod­ies of plague vic­tims turned it into a stink­ing pit of dis­ease en­cir­cling the 2,500 peo­ple liv­ing in the Tower.

“First and fore­most, the Tower of Lon­don was a palace, not a prison”

An­other of the de­fen­sive fea­tures are the portcullises. French for ‘slid­ing door’, these heavy me­tal gates could be low­ered and raised by a pul­ley. The most in­fa­mous of these lies at the bot­tom of St Thomas’ Tower. Orig­i­nally, this was used as the water-gate en­trance for Ed­ward I’s royal barge. Later it be­came known as the trader’s gate, where sup­plies were de­liv­ered, but then things took a dark turn. In the 16th cen­tury this same en­trance be­came known as Traitors’ Gate, and it was through here that pris­on­ers were brought to the Tower to be tried. The route to the gate took the ac­cused along the River Thames and un­der Lon­don Bridge, where the heads of ex­e­cuted pris­on­ers gazed down at them from spikes.

In 1279, Ed­ward I moved the Royal Mint to the Tower. This was where the coins of the realm were man­u­fac­tured un­der the close scru­tiny of guards. Me­dieval coins were made of sil­ver, which was easy to bend and break, mean­ing crim­i­nals could flood the mar­ket with fake coins. When an en­raged Ed­ward learned of this ploy he placed the blame on Eng­land’s small Jewish com­mu­nity. Many were con­se­quently hanged and 600 were im­pris­oned in the Tower.

Bloody sto­ries such as this earned the fortress a grisly rep­u­ta­tion, and no one dared chal­lenge its power un­til 1381 dur­ing the Peas­ants’ Re­volt. On 14 June that year, an an­gry mob of mil­i­tant rebels breached the Tower walls. One of their tar­gets, the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury and the king’s chan­cel­lor, was say­ing his last prayers in

the chapel when they seized him. He was dragged to Tower Hill and promptly be­headed.

Clearly be­ing a res­i­dent of the cas­tle did not al­ways guar­an­tee your safety. Dur­ing the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was mur­dered while at prayer in the King’s Pri­vate Chapel in the Wake­field Tower. Years later, the chil­dren of his York­ist en­emy, Ed­ward IV, mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­peared within the fortress.

It was 1483, and 12-year-old Ed­ward V was await­ing his coro­na­tion. He was taken there, as was tra­di­tion, along with his nine-year-old brother. Bet­ter known as ‘the Princes in the Tower’, the boys be­came pris­on­ers when their un­cle Richard (who later be­came King Richard III) de­clared them il­le­git­i­mate and took the crown for him­self. Months later the princes van­ished. Ru­mours of their mur­der saw the Gar­den Tower where they were kept re­named as the Bloody Tower. For cen­turies no one knew what hap­pened, un­til ren­o­va­tion work in 1674 un­cov­ered the skele­tons of two chil­dren un­der a stair­case in the White Tower.

Yet more royal blood would be spilled dur­ing the reign of King Henry VIII. This time, how­ever, the ex­e­cu­tions were or­dered by the state and car­ried out in full view of the pub­lic. The Tu­dor tyrant signed the death war­rants of two of his wives, Anne Bo­leyn and Cather­ine Howard, and some of his clos­est friends, in­clud­ing Sir Thomas More. While most of these ex­e­cu­tions took place on the nearby Tower Hill, seven no­bles were ex­e­cuted within the walls of the Tower in rel­a­tive pri­vacy.

A tem­po­rary wooden scaf­fold was erected on Tower Green – an open space by the Chapel

Royal of St Peter ad Vin­cula – to give the on­look­ers a bet­ter view. The con­demned would climb the stairs onto the plat­form and give the ex­e­cu­tioner a purse of gold and sil­ver as a fi­nal act of for­give­ness. They would then ut­ter their last words be­fore lay­ing their head on the chop­ping block to await the blow of the

ex­e­cu­tioner’s axe. In the case of Mar­garet Pole, Count­ess of Sal­is­bury, it took sev­eral blows to fin­ish the deed. The no­bles who died here were buried in the grounds, and a me­mo­rial stands on the scaf­fold site to­day.

The Tower had be­come Henry VIII’S per­sonal prison, and he be­lieved it should be pro­tected by part of the royal body­guard. The Yeo­man Warders were cre­ated in 1485 and have guarded the cas­tle ever since. It is said that they gained the nick­name of ‘Beefeater’ be­cause they were orig­i­nally paid in food, in par­tic­u­lar beef as it was a lux­ury item. It was a cov­eted po­si­tion and one that could be sold for 250 guineas un­til the Duke of Welling­ton abol­ished this pur­chase sys­tem in 1826.

In his role as Con­sta­ble of the Tower he made other changes, such as get­ting rid of the Royal Me­nagerie – a col­lec­tion of ex­otic an­i­mals that had been there since the 13th cen­tury. He wanted to keep the Tower as a strictly mil­i­tary strong­hold and even con­structed the Water­loo Bar­racks for 1,000 soldiers.

The Iron Duke didn’t en­tirely get his wish though, as to­day the Tower of Lon­don is one of the most-vis­ited tourist at­trac­tions in the world. It con­tin­ues the tra­di­tion of hous­ing the Crown Jewels, and Yeo­man Warders still stand on cer­e­mo­nial guard, but their du­ties now in­clude giv­ing guided tours. But the Tower doesn’t shut down when the vis­i­tors leave. The 37 Warders live on the premises with their fam­i­lies, the Res­i­dent Gover­nor and a gar­ri­son of soldiers. There’s an on­site doc­tor and chap­lain and even a se­cret pub. Over 900 years on, the cas­tle that was built to in­spire awe and fear in Lon­don­ers is now one of the city’s most trea­sured land­marks.

Queen’s house Tower Green Chapel royal of st Peter ad Vin­cula Traitors’ Gate st Thomas’ Tower wake­field Tower There has been a place of wor­ship on this site for over 1,000 years. How­ever, the chapel that stands to­day dates from the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547). A tour of the Tower Only high-rank­ing pris­on­ers were be­headed in­side the Tower. Seven no­bles were ex­e­cuted on Tower Green, in­clud­ing two wives of Henry VIII. The me­dieval cas­tle has served many pur­poses over the cen­turies These were the royal lodg­ings of Henry III (Ed­ward I’s fa­ther). They were orig­i­nally on the river’s edge so that he could ar­rive by boat. Henry VIII built these apart­ments for his sec­ond queen, Anne Bo­leyn. She stayed here be­fore her coro­na­tion and again years later be­fore her ex­e­cu­tion in 1536. The water gate was orig­i­nally an en­trance for Ed­ward I to ar­rive by barge. It later be­came the en­trance for pris­on­ers con­demned to the Tower. This was built by Ed­ward I be­tween 1275 and 1279 as royal ac­com­mo­da­tion with views of the river.

un­dress uni­form This daily work­ing uni­form was granted to the Yeo­man Warders by Queen Vic­to­ria in 1858. The frock coat fea­tures the ini­tials of the cur­rent monarch. Keys Ev­ery night, at pre­cisely 9.53pm, the Chief Yeo­man Warder, dressed in a red Tu­dor Watch­coat (not shown), locks the Tower gates. This rit­ual is known as the Cer­e­mony of the Keys and it has been per­formed for the last 700 years. belt The state dress is al­most iden­ti­cal to the uni­form of the Yeo­man of the Guard – the body­guards of the Bri­tish monarch. How­ever, the Warders wear a belt around their waist while the Guards wear cross-belts from the left shoul­der. em­blems The Tu­dor state dress has an em­broi­dered this­tle, rose and sham­rock – the em­blems of Scot­land, Eng­land and Ire­land. It was de­signed to be worn un­der ar­mour, hence the tights.

Pris­on­ers en­tered the Tower through Traitor’s Gate

The 16th-cen­tury Queen’s House over­looks the ex­e­cu­tion site of Tower Green The Beauchamp Tower bears the graf­fiti of pris­on­ers from the 16th and 17th cen­turies

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