The Tower of London

The Tower of London, (photo by Glyn Genin)
The Tower of London

Yesterday, all 4,700 freshly minted Olympic medals were moved to the vaults of the Tower of London, where they will be guarded until they are bestowed on the world's best athletes next month. The Tower is a formidable London landmark: queens were beheaded here, princes murdered and traitors tortured. Once a place to be avoided, it is now one of London’s top visitor attractions. Don't miss the spectacular Crown Jewels, the infamous Traitor's Gate and the legendary black ravens.

 


Famous prisoners

Encircled by a moat (now dry), with 22 towers, the Tower, begun by William the Conqueror around 1078, is Britain’s top military monument and a reminder of how power was once exercised in the nation. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were beheaded here, in 1536 and 1542. So were Sir Thomas More, Henry’s principled Lord Chancellor (1535), and Sir Walter Raleigh, the last of the great Elizabethan adventurers (1618). The uncrowned Edward V, aged 12, and his 10-year-old brother Richard were murdered here in 1483, allegedly on the orders of Richard III. William Penn, the future founder of Pennsylvania, was imprisoned here in 1669, and the diarist Samuel Pepys in 1679. As recently as 1941, Rudolph Hess, Germany’s deputy führer, was locked in the Tower.

Given that the Tower’s 18 acres (7.3 hectares) contain enough buildings and collections to occupy three hours, you may prefer to skip the one-hour Beefeater-led tour and strike out on your own. A multimedia guide can be hired. 

In summer, it’s best to arrive early to beat the queues, giving priority to the Crown Jewels and the Bloody Tower. Note that the spiral staircases in some of the towers require a degree of agility. Within the Tower walls, picnics are permitted on any of the seats. There are also snack kiosks and a restaurant in the New Armouries.

 

The sights worth seeing

The Medieval Palace 

Just before Traitor’s Gate is the entrance to the residential part of the Tower, used by monarchs when they lived here. St Thomas’s Tower, built in 1275–79 but much altered, displays archae­ological evidence of its many uses. Parts of the Wakefield Tower (1220–40), such as the King’s Bed Chamber, are furnished in 13th-century style and a torture exhibition has been added. A spiral staircase leads to a walkway on top of the south wall, which provides a good view of the riverside defences. The wall runs to the Lanthorn Tower (1883) containing 13th-century artefacts.

The White Tower

The oldest part of the fortress, the White Tower, was probably designed in 1078 by a Norman monk, Gandulf, a prolific builder of castles and churches. It has walls 15ft (5 metres) thick. Its original form remains, but nearly every part has been refurbished or rebuilt: the door surrounds and most windows were replaced in the 17th and 18th centuries, and much of the Normandy stone was replaced with more durable Portland stone from Dorset. The first floor gives access to the austere Chapel of St John the Evangelist, a fine example of early Norman architecture. Much of the remaining space is devoted to displays of armour, swords and muskets, taken from the Royal Armouries. Legend has it that London will fall if the ravens who nest here ever leave the Tower – so their wings are clipped to ensure they stay.

 

More modern than medieval

Given that so much of the country’s turbulent history was played out within these walls, the Tower conspicuously lacks the romantic aura that many visitors expect. The reason is that, until comparatively recently, its buildings were functional – as well as serving as a fort, arsenal, palace and prison, it also contained at various times a treasury, public record office, obser­vatory, royal mint and zoo. As a result, it was frequently remodelled and renovated, especially in the 19th century, so that many floors and staircases, for example, look more modern than medieval. But then, how could the boards that Henry VIII trod hope to survive the footfalls of 21⁄2 million tourists a year?

Any sense of awe is also undermined by the brightly uniformed “Beefeaters”. Although all have served in the armed forces for at least 22 years, some have enthusiastically embraced showbiz, apparently auditioning for the role of pantomime villain by alternating jocular banter with visitors and melodramatically delivered descriptions of torture and beheadings. In contrast, pike and musket drills by the English Civil War Society are conducted with the masterful lethargy of confirmed pacifists.

 

The Highlights

The Wall Walk

The walk along this defensive outer wall takes in the eastern towers. Access is through the Salt Tower, often used as a prison. Next are the Broad Arrow Tower, also once a lock-up, the Constable Tower, which contains a model depicting the Tower in the 14th century, and the Martin Tower, which houses an exhibition on the Crown Jewels.

The Royal Fusiliers’ Museum

In the centre of the Tower is the modest but elegantly housed Royal Fusiliers’ Museum. Opened in 1962, it follows the regiment’s campaigns from its first battle for William of Orange against the French in Walcourt up to its more recent peacekeeping involvement in the Balkans and Northern Ireland. The regiment was almost destroyed in the American War of Independence.

The Crown Jewels

These are displayed in the neo-Gothic Waterloo Barracks, built in 1845. The queues here can be long, with airport-style barriers. At the centre of the display are a dozen crowns and a glittering array of swords, sceptres and orbs used on royal occasions. A moving walkway ensures that visitors cannot linger over the principal exhibits, but many other glass cases contain gold dishes, chalices and altar dishes that can be viewed at leisure. The collection includes the notorious Koh-i-Noor diamond.

 

The nearest tube stop is Tower Hill. For more information on visiting the Tower, go to www.hrp.org.uk

To read more about London, visit our London pages or buy one of our London travel guides.