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  • Writer's pictureJamie Tibke

The Tower of London - Palace, Prison or Place of Execution?

tower of london

What is the Tower of London?


Well, you may be surprised to hear that it’s not a tower. It’s a castle built almost 1000 years old. Over its long life it has been a royal residence, a place of execution, a prison, a royal mint, a fortress to house the crown jewels and much more. Let’s take a closer look at one of the UK’s most historic sites.


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When was the Tower of London built?


After shooting King Harold in the eye at the battle of Hastings in October 1066 (or so the story goes), William Duke of Normandy marched up to London, harrying the land on his way. When he was crowned as King William I (r1066-1087) at Westminster Abbey. Meanwhile, about 3 miles east down the river Thames, people in London’s oldest and most heavily fortified area were awaiting news. What would become of its historic streets and allies? And what of the traders, guilds and bishops? To their relief, King William I granted the area freedom to continue trading without royal inference, a winning piece of diplomacy that ensured support for the new King and peace in the region. The Norman conquest, however, was far from over. King William I quickly set about securing power in the rest of England, and his new castles quickly became intimidating symbols of Norman military might. By the time of William the Conqueror’s death in 1087, over 100 castles had been built in England alone. The Tower of London was one of those castles. In 1078 King William I ordered for work to begin.


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What is the oldest part of the Tower of London?


The Norman Keep, in the centre of the site today, was almost certainly the tallest and most impressive building in London at that time, perhaps the entire country. It must have taken around 20 years to build, with masons from Normandy providing the stone and recently conquered Englishmen doing the hard graft and building the actual structure. With a square shape, rounded corners, rounded arches and all built on a small hill, the Keep is an amazingly well-preserved example of Norman military architecture at its pinnacle. Although sources are unclear, historians agree that it must have been complete by 1100 as that’s when Bishop Flambard of Durham became a prisoner here, becoming the first of many. In spite of all his planning, King William I died before the building was finished. His son, King William II (r1087-1100) would be the Tower’s first official royal resident. King Henry III (r 1216-1272) built a new defensive wall, complete with watch towers and a gatehouse. He also whitewashed the Keep, which would from then on be known as the White Tower, or just ‘the Tower’ for short. The layout of the site remains the same today as when King Henry III left it in 1240.


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Henry III’s son, Edward I (r1272-1307), then filled the outer moat, built St Thomas’ Tower and the King’s bedchamber, by Traitor’s Gate on the river. He also added slots in the new outer walls for archers to shoot through in case of attack. This was a feature that Edward I had spotted in the eastern Mediterranean whilst fighting in the crusades. He wanted archers’ slots to be included in any new castle that might be built throughout the rest of his reign, most of which would end up being in Wales. Eventually this feature spread and become a staple of medieval castles across Europe.


Were people executed at the Tower of London?


The architecture, however, isn’t the only reason why the Tower of London is well-known. It has also been the site of many famous and often dark events. For example, King Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn was imprisoned in the tower in May 1536. In the same room where she had awaited her coronation 3 years earlier, she waited for her final fate. Anne was executed for treason on the green a few weeks later and is buried at the Chapel of St Peter in the Tower.


And that’s just one of the many gruesome stories of execution. We could have told the story of Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard. Or Lady Jane Grey, a royal cousin. Or we could have jumped to WWI when 11 German spies were put to death. But that’s enough executions for one day.


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Can you go inside the Tower of London?


Today you can tour almost the entirety of the Tower of London, with one of the highlights being the Crown Jewels, found in the aptly named Jewel House. Over 23,000 gemstones make up more than 100 items, including St Edward’s coronation crown and, with nearly 3000 diamonds, the State Imperial Crown. You can also see the royal sceptre (containing the world’s biggest clear-cut diamond at a jaw-dropping 530 carats), orb and the rest of the coronation regalia, most of which date back to 1661 and the restoration of the monarchy. Don’t be put off by the queue to the Jewel House, it’s one of the Tower’s main attractions, which is understandable given the famous and priceless objects on display, and the conveyer belt keeps the line moving fairly quickly.


In the armoury you can explore weapons, in the Bloody Tower you can visit the ghosts of missing Princes, in the White Tower you can check out armour worn by Henry VIII and Charles I. Perhaps you’ll be able to hear the choir in St Peter’s chapel or, if you are feelings brave, go down into the dungeons of the medieval prison. Whatever you decide to do on your trip to London, missing out on the Tower is not an option.


We visit The Tower of London’s exterior on our Free City of London Sightseeing Tour, but if you want to explore it fully you can buy your tickets here.


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