When William the Conqueror built a mighty stone tower at the centre of his London fortress in the 1070s, defeated Londoners must have looked on in awe. Now nearly 1000 years later, the Tower still has the capacity to fascinate and horrify.
As protector of the Crown Jewels, home of the Yeomen Warders and its legendary guardians, the pampered ravens, the Tower now attracts over three million visitors a year. Here, the Ceremony of the Keys and other traditions live on, as do the ghost stories and terrible tales of torture and execution.
But the Tower also has a richer and more complex history, having been home to a wide array of institutions including the Royal Mint, the Royal Armouries and even a zoo.
Fortress. Palace. Prison.
As the most secure castle in the land, the Tower guarded royal possessions and even the royal family in times of war and rebellion.
But for 500 years monarchs also used the Tower as a surprisingly luxurious palace.
Throughout history, the Tower has also been a visible symbol of awe and fear. Kings and queens imprisoned their rivals and enemies within its walls. The stories of prisoners, rich and poor, still haunt the Tower.
The fortress expands
Throughout history, the Tower has been adapted and developed to defend and control the nation.
Henry III (1216-72) and Edward I (1272-1307) expanded William’s fortress, adding huge ‘curtain’ (defensive) walls with a series of smaller towers, and enlarging the moat.
The Bloodier Tower
The Tower of London has also been the infamous setting for stories of royal tragedy and death.
During the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was murdered here in 1471 and, later, the children of his great rival Edward IV – the Princes in the Tower — vanished within its walls in 1483.
In 1674, two skeletons were unearthed at the Tower.
The bones were re-examined in 1933 and proved to be those of two boys aged about 12 and 10, exactly the same ages as the princes when they disappeared.
Ceremony of the Keys
Today the Yeomen Warders or the ‘Beefeaters’ guard the visitors, but still carry out ceremonial duties, such as unlocking and locking the Tower every day in the Ceremony of the Keys.
They wear their red state ‘dress uniforms’ for important occasions at the Tower, and also for special events such as the firing of the huge cannon on the Wharf, known as the Gun Salutes.
Sent to the Tower
For over 800 years, men and women have arrived at the Tower, uncertain of their fate. Some stayed for only a few days, other many years.
During the Tudor age, the Tower became the most important state prison in the country. Anyone thought to be a threat to national security came here.
The future Elizabeth I, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes were all ‘sent to the Tower’. Even in the 20th century, German spies were brought here and shot.
The Tower today
The Tower of London is still one the world’s leading tourist attractions and a world heritage site, attracting visitors from all over the world.
And when the gates are locked and all the visitors have gone, the Tower embraces a thriving community within its walls. The Tower of London is still home to the Yeomen Warders and their families, the Resident Governor, and a garrison of soldiers. There is a doctor and a chaplain. And there is even a pub!