The Tower of London was founded by William the Conqueror after his famous victory at Hastings in 1066. Using part of the huge defensive Roman wall, known as London Wall, William’s men began building a mighty fortress to subdue the inhabitants of London. A wooden castle was erected at first, but in around 1075–79 work began on the gigantic keep, or ‘great tower’ (later called the White Tower), which formed the heart of what from the 12th century became known as the Tower of London.
Although it was built as a fortress and royal residence, it wasn’t long before the tower took on a number of other – more surprising – roles. In 1204, for example, King John established a royal menagerie there. Upon losing Normandy that year he had been given the bizarre consolation prize of three crate-loads of wild beasts. Having nowhere else suitable to keep them, he settled for the tower.
John’s son, Henry III, embraced this aspect of the tower’s role with enthusiasm, and it was during his reign that the royal menagerie was fully established. Most exotic of all Henry III’s animals was the ‘pale bear’ (probably a polar bear) – a gift from the King of Norway in 1252. Three years later, the bear was joined by a beast so strange that even the renowned chronicler Matthew Paris was at a loss for words. He could only say that it “eats and drinks with a trunk”. England had welcomed the first elephant in England since the invasion of Claudius.
It was also during the 13th century that the tower embraced another function that might not be expected of a fortress. Determined to keep the production of coins under closer control, Edward I moved the mint here in 1279. His choice was inspired by the need for security: after all, the mint’s workers literally held the wealth of the kingdom in their hands. So successful was the operation that it would remain at the tower until the late 18th century.
At around the same time that the mint was established, the tower also became home to the records of government. For centuries the monarch had kept these documents with them wherever they travelled, but the growing volume forced them to be stored in a permanent – and very secure – space. During Edward I’s reign, the tower became a major repository of these records. Purpose-built storage for the records was never provided there, however, so they competed for space with weapons, gunpowder, prisoners and even royalty. As with the mint, they would remain there for many centuries to come.
It was said that he who held London held the kingdom, and the tower was the key to the capital. It is for that reason that it was always the target for rebels and invaders.
One of the most notorious occasions was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was prompted by the introduction of a new ‘poll’ tax by Richard II’s government. Under the leadership of the charismatic Walter (or Wat) Tyler, in June 1381 20,000 rebels marched on the capital and headed straight for the Tower of London. The king agreed to meet them, but as soon as the gates were opened to let him out, 400 rebels rushed in.
Ransacking their way to the innermost parts of the fortress, they reached the second floor of the White Tower and burst into St John’s Chapel, where they found the despised Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, leading prayers. Without hesitation they dragged him and his companions to Tower Hill and butchered them. It took eight blows of the amateur executioner’s axe to sever the archbishop’s head, which was then set upon a pole on London Bridge.
Meanwhile, inside the tower, the mob had ransacked the king’s bedchamber and molested his mother and her ladies. The contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart described how the rebels “arrogantly lay and sat and joked on the king’s bed, whilst several asked the king’s mother… to kiss them”. Steeled into more decisive action, her son rode out to meet the rebels again and faced down their leader, Wat Tyler, who was slain by the king’s men. Without his charismatic presence, the rebels lost the will to fight on and returned meekly to their homes.
The princes in the Tower
Despite such dramatic events as this, it is the Tower of London’s history as a prison that has always held the most fascination. Between 1100 and 1952 some 8,000 people were incarcerated within its walls for crimes ranging from treason and conspiracy to murder, debt and sorcery.
One of the most notorious episodes involved the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Upon the death of Edward IV in 1483, his son and heir Edward was just 12 years old so he appointed his brother Richard (the future Richard III) as Lord Protector. Richard wasted no time in placing the boy and his younger brother Richard in the tower, ostensibly for their protection. What happened next has been the subject of intense debate ever since.
It is now widely accepted that some time during the autumn of that year the two princes were quietly murdered. At whose hands, it will probably never be known. The prime suspect has long been Richard III, who had invalidated his nephews’ claim to the throne and had himself crowned king in July 1483. But there were others with a vested interest in getting the princes out of the way.
The two princes had apparently disappeared without trace, but in 1674 a remarkable discovery was made at the tower. The then king, Charles II, ordered the demolition of what remained of the royal palace to the south of the White Tower, including a turret that had once contained a privy staircase leading into St John’s Chapel. Beneath the foundations of the staircase the workmen were astonished to find a wooden chest containing two skeletons. They were clearly the bones of children and their height coincided with the age of the two princes when they disappeared.
Charles II eventually arranged for their reburial in Westminster Abbey. They lie there still, with a brief interruption in 1933 when a re-examination provided compelling evidence that they were the two princes. The controversy surrounding their death was reignited by the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in Leicester in 2012 and shows no sign of abating.
The Tudor period witnessed more victims of royal wrath than any other. This was the era in which a staggering number of high profile statesmen, churchmen and even queens went to the block. The fortress came to epitomise the brutality of the Tudor regime, and of its most famous king, Henry VIII.
The most famous of the tower’s prisoners during the Tudor era was Henry VIII’s notorious second queen, Anne Boleyn. High-handed and “unqueenly”, Anne soon made dangerous enemies at court. Among them was the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who was almost certainly responsible for her downfall. He drew inspiration from the queen’s flirtatious manner with her coterie of male favourites and convinced the king that she was conducting adulterous affairs with five of them – her own brother included.
Cromwell had them all rounded up and the queen herself was arrested on 2 May 1536. She was taken by barge to the tower, stoutly protesting her innocence all the way, and incarcerated in the same apartments that had been refurbished for her coronation in 1533.
Anne watched as her five alleged lovers were led to their deaths on Tower Hill on 17 May. Two days later she was taken from her apartments to the scaffold. After a dignified speech she knelt in the straw and closed her eyes to pray. With a clean strike, the executioner severed her head from her body. The crowd looked on aghast as the fallen queen’s eyes and lips continued to move, as if in silent prayer, when the head was held aloft.
Anne’s nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, had been among the onlookers at this macabre spectacle. His triumph would be short-lived. Four years later he was arrested on charges of treason by the captain of the royal guard and conveyed by barge to the tower. He may have been housed in the same lodgings that Anne had been kept in before her execution.
The Gunpowder Plot
The death of Elizabeth I in 1603 signalled the end of the Tudor dynasty, but the Tower of London retained its reputation as a place of imprisonment and terror. When it became clear that the new king, James I, had no intention of following Elizabeth’s policy of religious toleration, a group of conspirators led by Robert Catesby hatched a plan to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament on 5 November 1605. It was only thanks to an anonymous letter to the authorities that the king and his Protestant regime were not wiped out. The House of Lords was searched at around midnight on 4 November, just hours before the plot was due to be executed, and Guy Fawkes was discovered with 36 barrels of gunpowder – more than enough to reduce the entire building to rubble.
Listen: Hannah Greig and John Cooper explore the story of the 1605 attempt to blow up the king and parliament, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Fawkes was taken straight to the tower, along with his fellow plotters. They were interrogated in the Queen’s House, close to the execution site. Fawkes eventually confessed, after suffering the agony of the rack – a torture device consisting of a frame suspended above the ground with a roller at both ends. The victim’s ankles and wrists were fastened at either end and when the axles were turned slowly the victim’s joints would be dislocated. The shaky signature on Fawkes’ confession suggests that he was barely able to hold a pen.
Fawkes and his fellow conspirators met a grisly traitor’s death at Westminster in January 1606. It is said that the gunpowder with which they had planned to obliterate James’s regime was taken to the tower for safekeeping.
The Tower of London was again at the centre of the action during the disastrous reign of James’s son, Charles I, when the country descended into civil war. After Charles’s execution, Oliver Cromwell ordered the destruction of the crown jewels – the most potent symbols of royal power – almost all of which were melted down in the Tower Mint. But upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II commissioned a dazzling suite of new jewels that have been used by the royal family ever since. They are now the most popular attraction within the tower.
Although the Tower of London subsequently fell out of use as a royal residence, it remained key to the nation’s defence. The Duke of Wellington, who was constable of the tower during the mid-19th century, stripped away many of its non-military functions, notably the menagerie, and built impressive new accommodation for its garrison, which became known as the Waterloo Block. This is now home to the crown jewels.
By the dawn of the 20th century it seemed that the Tower of London’s role as a fortress and prison was a thing of the past. But the advent of the two world wars changed all of that. One of the most notorious prisoners was Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man, Rudolf Hess, who was brought to London in May 1941 after landing unexpectedly in Scotland, possibly on a peace mission. He was kept in the Queen’s House at the tower and spent a comfortable four days there before being transferred to a series of safe houses.
The last known prisoners of the tower were the notorious Kray twins, who were kept there in 1952 for absenting themselves from national service.
The Tower of London today
The tower remains very much a living fortress, adapting chameleon-like to its changed circumstances while preserving centuries of tradition. It is still home to the world-famous Yeoman Warders, or ‘Beefeaters’, as well as to the ravens – at least half a dozen of which must stay within the bounds of the fortress or, legend has it, the monarchy will fall.
In 2014, to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, the tower’s moat was filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British or colonial military fatality during the conflict. ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ rapidly became one of the most iconic landmarks in London, visited by millions of people from across the globe.
Although no longer subject to bombardment from invaders, the tower is nevertheless prey to the steady encroachment of the city’s new high-rise buildings. Yet still it stands, a bastion of the past that is instantly recognisable across the world.
Tracy Borman is joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that looks after the Tower of London (among other sites), and is author of The Story of the Tower of London (Merrell, 2015).
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in March 2016