A History of the Tower of London

By Tim Lambert

The Tower of London in The Middle Ages

The Tower of London is one of the most famous buildings in London (although it is actually several towers and other buildings). It has stood guard over the city since Norman times.

The first part of the Tower of London to be built was the White Tower. It was probably begun in 1078 and finished by 1100. The new tower was designed by a Norman bishop called Gundulf, who was a famous builder. White limestone was brought from Caen in ships to build the Tower and a local stone called Kentish ragstone was brought by barge along the Medway and the Thames.

When it was completed the White Tower stood 90 feet high. Its walls were 15 feet thick at the bottom and tapered to 11 feet thick at the top. The entrance was on the first floor. About 1097 William Rufus built a stone wall around the White Tower to enclose it.

For centuries the Tower of London was used to hold important prisoners. The first was Ranulf Flambard the Bishop of Durham. When an arrow in the New Forest killed William Rufus in 1100 his brother became Henry I. The new king promptly arrested the bishop for simony (selling positions in the church for money).

However, the bishop escaped. He was allowed certain privileges such as being able to buy his own food and wine. On 2 February 1101, the bishop generously invited his guards to a feast. When the guards became drunk he managed to squeeze through a window and climb down a rope. However, the rope was not long enough and he had to drop the final distance. The bishop was met by friends who rowed him across the river and he then rode a horse to the coast where he escaped on a ship.

Richard I became king in 1189. He soon went on a crusade and he left his chancellor William Longchamp in charge of England. Longchamp began to strengthen the Tower. However, in 1191 Richard’s brother John rebelled and led a force against Longchamp who took refuge in the Tower of London. Longchamp was soon forced to surrender but afterward, John continued the work of strengthening the Tower of London.

Bell Tower was built in 1190-1210. The bell at the top was rung in an emergency. Wardrobe Tower was built in 1190-1199. As its name suggests it was used to hold clothes and jewels.

The Tower of London was greatly extended by Henry III (1216-1272). About 1220 Henry began building the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower. (Lanthorn is an old word for a lantern. In the Middle Ages a lantern was placed on this tower to guide ships sailing on the Thames).

In 1238 Henry began building a new curtain wall. Several towers strengthened the new curtain wall. The Bloody Tower was originally called Garden Tower because of its adjoining garden. There was also The Broad Arrow Tower, The Constable Tower, The Martin Tower, The Brick Tower, The Flint Tower, The Bowyer Tower (a bowyer was a man who made bows), the Salt Tower, and The Devereux Tower. (The Devereux Tower is named after Robert Devereux (1566-1601) who was a prisoner in the Tower and was executed.

Furthermore, in 1255 Henry built an Elephant House for an elephant, which was given to him as a present by the French king. He already had a private zoo or menagerie at Woodstock in Oxfordshire and its exotic animals were moved to the Tower of London. The menagerie remained in the Tower of London until the 19th century.

Henry’s son Edward I (1272-1307) continued his father’s work. He built the Beauchamp Tower. Edward also built St Thomas’s Gate. It had an entrance from the river. Originally it was called Water Gate but in time it became known as Traitor’s Gate because so many people accused of treason passed through it.

Edward I also built the Byward Tower, Well Tower, and Develin Tower. He also built another curtain wall around the existing curtain wall. So the Tower of London now had two concentric walls surrounding it. Edward I also established a mint in the Tower of London. It finally closed in 1968.

The Cradle Tower was built in the late-14th century shortly before the Peasants Revolt. In May 1381 an army of rebel peasants from Kent led by Wat Tyler marched on London. More rebels from Essex marched on the city from the east. The rebels entered London, helped by sympathizers who opened the gates for them and the king and his minister took refuge in the Tower of London. Finally, the king went out to negotiate with the rebels.

While he was away some angry peasants entered the Tower and ransacked it. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Treasurer Sir Robert Hales were both beheaded.

However, the king eventually persuaded the rebels to disperse by making them promises, which he did not keep.

In the late 15th century England suffered a series of civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. During them, King Edward VI was murdered in the Tower of London in 1471.

However, the most infamous murders in the Tower were those of two young princes. When Edward IV died in 1483 he left a 12-year-old son, Edward V, and his 9-year-old brother Richard. Since Edward was too young to rule his uncle Richard was appointed Protector. However, Richard sent the boys to the Tower. He also declared them illegitimate and made himself king. The two boys disappeared. They were murdered but it is not certain who killed them.

The Tower of London has always been guarded by armed men. However, the Yeomen Warders were founded by Henry VII in 1485.

The Tower of London in The 16th Century and 17th Century

The Tower of London is, of course, famous for its many executions. Several took place during the 16th century. One of Henry VIII’s first acts was to arrest his father’s tax collectors Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Simpson. Both were held in the Tower and later executed.

In 1535 Bishop Fisher and a man named Thomas More met the same fate. Anne Boleyn followed them in 1536. Thomas Cromwell was sent to the Tower and executed in 1540. Then in 1542 another of Henry’s wives, Catherine Howard was beheaded.

In 1546 a woman named Anne Askew was tortured and then killed in Smithfield for her Protestant beliefs. She was the only woman to be tortured in the Tower of London.

Meanwhile, in the early 16th century, the Tower’s defenses were refurbished and designed to hold guns. Furthermore, the Queen’s House was built in the 1530s.

The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (which means St Peter in chains in Latin) was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1520.

In February 1554 Mary suspected he half-sister Elizabeth was involved in a rebellion and imprisoned her in the Tower of London. However, Elizabeth was released in May 1554.

In 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh was convicted of treason and sent to the Tower. He was held there for 13 years. However, in 1616 he was released because the king wanted him to lead an expedition to South America. The expedition was not a success and in 1617 Walter Raleigh was sent back to the Tower. He was executed on 29th October 1618.

Charles II (1660-1685) strengthened the Tower’s fortifications. Furthermore, New Armouries was built in 1663-1664. During the reign of Charles II members of the public were allowed to visit the Tower of London for the first time.

Then in 1671 Colonel Thomas Blood and some accomplices attempted to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. Blood and his accomplices first befriended the caretaker of the crown jewels, a man named Talbot Edwards, and won his trust. They persuaded Edwards to show them the jewels then they suddenly overpowered him.

However, the thieves were disturbed by Edward’s son who raised the alarm. Blood and his friends attempted to escape with the jewels but they were captured. Nevertheless, King Charles II pardoned Blood. In 1685 the Royal Fusiliers was founded to guard the weapons in the Tower of London.

The Tower of London in The 18th Century and 19th Century

Despite the two Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745, the 18th century was a peaceful period. Kings made little use of the Tower of London and it was increasingly used as a place to store weapons.

The Old Hospital Block was built in the 18th century. Originally it was used by the Board of Ordnance (forerunner of the MOD) but later it became a hospital.

In the 19th century, the Tower of London changed its function. Since the 13th century, there has been a royal menagerie in the Tower. In 1835 it was moved to Regent’s Park. Then in the 1950s state documents were removed from the Tower. Also in the 1850s, they ceased storing weapons in the Tower.

Meanwhile, building work continued. In 1843 the moat around the Tower was drained. In the mid-19th century, the Waterloo Barracks and the Officer Block (now the Fusilier’s Museum) were built.

In the 1850s and 1860s, a man named Anthony Salvin was employed to restore medieval buildings in the Tower of London. He restored the Beauchamp Tower, the Salt Tower, St Thomas’s Tower, and Wakefield Tower. In the 1870s and 1880s restoration work continued under a man named John Taylor.

The Tower of London in The 20th Century

During the First World War, eleven German spies were shot by a firing squad in the Tower of London. Only one bomb was dropped on the Tower during that war and fortunately, it fell on the moat.

During the Second World War, the Tower of London was closed to the public, and the crown jewels were removed to a safer location. During the war, the Tower suffered bomb damage and two 19th century buildings were destroyed. Part of the Old Hospital Block was also destroyed.

Meanwhile, Rudolf Hess Deputy Fuhrer flew to Scotland in May 1941 and was imprisoned in the Tower. However, only one German was shot in the Tower of London during World War II. He was a man named Josef Jakobs and he was executed in August 1941.

Today the Tower of London is one of the main tourist attractions in London.

Last Revised 2024

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