Rarely has a building both enraptured and intimidated for over 900 years more than the Tower of London. From its earliest settlement as a castle and stronghold of medieval England, to its more gruesome existence as a fearsome prison, the Tower of London has a history bequeathed of intrigue, tragedy, majesty and murder. It is these elements which provide its standing as a British icon and attracts thousands of guests through its porticus’s doors every year.
Built by William the Conqueror in 1078, the original White Tower became a resented symbol of oppression and in the ensuing decades its appearance barely altered until 1100. Under the reign of Richard I the moat and new fortifications were added and as time would pass, slowly the Tower would become the fortress it is now famed for.
The Tower of London has a rich history with monarchy. Up until Charles II every monarch would join a procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey on the occasion of a Coronation. The infamous Crown Jewels call the Tower their home and have been present within the confines of the iconic building since 1216. But not all royal history has been as lavish as the jewels and crowns which have adorned the many heads of those who have ruled.
Under the shadow of a brutal prison, the Tower has seen a cacophony of infamous individuals meet their grisly ends within those iconic walls. From traitors, rebels and dignitaries, perhaps one of the Towers most famous and renowned prisoners was a woman whose image and fate has endured the test of time – Anne Boleyn.
Imprisoned within the Tower, the second wife of King Henry VIII was convicted of incest, adultery and high treason and sentenced to death. On the morning of Friday, 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed by beheading. With one single stroke her sentence was completed, and her body was buried in an unmarked grave within the precincts of the Tower’s Chapel. The late-queen’s body would remain undiscovered until the reign of Queen Victoria, who was so moved by Anne’s story that she ordered for her to be provided with a stone on the chapel’s marble floor.
Just outside the Chapel is a monument dedicated to those who were executed by beheading within Tower Green. As well as Anne Boleyn, seven others were condemned including William Hastings in 1483, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury in 1541, Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard in 1542, Jane Boleyn in 1542, Lady Jane Grey (the “Nine Days Queen”) in 1554 and Robert Devereux in 1601.
Under the reign of the Tudor dynasty, the Tower of London began its transition from Royal castle to armoury and prison. Yet after the death of Henry VIII the palace buildings entered a state of disrepair and were left virtually uninhabitable.
In the 16th Century, the Tower became synonymous with death and grim, foreboding torture. One such prisoner who faced the devastating and brutal nature of the prison’s torturing instruments was Guy Fawkes, involved in the masterminding of the Gun Powder plot. After signing a full confession, he was then dragged from the Tower on wattled hurdles to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, where he was hanged and quartered.
As the Tower’s reputation as a prison has grown throughout history, the numerous prisoners and those who have fallen foul to its executions have become as resonant as the ancient architecture. But not all stories within the Tower of London have been so clear cut. Perhaps one of the castles most enduring mysteries is the tale surrounding the Princes in the Tower.
Edward V, King of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York were the only sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Aged 12 and 9, both brothers were kept within the Tower of London in preparation for Edward V’s forthcoming coronation as King. Yet before the young king could be crowned, he and his brother were declared illegitimate leading to their Uncle Richard ascending the throne instead.
From this point onwards both boys were never seen again. Their last recorded sighting was walking around the Tower and their ultimate fate has been a mystery ever since.
Many historians believe that Richard murdered them in order to secure his hold on the throne. As there has never been any concrete proof, throughout the ensuing years many men came forward to declare they were either one of the Princes, stating they had survived the suspected assassinations. Each one was later proved to be false and a grisly discovery in 1674 proved this sentiment.
Workmen at the Tower discovered a wooden box containing the bones of two small human skeletons. Widely accepted as the remains of the young Edward and Richard, King Charles II buried them within the walls of Westminster Abbey where they remain today. As time has passed, the identity of the bones has never been confirmed and it is believed that whether they are the actual remains of the princes is far from certain and thus the mystery has continued.
Centuries would pass before the Tower of London would be stripped of its prison skin. Its finale would come in the shape of World War 2 where the cells were used to hold prisoners of war. The last state prisoner to be held at the Tower was Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, for four days. The last prisoner to be executed on the grounds of the Tower of London was a German Spy, Josef Jakobs by firing squad in 1941. With this, the Tower of London transitioned into the enduring image it is today.
That image is one of intrigue, history and heritage. This unique castle vividly displays the passage of time which has shaped every corner of the Tower. And whilst some elements may have changed, from the housing of the Crown Jewels, to the modern-day gift shops; there is one factor which remains.
Six Ravens call the Tower of London home with their presence traditionally believed to protect the Crown and the Tower. This all relates to an old legend, believed to have been constructed by the Victorians, that if the Ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. These black feathered birds have become a staple of the Tower’s character and are exceptionally inquisitive around tourists.
The Tower of London has become a recognisable icon of British culture. It has ensured that our history remains vivid for all to see, even including the countless examples of medieval graffiti which adorn the cell walls. But the Tower also celebrates the passage of time and has become the backdrop to numerous art installations throughout the years. The most famous was the ‘Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red’ installation which consisted of 888,246 ceramic poppies seeping throughout the Tower’s moat. Designed to commemorate the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal, it garnered record numbers of tourists who came to see this spectacle.
What the Tower of London represents is something much deeper than history and heritage. It is an enduring image of our connection to these two ideas. Our history has shaped who we are, and our heritage is the blueprint for our future. The Tower pursues these ideals. Whether it is through the rich history which lives within those ancient walls or the modern-day art installations which beckon in the present, the Tower of London is a constant presence in British culture.
For centuries it has intimidated and in the past terrified, but the Tower has also enamoured all those who have stepped across its threshold. It is this sentiment which will continue the Tower of London’s never-ending legacy, as a place not of fear, but of fortitude.
Thanks to Historic Royal Palaces and all their wonderful staff for their help!
If you want to experience The Tower of London, you can book tickets on Historic Royal Palace's Website here.