The Tower of London most likely brings to mind harrowing images of political prisoners, famous inmates (such as Guy Fawkes), and grisly royal executions. In addition to a prison, over its thousand-year history, the Tower has also been used as a royal residence, fortress, treasure house, mint, records office, menagerie, storehouse for diplomatic gifts, and armoury. With such a lengthy and complicated history, there are many things to see and do at the Tower. The following list highlights some of the main ways to make the most of your visit.
The Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters) are retired officers from the Armed Forces with 22 or more years of service. Historically they served as guards for the prisoners, while today they are in charge of tours, ceremonial duties, and looking after visitors. They also have the rare privilege of living on-site within the Tower. The mixture of humour and engaging story-telling make the warder tours one of the most popular activities at the Tower.
Tours are given every half-hour from opening until 15.30 in summer and 14.30 in winter. The tour lasts about an hour and is included in the admission ticket.
The current chapel dates to the sixteenth century, but a religious building has been present on the site since the time of William the Conqueror. The chapel is significant as the final resting place for Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey, who are buried under the altar. The presence of these graves, as well as 75 executed nobles and 1500 unknown victims of the scaffold, led the nineteenth-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay to call it the 'saddest spot on the earth.' Admission to the chapel is included with a Yeoman Warder tour.
The White Tower is the original fortress built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. It currently contains the Royal Armouries collections and the Line of Kings (a row of armoured kings and life-size wooden horses), which has been on display for 300 years. Several suits of armour are contained in the collection, including the royal armours of Henry VIII, Charles I and James II. A particular item of note is a block and axe from the Tudor period. It is believed to have been used at the last public beheading in 1747. Guy Fawkes (leader of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605) was most likely interrogated in the basement of the White Tower.
The Beauchamp Tower was used as a prison during the severe religious and political upheavals of the Tudor period. Many of the inmates were subjected to solitary confinement. The mental anguish endured by the prisoners is evident in over 90 stone carvings throughout the tower.
5. Bloody Tower
Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke
The Bloody Tower was originally built as a defensive structure in the early thirteenth century. It was given its macabre name a few centuries later for the many gruesome deeds that took place within. The most famous of which is the disappearance of the 'Princes in the Tower,' Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, who were only twelve and nine years old, respectively, when they were believed to have been murdered by their uncle, Richard III.
There are always at least six ravens resident at the Tower. Legend says that they were first protected by royal order of Charles II due to the belief that it was unlucky to kill ravens and that the Tower (and the kingdom) would fall if the ravens ever left. The ravens are housed next to Wakefield Tower, but wander the grounds freely during the day.
The Queen's House was constructed as a gift for Anne Boleyn by Henry VIII. She was later imprisoned in the house before her execution on Tower Green. Other prisoners held in the house include Lady Jane Grey, Guy Fawkes, and Rudolf Hess in 1941, who was the last prisoner held in the Tower.
The gate was originally constructed by Edward I for royal access to the Tower, but by Tudor times it gained the name 'Traitor's Gate' due to the large number of prisoners passing through it. Prisoners were brought down the Thames by barge, typically right after their trial, for imprisonment or execution. Notable individuals to enter Traitor's Gate include Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, Catherine Howard, Jane Grey, and Elizabeth I.
9. Tower Green
Scaffold Site. Public Domain
Tower Green is the original site of private executions. Other executions took place outside of the Tower in front of the public on Tower Hill. A memorial on Tower Green commemorates the deaths of Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and Catherine Howard, who were all beheaded on the site. The memorial also commemorates the deaths of William, Lord Hastings, Jane Boleyn, the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and three members of the Black Watch regiment.
The inscription on the memorial states: 'Gentle visitor pause a while, where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life. May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies.'
Lions, bears, monkeys, ostriches and other animals given as royal gifts have been housed at the Tower since the early thirteenth century. Of note is the polar bear of 1251, a gift to King Henry III from the King of Norway, which was taken out daily to fish in the Thames for its food. Most of the animals did not fare so well, the ostrich was fed a diet of nails, while lions were used for blood sports. After a series of escapes and attacks in the nineteenth century, the menagerie at the Tower was transferred permanently to London Zoo. Kendra Haste has created a series of life-size installation pieces of the polar bear, leopards, lions, and monkeys, which are placed throughout the Tower where they would have been housed originally.
All of the above are accessible with an admission ticket. See the official website for further details.