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The Tower of London

Tower of London is one of the most visited castles and tourist attractions in Britain with 2.86 million visitors in 2018. With such popularity and often referred as a “fortress, royal palace and an infamous prison”, I had wondered of its continued significance and how much of the past history or traditions the Tower continues to exhibit. My thoughts were spurred on as I retrace my footsteps on the royal palaces as part of my 3rd instalment in London Series, MyCityMyTown, retracing my footsteps – Royal Palaces and Royal Parks which this article represents.

I had always known that the Tower was historically important, built by the Normans after the 1066 invasion and it was once occupied by reigning monarchs. In 1988 it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given its historical importance and its popularity, the Tower offers various activities throughout the day to entertain visitors, both young and old. As a visitor on previous occasions, I had gone along with the flow, joining in the activities and observing without really giving it much thought. I don’t think I had even seen ALL of the towers and castle grounds! So, my re-visit on this occasion was an opportunity to see, explore, discover and learn more of this castle.

Therefore, both questions, the significance of the Tower and how much of the past history or traditions it continues to exhibit are important and goes to the root of the “why” I should visit the Tower of London. I hope that you would also think the same and consider this article as support to your visit, as The Best Guide to What You Need to Know about the Tower of London.

In a nutshell, my visit was a whole new world of discovery! It was all too much to ignore and for me to try to condense it into one article will not do justice to English history and to this monument or to you, as a visitor to the Tower of London. Therefore, I address the Tower’s historical significance in Part I of What you need to know about the Tower of London. This may seem like taking a step into history but I think it is a much needed one to help you fully immerse yourself in the context of the Tower’s 1,000 years of history. I shall address “How much of its traditions the Tower continues to exhibit” in Part II, which you can read on my blog.

My visit to the Tower of London was yet another perfect opportunity for me to use the HRP annual membership and not pay an entry fee.

Tower of London as a “fortress, royal palace and an infamous prison”

The Tower of London has been many things during its life. Today, a visit to the Tower of London along River Thames allows a visitor to discover its many layers of history. Unveiling the Tower’s many layers of history which is necessary to understand its significance to British history and to the present day will require deeper research than undertaken presently. Therefore, for the purposes of this series, I shall limit my contribution to the areas famously attributed to the castle as a “fortress, royal palace and an infamous prison” along with the traditions of the castle. 

My starting point was to look at the Tower’s significance today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and trace its history to understand what factors contributed to its recognition as an iconic monument.

The Tower of London is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site


The Tower of London is of Outstanding Universal Value and gained its recognition as a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Through my research, I discovered that this 11th century fortress is the most complete castle still remaining in Europe. The Tower reflects the last military conquest of England, thus symbolic of royal power since 1066. Its imposing architecture, its strategic sitting on River Thames and its many layers of history stood for protection and control of the City of London as well as the gateway to the new Norman kingdom. The Tower resembles fostering of closer ties with Europe, language and culture.

As a symbol of royal power, the Tower of London has an interesting history that goes way back to medieval England.

The Tower of London is a historical landmark

The primary significance of the Tower of London as a UNESCO Site is that it is a historical landmark with an interesting history that goes way back to the Norman conquest in 1066. 1066 is a popular date/year in Britain’s history and a date/year that is hard to forget. It marks the end of Anglo-Saxon rule and the last successful invasion by force of England, hence the “beginning” of England as we know today. 

This historic castle was constructed in the wake of the Norman conquest by William the Conqueror. Since then, the Tower has dominated the pages of English history and London’s skyline. Let’s take a look at how it came about.

The Norman Conquest and the Story of the Tower of London

According to history, castles were at the heart of William of Normandy’s strategy to conquer England. As he captured towns, villages and strategic points, he built castles to secure his acquisitions and as means to provide defensive structures to guard against the Saxons.

His conquest can be traced by the castles he built in Pevensey (his first capture), then Dover and Hastings. William won the Battle of Hastings by defeating King Harold, which ended the Anglo Saxon rule of England.

As a victor of the Battle of Hastings meant that William had invaded a country with a population of 2 to 3 million people with only 10,000 men. William had to move very swiftly to take control of England. To gain full control of England, William realised that he first must have control of the City of London, which was a major power centre that held the purse strings of the country.

To gain control of the City of London, William negotiated a deal with the leaders of the City – if he was accepted as King of England, he would give the City certain rights that would allow them to function independently as a state within a state. The City leaders accepted the deal. William of Normandy was crowned King William 1st of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. Having been crowned the King, William wanted to make a statement to the people of England that he is here to stay.

The Tower of London is a fortress

To make that statement, King William ordered the construction of a fortress on a huge mound at the eastern side of the City of London, both to protect London and to show Norman military strength. This fortress would become the Tower of London. William built three fortresses, Baynard’s Castle, Montfichet Castle and the White Tower. Baynard and Montfichet are long gone.

The White Tower – The beginning of a fortress

The White Tower is the same White Tower that you see today in the centre of the Tower grounds, with grey turrets and flag pole. Construction of the White Tower began in 1078 and was completed in 1097, eight years after Williams death in Rouen. The White Tower is so named because in those Middle Ages days, it would have been whitewashed to give it a clean, shining and gleaming appearance.

Visiting the White Tower is an opportunity to witness the sophisticated architecture of the 11th century. It represents the Normans cutting edge military building technology of its time. If you are into details, you will note the depth of the walls, giving this incredible monument the uniqueness as a secure fortress to protect the residents of the castle and deter any invasion.

The Story of the fortress – Tower of London as a Fortress

Over the following centuries, a vast complex of twenty separate towers were added, primarily by Henry III in the 1200’s. This phase of extension to the Tower is said to be up to the middle wall, identified by the white drain pipes. The third and final phase of extension is said to be by King Edward in the 1300’s which is the outer wall. This extension can be identified by the black drain pipes. Edward added the moat which became heavily polluted and was drained in the 19th century. These additions included a perimeter wall connecting each tower encircling the castle.

These later additions also displays an intricate architecture. You can notice these on areas surrounding the doorways and the narrow stairs. As you visit each tower, it does give you a feel of Tudor times.

As a fortress, the Tower became the most secure castle of the land.

The Tower of London as a Royal Palace

The next significance of the Tower of London is that it has always been and still is a Royal Palace. It was and still is the most secure castle in the land. It had protected the royal family in times of war and during rebellions. The White Tower was built not only as a symbol of Norman strength, a fortress but also as a grand palace and served as a royal residence in its early history.

It had four fireplaces to provide sufficient warmth to the residents - like the one in this picture.

The White Tower has four floors - the ground, the first, the second and the third. The first, second and the third floor were designed the same with a large room to the west, and a smaller room in the northeast.

As a place of royal residence, King William wanted a place of a Christian worship to be built in the White Tower. Religion was an important part of his royal image, so, a private chapel, St John’s Chapel, was built for private worship of the royal family. The Chapel was used for about 900 years by kings, queens and the tower community.

The Tower was the starting point of a Royal procession

The Tower of London was significant as a Royal Palace as early as the 14th century right through to King Charles II (1630-1685) where a royal procession on the coronation of the king was held from the Tower to Westminster Abbey. In addition to being a Royal Palace, it became a menagerie, a treasury, an armoury, and more famously, a prison.

A menagerie

The very first zoo is said to be housed at the Tower of London. For over 600 years, the Tower was home to wild and exotic animals given as royal gifts. The Tower menagerie included lions, polar bear, elephants and tigers.

Royal Mint

The Tower of London was both a treasury and home for the Royal Mint. The Mint made the coins of the realm for over 500 years. The coins were minted from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) who installed it in a dedicated area within the Tower walls in c1279 until 1810.  The area became famously known as Mint Street.

As one can imagine, back in the day, working at the Mint was a deadly business. It involved using toxic chemicals and working with fiery furnaces to melt the metal. Coins were all made by hand. Health and safety of the workers was not a priority. Loss of fingers and eyes were common. The coins carried the face of the monarch and if anyone were to tamper, forge or shave off the silver from the edges of the coin were punished for treason.

The White Tower at the Tower of London is An Armoury

Over the years, the Royal Palace became to be used as a storage facility. The Royal Armoury began life occupying buildings within the Tower, storing arms and artillery even as early as the existence of the White Tower itself. However, the first recorded items to the Tower Armouries was in 1498. Today, you can visit, admire and explore the magnificent collection of royal arms and historical artefacts of armouries in the White Tower. A long flight of spiral staircase from the third floor to the basement takes you to the Storehouse.

Below are just a few photos to give you an idea of what it looks like.

The Tower of London is home to the Crown Jewels

As the most secure castle in the land, the fortress as well as a royal palace, The Tower of London was the one place best suited to protect the Crown Jewels. The Tower of London is home to The Jewel House which now guards the Crown Jewels.

The Jewel House

The Jewel House is a 14th century vault in the Waterloo block. This Jewel House also known as Jewel Tower, was built between 1365 and 1366 which means it is around 653 years old. Initially built to house King Edward III’s jewels and treasures, the Jewel House carried the passionate tag as the “King’s Privy Wardrobe”.

Today, the Jewel House stands to protect a collection of 23,578 gemstones which are still used in ceremonies such as the State Opening of Parliament. The Crown Jewels signify the royal authority to lead and protect the nation.

The famous prisoner at the Bloody Tower

The most famous prisoner of the Bloody Tower was Sir Walter Raleigh. He was an Englishman, an officer, an explorer and a poet who fell from grace and was imprisoned by James I.

Now, after 400 years since his execution, a visit to the Bloody Tower reveals a complex and a brilliant man, who famously introduced “potato” to English tables, and less famously, tobacco. It all appears that he was just an adventurous man whose spirit was crushed by imprisonment.

Murder and Mystery at the Bloody Tower

Despite the many prisoners who had seen their last days in the Bloody Tower, I think by far the saddest and most gruesome of events that made the Bloody Tower infamous was the mysterious disappearance of the two young princes.

The two Princes, Edward V and his younger brother, Richard Duke of York – sons to King Edward IV were under the guardianship of their uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester who was their Lord Protector. They were brought to the Tower of London and was confined to the walls of the Bloody Tower. According to the Yeoman Warder tour I joined, the Princes may have watched from the top floor windows of the Bloody Tower the Coronation procession of their uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, proclaimed as King Richard III when it should have been Edward V, the older prince. The two Princes were last seen alive in June 1483. Mystery surrounds their disappearance.

It is said that their disappearance is so because they were murdered in the late summer of 1483. However, there are conflicting theories as to who ordered their murders.

According to the traditionalists theory, it is believed that the Princes were killed on their uncle Richard’s orders. On the other hand, the revisionists argue that his successor, Henry VII had equal cause to remove the two Princes, as they stood as much in his path to the throne as they did in Richard’s. (Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, who ascended to the throne as King Henry VII.

About two-hundred years or so later since the disappearance of the Princes from the Bloody Tower, skeletons were discovered behind the stairs leading to the White Tower in 1674. These were later removed to the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey at the command of Charles II.

The skeletons were re-examined in 1933. It proved to be those of two boys aged about 12 and 10, the same ages as the Princes when they disappeared. The disappearance of the Princes still remains a cold case as to who was responsible for their death.

The Tower of London as State Prison

Although the Tower of London was not built to serve as a prison, for over 800 years, men and women were sent to the Tower. Some stayed for only a few days, others for many years, uncertain of their fate. The Tower became a state prison, especially under the Tudors. We already know the fate of Sir Walter Raleigh and the tragedy of the Princes at the Bloody Tower. The Queens House was used for royals and high-ranking prisoners. Even in the 20th century, German spies were brought here and shot.

The Queen’s House Prisoners

Notable prisoners of the Queen’s House were Elizabeth I, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, and Guy Fawkes. The Queen’s House was built in 1530s during the reign of Henry VIII and is said that he probably built it for his second queen, Anne Boleyn who resided there before her coronation in 1533. Ironically, she also stayed there before her execution in 1536. Her lodgings is said to have become uninhabitable and was torn down. The Queen’s House that we see today was built in the 1540s.

The architecture of the Queen’s House is completely different to the rest of the Tower buildings made of bricks and stones. This Tudor style, half-timbered house is said to be one of the oldest of Tudor houses remaining in Britain. The Queen’s House is presently home to the Resident Governor of the Tower of London and guarded by the Royal Guard.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey was queen for nine days – the shortest reign in British history. She was just seventeen years old when she was executed at the Tower Green.

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes was one of thirteen conspirators who wanted to blow-up Parliament. He was found hiding in the cellars of the Parliament surrounded by 36 barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was imprisoned and tortured in the Queen’s House at the Tower of London.

The Fifth of November

The conspiracy to blow-up Parliament became famously known as the Gunpowder Plot. The very night the plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night.

To commemorate the failure of Guy Fawkes, Bonfire Night in the UK is celebrated on every 5th of November, with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire. As it is celebrated outdoors, there are soups, sausages, baked potatoes and the traditional Parkin cake available. Parkin Cake, is a sticky cake containing a mix of oatmeal, ginger, treacle and syrup.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII. They were married for three years and three months. She could not give Henry a son, an heir to his throne. Anne is often known as ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’. She was accused of adultery and was executed at Tower Green. She is buried at the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula.

There is a plaque dedicated to Anne Boleyn near the spot where she was executed. A permanent memorial is erected near the execution spot and dedicated to all those who were executed at the Tower Green.

It is hard to find even the simplest statements of Anne Boleyn during her life as Queen. Anne was literally wiped out of history books at least for the remainder of Henry VIII’s reign. All the portraits of Anne that exist now were created by her daughter, Elizabeth I during her reign. Unbiased descriptions of Anne were written after her death, though this is a rare find.

The ghost of Anne Boleyn is regarded as one of the most famous in Britain and has reportedly been seen many times at the Tower of London especially around Tower Green where she was executed. Anne is also regarded as “The most well travelled ghost in Britain” because she is regularly seen around Salle Church, Blickling Hall, Marwell Hall and Hever Castle – “often seen the way she was in life: happy, young and beautiful.” 

The Beauchamp Tower

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and his four sons – one of the sons was Guildford Dudley, the husband to Lady Jane Grey were imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower.

Other prisoners

You may wish to know more about the German spies and you can access information on the last person to be executed at the Tower whilst exploring. His name was Josef Jakobs, also a German spy at the end of WWII.

Traditions at the Tower of London

As a preserved heritage and a living fortress that is continuously adapting to changes in time, there are traditions here which have been observed for almost 700 years that you do not want to miss. 

The Yeoman Warders aka Beefeaters

Yeoman Warders affectionately known as Beefeaters are ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. They have been guarding the Tower of London from the time of Henry VIII. They are retired personnel of the Armed Forces comprising of thirty-seven men and women.

The Ceremony of the Keys

One of the best known and colourful tradition at the Tower of London is The Ceremony of the Keys – the ceremonial locking and unlocking of the gates of the fortress, which has taken place nearly each night since the mid 1300s. The gates are locked as the clock strikes 10. You can attend and observe this ceremony if you wish.

Ravens at the Tower of London

According to legend/myth, the Tower of London is protected by six resident Ravens and if the Ravens ever left the Castle, the Kingdom will fall!


Legend has it that Charles II’s astronomer, John Flamstead complained that the Ravens were interfering with his observations from the White Tower. Charles II ordered the birds destruction, but then heard the prophecy that the Tower and the Kingdom would fall if the Ravens ever left. He changed his mind and ordered that the Ravens should stay, under royal protection.

Meet the author

mytimelessfootsteps is a travelogue of Georgina's adventures and a space where Georgina shares her insights into travel. Bringing you only the best, from her very many years of discovering this beautiful world, to support your independent travels, with guided or self-guided tours and your well-being whilst travelling.

Though her focus is upper upscale and millennial lifestyle, the detailed travel guides and information are valuable for all travellers of any age. To learn more and her motivation for this blog, navigate to My Timeless Footsteps.

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