Plots, ravens, ghosts and murder: the Tower of London history is colourful enough to fill a couple of thick books.
The Tower is an emblem of the British capital. Grounded in around a thousand years of history, it stands proud alongside the Thames.
The first part of the castle complex – the White Tower – was founded by William the Conqueror shortly after his 1066 conquest of England. Over the years, the Tower evolved.
The Tower of London came to the fore during the Tudor period, when it became a notorious, blood stained prison. Many of the modern legends associated with the Tower – from the murder of the princes to the beheading of Boleyn – occurred back then.
Today, the Tower of London welcomes around 3 million visitors a year. I live just a twenty-minute walk from the Tower – which inevitably means that I haven’t visited the place for years 😉
Nonetheless, I finally popped back in Summer 2015. Here’s a selection of my favourite pieces of Tower of London history – spanning more or less 1,000 years.
The Founding Father: The History of William the Conqueror and the White Tower
The very first part of the Tower of London – the White Tower – was built by William the Conqueror in around 1067.
William was crowned King of England on 25 December, 1066. He was a fearsome military commander, and he knew a surefire way to maintain power – by building castles. The ‘White Tower’ was one of three built within the confines of modern central-London (the other two castles have long disappeared).
When the White Tower was founded – in late 1066 – it would have been a simple Motte and Bailey castle, made of wood. During the next fifteen to twenty years, it was rendered in stone.
The layout of the White Tower is similar to other Norman cases built in southern England – including mighty Rochester, and the Keep at the heart of Dover.
The castle is a grand, square-based fortress, more than 90ft tall and 120ft wide. It’s no exaggeration that few in England would have ever have seen a building of such a monstrous size.
Called The White Tower For Good Reason
The White Tower was so-called because the walls would have been whitewashed. They were painted this hue in about 1240, and they would have been visible for miles around.
The whitewash was chosen to make the castle stand out – a bit like a lighthouse! In doing so, the castle demonstrated the unquestionable might and grandeur of the English king for all to see.
A Mighty Fortress: Tower of London History in Medieval Times
Of course, the Tower of London is much more than just the White Tower – although this still exists at the heart of the modern fortress.
During the Medieval period of history, the castle was developed and extended by adding new fortifications around the White Tower. These included new fortifications, luxurious lodgings, thick curtain walls, and a moat.
In 1238, King Henry III added grand towers to the existing curtain walls. Each tower enjoyed a great, defensive view – and some had beautiful rooms, too.
In 1255, surreally enough, King Henry also built an Elephant House. The resident elephant in question was a gift from the King of France (although God only knows how an elephant came to be in France!).
Following this, Henry moved his collection of exotic pets to the Tower. This opened a bizarre chapter in Tower of London history as it became, in part, a small zoo. Indeed, an odd collection of unfortunate, exotic animals – from great apes to lions – would be held here until the 1800s.
The Mighty Defensive Additions of Edward I
In the late 1200s, King Edward I – a six-foot tall giant (by Medieval standards!) – spent a great deal of money in fortifying the Tower. He splashed out £21,000 – about a third of the annual income of the English treasury – on improving the castle.
Edward I also founded the Royal Mint in the fortress.
Edward was a particular proponent of the ‘concentric castle’ design: that is, encircling the castle in a double ring of walls. So he built a thick new curtain wall outside the old one. He also built a new entrance to the castle from the river and called it the ‘Water Gate’.
In Tudor times, this would be renamed ‘Traitor’s Gate’. It was to a play a pivotal role in the history of the Tower – as famous prisoners would enter the Tower through this ominous portal.
The Murder of the Princes in the Tower
In 1674, builders were modernising the White Tower. They demolished an old staircase and, beneath it, they made a grisly discovery: the bound-together skeletons of two children.
Some years later, the bones were analysed. They were believed to be of two boys, aged about ten and twelve.
It was one of the most gruesome finds in Tower of London history. You see, back in 1483, the sons of King Edward IV were sent to the Tower. The two boys were aged about ten and twelve. The oldest of the two – Edward – had become King after the death of his father, Edward IV.
The boys had been sent to the Tower by their uncle, Richard. Because Edward was too young to be King, Richard had taken over the throne of England instead.
Onlookers later wrote that the boys used to play most days in the grounds of the Tower. But one day they just… disappeared. Forever.
It’s quite clear they were murdered and the bones buried in the tower, but no-one quite knows who did the dastardly deed. Was it their wicked uncle? Or was it one of his closest advisers? No-one’s quite sure.
If you’d like to discover more about the mystery of the princes in the Tower, discover the full story – and our line-up of suspects.
Beheadings and Bloody Stories from the Tudor Period
During Tudor times, the history of the Tower of London took a particularly grisly turn. Most of the terrible deeds we associate with the Tower happened under the Tudor kings and queens.
They transformed the Tower into a grand prison – and place of bloody justice.
Henry VIII was, of course, a particularly axe-happy monarch. Thomas More (1535), Anne Boleyn (1536), Thomas Cromwell (1540) and Catherine Howard (1542) were all executed at the Tower.
The beheading of Anne Boleyn would have been unthinkable – never before had the King of England executed a wife, let alone a wife he’d been pursuing for seven long years. Her death would have been a grisly public spectacle – Henry hired one of the greatest swordsmen of France to ensure a speedy decapitation.
After such a traumatic death, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Tower of London is steeped in stories of Anne’s marauding ghost.
One tale tells of a modern guard climbing the walls of the Chapel Royal to find the source of a flickering light: inside, he saw the ghost of Anne and a host of knights and ladies, processing past their Queen.
The Tragic Death of Lady Jane Grey
A few years later in the troubled history of the Tower, following the death of young Edward VI, a group of cunning plotters attempted to prevent his sister – Catholic Mary Tudor – from becoming the first Queen of England. They tried to convince the English public that young, unlucky Lady Jane Grey was the true heir.
Despite their attempts, the public rallied around Mary. As a result, she became Queen and imprisoned Jane in the Tower.
Jane was extra-specially unlucky, however. A small band of people rebelled in her favour; and Mary decided it was just too dangerous to let Jane live.
Young Jane – and her young husband – were executed in 1554. Today, the place of her death – and and the death of Anne Boleyn, too – is one of the most commonly tourist-photographed spots in the entire fortress.
The Legend of the Ravens: Don’t Let Those Angry Birds Escape!
In more modern history, the Tower of London has functioned as a military base and armour store.
However, its very existence is tied up with one huge and rather threatening bird: the raven.
Ravens are quite a lot bigger than you might imagine – they commonly weigh 2.5lbs, are the size of a small dog, and commonly live to the ripe old age of 21.
Over the years, they’ve become linked with an important legend. One of the tales from Tower of London history says that, without six ravens in residence at the Tower, it, and the monarchy of Britain, will fall.
It’s said that, back in the 1600s, King Charles II wanted to be rid of the flock of resident ravens. He had been persuaded by his chief astronomer, who found that the pesky birds made too much chattering noise and got in the way of his sky-gazing.
However, the legend says, Charles was narrowly persuaded to keep the birds – a good job, as the monarchy has survived to this day.
Nonetheless, you should take this old tale with a pinch of salt – it was probably invented in Victorian times. Indeed, during the Second World War, the Tower was actually ravenless – all the poor critters died during the bombing raids.
Nonetheless, today, we have seven ravens at the Tower of London – one extra, just to be sure. The two newest ravens are called Thor and Odin, and the birds are good mimics – one can say ‘hello’, and another can bark like a dog.
If you’d like to read more about the Tower of London, don’t miss the terrible murder mystery of the young princes in the Tower.