The Tower of London is one of Britain’s most visited tourist attractions and it’s crammed with so many sites of historical interest that it can take all day to get around it and make the most of it. Here’s a guide to the most popular parts of the Tower.
This is the original part of the fortress, built at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1078 to protect the Norman rulers from the inhabitants of the city. It’s a magnificent white stone keep, which would have looked incredible when first built as the Norman style was completely unknown in London at the time. It’s right at the heart of the complex, surrounded by towers, walls and a moat. From the mid 16th century it was the main arsenal in the fortress and today it houses a fascinating museum of arms and weapons – the Royal Armouries.
Royal treasures have been kept at the Tower since the 1300s, and have been opened to the public as the ‘Crown Jewels’ collection since the 18th century. The 17th century crown and regalia used for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 are on display, as are other sceptres, orbs, crowns, swords, jewels and robes.
This building certainly lives up to its gruesome name. It’s where most of the Tower’s prisoners were held. The two boy princes were thought to have been kept here until their mysterious disappearance when it’s popularly believed their uncle, King Richard III, had them killed. Other famous prisoners include Sir Walter Raleigh, who was incarcerated here for 13 years on suspicion of plotting against King James I. Today one of the rooms in the Bloody Tower has been turned into a recreation of Raleigh’s study.
Scaffold Site and Tower Green
If Bloody Tower is infamous for the incarceration of prisoners, Tower Green is even more notorious as the site of their execution. It’s a large open space in the middle of the complex, with the Chapel Royal of St Peter Ad Vincula at its north end. Most prisoners met their end on a scaffold erected on Tower Hill on the Green, although some were given private executions in the Tower itself. Many of the executed were important or illustrious figures, and were subsequently laid to rest in the Chapel. Three queens are among the incumbents here, all of whom lost their heads on the Green – Lady Jane Grey and two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
This water gate at the foot of St Thomas’ Tower gave access to the River Thames. It’s so called because of the number of prisoners accused of treason who are thought to have been brought into the Tower via this entrance.
This ancient part of the Tower was built by two medieval Kings, Henry III and his son Edward I, who resided and held court here. The Palace has been reconstructed as a 13th century royal residence, complete with sounds, smells and light. The vaulted halls and elaborate bedchambers are beautifully laid out as they would have been during the reigns of these monarchs.
Another of the Tower’s prison blocks, the Beauchamp Tower was used mainly to hold well known and high-ranking figures. There are some fascinating old inscriptions adoring its walls, which were engraved by the various captives held here over the centuries.
This regiment of Tower guardians, also commonly known as Beefeaters, was established over 500 years ago. The guards’ distinctive uniforms consist of a long navy blue tunic with red piping and the Queen’s insignia, a matching cape and a box shaped hat with decorative rosette. They are all retired army officers of high rank, but their duties today are mainly ceremonial and they’re a popular tourist attraction. They provide informative guided tours of the Tower several times a day. Some of their traditional rituals include the 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly locking up and securing of the fortress, which has never been missed over all these centuries.
No visit to the Tower would be complete without seeing some of the famous ravens who live there. According to an old legend, the Royal Astronomer to King Charles II complained that the large black birds were obscuring the views from his observatory and requested that they be killed. However, it’s said that the King was told by someone that the Tower would fall and the Kingdom would be destroyed if the ravens ever left, upon which he insisted that a few remain. To this day they wander around the Tower grounds, with their wings clipped to ensure that no catastrophe can befall the Tower. There are currently six ravens, which are housed in the Wakefield Tower and looked after by their own Yeoman Warder who holds the title of Ravenmaster.