Best Guide to The Tower of London
The Tower of London — A fortress, royal palace and an infamous prison was last updated on September 2, 2022
Tower of London is one of the most visited castles and tourist attraction 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.
What is known about the Tower of London
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 it’s historical importance and it’s 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 magnificent castle. I share my experiences in this article in the hope that you would find this to be the Best Guide to What You Need to Know about the Tower of London.
What I discovered about the Tower
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 post will not do justice to English history and to this monument or to you, as reader of this article and/or as a visitor to the Tower of London. Therefore, I address the Tower’s historical significance in this article which is the Best Guide to What you need to know about the Tower of London together with links dotted throughout the article where you can navigate for a more informative post on that particular section.
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 “The traditions at the Tower of London” which will be published in a future article.
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.
Best Guide to What you need to know about the Tower of London
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. I shall limit my contribution to the areas famously attributed to the castle as a “fortress, royal palace and an infamous prison”.
Tower of London as a “fortress, royal palace and an infamous prison”
My starting point was to look at the Tower’s significance today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and trace it’s history to understand what factors contributed to its recognition as an iconic monument.
1 | 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. It’s imposing architecture, it’s strategic sitting on River Thames and it’s 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.
2 | 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.
Timeless Travel Steps says: Join one of the Beefeater Tours which is FREE. They run for 45 minutes and is filled with facts, gory details and humour. More details in Useful information below.
2.1 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 learn more of its history while you walk, get an audio guide.
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.
3 | 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.
3.1 | 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.
Admission to the White Tower is included in your entry ticket to the Tower of London. Purchase your ticket here.
3.2 | 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.
The map below shows the layout of the Tower of London, 21 towers and main structures.
As a fortress, the Tower became the most secure castle of the land.
4 | 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.
4.1 | Norman Fireplaces
It had four fireplaces to provide sufficient warmth to the residents – like the one in the picture below.
The White Tower has four floors – the ground, the first, the second and the third. The first, second and the third floors were designed the same with a large room to the west, and a smaller room in the northeast.
4.2 | A place of Christian worship
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 on the second floor. The Chapel was used for private worship by the royal family for about 900 years and the tower community as well.
The beautiful Romanesque Chapel of St John is the finest of Norman church architecture that exist today. The Chapel is vaulted with a plain arch, four massive columns on either side and four in the apse. Arches are supported by thick, round piers. Its decorations are simple carvings of scallop and leaf designs.
Although the Chapel was built for William the Conqueror, it was not completed before his death. His son, William II was the first royal to use it. In 1240, King Henry III added stained glass windows depicting the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. The chapel was also provided with a gold-painted cross in Henry’s reign. The Chapels current unadorned appearance is reminiscent of how it may have looked in the Norman era.
4.3 | 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.
4.4 | 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 peculiar animals given as royal gifts. The Tower menagerie included lions, polar bear, elephants and tigers.
4.5 | 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.
Join one of the Beefeater Tours which is FREE. They run for 45 minutes and is filled with facts, gory details and humour. More details in Useful information below.
5 | 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.
The spiral staircase has a lot of steps and rather narrow at some curves. Not wheelchair accessible.
Below are just a few photos to give you an idea of what it looks like.
All images © mytimelessfootsteps | Image by Georgina_Daniel
Learn more on the history of the Royal Armouries here
Admission to the Royal Armouries in the White Tower is included in your entry ticket to the Tower of London. You can purchase your ticket here.
6 | 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.
To learn more about the Crown Jewels and the exhibition, navigate here to Jewel House at the Tower of London.
Timeless Travel Steps: The entry ticket to the Tower of London includes entry to the Jewel House. It is reasonably priced at £25.00 for Adults and £12.50 for Child, valid for one day. Alternatively, if you have an annual HRP membership, your entry is free.
Timeless Travel Steps suggests: Plan your visit to the Jewel House, either first thing in the morning, or towards the end of the day. Anything in between, you may encounter a queue. The Exhibition is on the ground level, no stairs whatsoever! Possibly wheelchair accessible. For accessibility information, navigate to Tower of London
Visiting the Jewel House is definitely a highlight and I would highly recommend that you do too. There is more a reason to do so if you were visiting the Tower of London as once in a lifetime occasion/bucket list experience. You would not want to miss walking in the footsteps of history at the Jewel House. Do not let the queue put you off from visiting the Jewel House – just plan your visit and make the most of your day.
So far, I have listed the significance of the Tower of London as a fortress and as a palace. Now, lets discover why it is more famously known for stories of those who have gone beyond the walls and never came out – a Prison and a place of torture.
7 | Tower of London as a Prison and a place of Torture – Discover the stories behind the walls of the Tower of London
Besides being a mighty fortress, and a palace, the Tower of London was an infamous prison, a place of torture and executions. The Tower of London was a symbol of fear. Many people, including royals and the famous, rich and poor who entered the walls were never returned to the outside world. Some stayed for only a few days, others for many years, uncertain of their faith. Ghosts of many are said to haunt the castle corridors.
Murder and mystery surrounds the Bloody Tower, one of the twenty-one towers that makes up the Tower of London Castle. The Queen’s House and the Beauchamp Tower were used for royals and high-ranking prisoners
With over 1000 years of history, there are many stories to be told. You will find some of them written in the following articles:
Timeless Travel Steps says: The torture basement next to Wakefield Tower is signposted but can be easily missed. The entrance is narrow, dark and a few steps down, you will come to face the torture devices. For some it can give the chills. Stands displayed is the RACK torture device and information on SCAVENGER’S DAUGHTER which is another form of torture. Both are extreme. **Personally, I will not recommend for children to visit this basement.
Other points of Interest at the Tower of London which should not be missed
8 | Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula at Tower of London
The Parish church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Inner Ward of the Tower of London is a quaint and unique place of worship with an extraordinary history.
This Tudor chapel dates from 1520 but it is said that there had been a place of worship at this spot for over a thousand years, predating the White Tower itself. During the Victorian renovations in the 18th century the resting places of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey were discovered in the chancel, near the altar. This led to the chapel gaining its reputation as the “saddest spot on earth”. This discovery led to the permanent memorial for Anne Boleyn and others to be dedicated at Tower Green. The Chapel you see today is the result of extensive renovations carried out in 1970-71 and in 2014.
Georgina: There is a certain warmth here despite its sad history. It is airy and seems to have the right amount of light coming through. I noticed not many visitors to the Tower came here possibly because it is tucked away from the other main/touristy parts of the grounds. I would highly recommend that you don’t miss it when you visit.
Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula is open to the public for worships and visits. You can book it for private functions such as baptisms and weddings. Sunday Services at the Chapel: 09:15 a.m. – Holy Communion | 11:00 a.m. – Mattins & Sermon.
9 | The Fusilier Museum at the Tower of London
The building that is the Fusilier Museum at the Tower of London is also home to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ Regimental Headquarters and the Officer’s Mess, where formal dinners take place.
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was formed on 20th June 1685, when King James II issued a Royal Warrant to raise an infantry force from the existing Tower of London Garrison. The first Commanding Officer was the Constable of the Tower. The Fusiliers’ intended role was to guard the guns at the Tower of London. The force later fought in Belgium and Spain, and in the American War of Independence.
Notable exhibits here are the:
- 12 Victoria Cross Medals won by the Regiment;
- The uniform and bearskin of King George V (a former Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment);
- An Eagle Standard of the 82nd Regiment of the French Line captured by the Royal Fusiliers during the Napoleonic Wars.
Today, garrison duties are undertaken by the Yeoman Warders and a rota made of three London District regiments.
Entry to the Fusilier Museum is included in the entry ticket to the Tower of London. It is reasonably priced at £29.90 (2022) and is valid for one day – take a look here. However, you may wish to purchase combined tickets that allows a visit to several attractions over a few days. Personally, I find these combined tickets to be extremely good value for money and offers flexibility that I need over several days. Take a look at one such example for London, here.
10 | St Thomas’ Tower
St Thomas’ Tower is one of the three towers that forms the Medieval Palace. The other two are Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower. Built by Edward I between 1275-1279, it was formerly a royal residence. Richly decorated, comfortable and grand.
11 | Traitor’s Gate
Traitors’ Gate was originally called Water Gate. It was built in the late 1270s and was used by Edward I and other royals to get into St. Thomas’s Tower by water. The Tower began to be used as a prison, more so for prisoners accused of treason, who were brought to the Tower by water. The name “Traitor’s Gate” was first used in 1544.
12 | Fun for Family and kids
Explore and discover the 1,000 year old history of the Tower of London on a family fun day out together with your kids – There are activity trails filled with fun quizzes, activities, facts and illustrations – available throughout the year.
13 | Walk along the perimeter of the Tower of London for views of London’s Skyline
Finally, don’t forget to walk along the perimeter of the Tower for some amazing views of London’s skyline, even if the sign says, “No Entry”.
Thoughts so far…
The Tower of London has attracted much attention due to a mixture of its legends/myths of ghosts and the fearsome reputation it holds for inflicting torture on its prisoners. The prisoners who enter the walls of the Tower never really return to the outside world. However, according to history, torture was used only for relatively a short period of time during the Tudor era in the midst of political turmoil.
Although the Tower of London is no longer used as a prison, it is still a place that attracts much attention from tourists or local visitors because of its dark history and legends. It is now a secure “storage” unit for documents, armaments and jewels. However, this is only part of the story that makes Tower of London a #1 destination to visit. The more entertaining part lies in the 700 year old traditions of the castle itself which are fascinating and incredible. As mentioned earlier in the article, I will share these traditions in a future article.
As a tourist/visitor to the Tower of London, you simply have to witness it at least once.
There is so much more to see and experience at the Tower of London where you would want to feel the money’s worth. For many visitors, the Tower of London is a must see attraction and you may not wish to spend a lot of time waiting in line to purchase tickets. To maximise your time as a visitor to the Tower of London, you could purchase your ticket/s online and avoid this wait. Prior to my Annual Membership with the Historic Royal Palaces, I often purchased these day tickets or combined tickets that allows a visit to several attractions over a few days. I do still look for combined tickets to attractions not covered by the membership. I find these combined tickets to be extremely good value for money and offers flexibility that I need over several days. Take a look at one such example for London, here.
My final say…
No journey to England is ever complete, in my opinion, without a visit to at least one ancient castle. I highly recommend the Tower of London. As you can see, the Tower of London has been many things in its life – a rich, complex and diverse institution popularly known as a “fortress, a palace and a prison.” It’s role as a prison, the centre for torture and execution as do the ghost stories had and continues to intrigue and attract visitors from all over the globe. Some of the Tower’s traditions such as the Ceremony of the Keys, the need to maintain six ravens and the Yeoman Warders are still very much present today.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this post on the historical significance of the Tower of London and agree that it is The Best Guide to What you Need to Know on this ancient castle. If you do, please leave a comment below, I would love to know what your views are. If it was not helpful, you can say that, too. Either way, I would love to hear from you.
Useful information for when you visit the Tower of London
Tower of London, London, EC3N 4AB
Tickets & Prices:
Buying online is cheaper and convenient. Entry to Tower of London includes entry to the Crown Jewels Exhibition, the White Tower and the Beauchamp Tower.
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Tower of London-The Best Guide to What you need to know first published at timelesstravelsteps.com
Regularly edited and updated. Last update was on September 2, 2022
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