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Tower of London

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Tower of London
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
The Tower of London, seen from the River Thames, with a view of the water gate called
Country Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv
Reference 488
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1988 (12th Session)

Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, more commonly known as the Tower of London (and historically as The Tower), is a historic monument in central London, England, on the north bank of the River Thames. It is located within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and is separated from the eastern edge of the City of London by the open space known as Tower Hill.

The Tower of London is often identified with the White Tower, the original stark square fortress built by William the Conqueror in 1078. However, the tower as a whole is a complex of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat.

The tower's primary function was a fortress, a royal palace, and a prison (particularly for high status and royal prisoners, such as the Princes in the Tower and the future Queen Elizabeth I). This last use has led to the phrase "sent to the Tower" (meaning "imprisoned"). It has also served as a place of execution and torture, an armoury, a treasury, a zoo, the Royal Mint, a public records office, an observatory, and since 1303, the home of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.


The Tower viewed from the Swiss Re Tower

The Tower is located at the eastern boundary of the City of London financial district, adjacent to the River Thames and Tower Bridge. Between the river and the Tower is Tower Wharf, a freely accessible walkway with views of the river, tower and bridge, together with HMS Belfast and London City Hall on the opposite bank.

The nearest public transport locations are:

  • Tower Hill tube station (London Underground District and Circle lines);
  • Tower Gateway DLR station ( Docklands Light Railway);(closed until end of September)
  • Fenchurch Street railway station ( National Rail);
  • Tower Millennium Pier (river cruise boats);
  • St Katherine's Dock ( Thames Clipper commuter boats).


The Middle Tower (centre) guards the outer perimeter entrance across the (now) dry moat
The White Tower and courtyard
The Battlements from Tower Bridge approach
Norman chapel inside the White Tower

At the centre of the Tower of London stands the Norman White Tower. It is 90 feet (27 m) high and the walls vary from 15 feet (4.5 m) thick at the base to almost 11 feet (3.3 m) in the upper parts. Above the battlements rise four turrets; three of them are square, but the one on the northeast is circular. This turret once contained the first royal observatory. Henry III had the exterior of the building whitewashed in 1240, which is how the tower got its name.

The White Tower is situated in the Inner Ward, defended by a massive curtain wall, which has thirteen towers:

  • Bloody Tower (or the Garden Tower), so named after a legend that the Princes in the Tower were murdered there.
  • Bell Tower
  • Beauchamp Tower (pronounced 'Beecham')
  • Deveraux Tower
  • Flint Tower
  • Bowyer Tower
  • Brick Tower
  • Martin Tower
  • Constable Tower
  • Broad Arrow Tower
  • Salt Tower
  • Lanthorn Tower
  • Wakefield Tower

The entrance to the Inner Ward is on the south side under the Bloody Tower. Outside of this is the Outer Ward, defended by a second massive curtain wall, flanked by six towers facing the river:

  • Byward Tower
  • St Thomas's Tower, built between 1275-1279 by Edward I to provide additional royal accommodation for the King.
  • Cradle Tower
  • Develin Tower
  • Middle Tower
  • Well Tower

On the north face of the outer wall are three semicircular bastions. A ditch or moat, now dry, encircles the whole, crossed at the southwestern angle by a stone bridge, leading to the Byward Tower from the Middle Tower - a gateway which had formerly an outwork, called the Lion Tower.

The water entrance to the Tower is often referred to as Traitor's Gate because prisoners accused of treason such as Queen Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More passed through it. Traitor's Gate cuts through St Thomas's Tower and replaced Henry III's watergate in the Bloody Tower behind it. Behind Traitors Gate in the pool was an engine used to raise water to a cistern located on the roof of the White Tower. The engine was originally powered by the force of the tide or by horsepower and eventually by steampower; this was adapted around 1724 to drive machinery for boring gun barrels. It was removed in the 1860s. The Tudor Timber Framing seen above the great arch of Traitor's Gate dates from 1532 and was restored in the 19th century.

The Tower today is principally a tourist attraction. Besides the buildings themselves, the British Crown Jewels, a fine armour collection from the Royal Armouries, and a remnant of the wall of the Roman fortress are on display.

The tower is manned by the Yeomen Warders (known as Beefeaters), who act as tour guides, provide security, and are a tourist attraction in their own right. Every evening, the warders participate in the Ceremony of the Keys as the Tower is secured for the night.


The 15th century Tower in a manuscript of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391-1465) commemorating his imprisonment there (British Library).

The Tower of London was founded in 1078 when William the Conqueror ordered the White Tower to be built inside the southeast angle of the city walls, adjacent to the Thames. This was as much to protect the Normans from the people of the City of London as to protect London from outside invaders. William ordered the tower to be built of Caen stone, which he had specially imported from France. He appointed Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, as the architect.

Some writers, such as William Shakespeare in his play Richard III, have ascribed an earlier origin to the Tower of London and have stated that it was built by Julius Caesar. This supposed Roman origin is a myth, however, as is the story that the mortar used in its construction was tempered by the blood of beasts.

In the 12th century, King Richard the Lionheart enclosed the White Tower with a curtain wall and had a moat dug around it filled with water from the Thames. The moat was not successful until Henry III, in the 13th century, employed a Dutch moat-building technique. This king greatly strengthened the curtain wall, breaking down the city wall to the east, to extend the circuit, despite the protests of the citizens of London and even supernatural warnings, according to chronicler Matthew Paris. Henry III transformed the tower into a major royal residence and had palatial buildings constructed within the Inner Bailey.

The fortification was completed between 1275 and 1285 by Edward I, who built the outer curtain wall, completely enclosing the inner wall and thus creating a concentric double defence. He filled in the moat and built a new moat around the new outer wall.

The tower remained a royal residence until the time of Oliver Cromwell, who demolished the old palatial buildings.


A Royal Menagerie was established at the tower in the 13th century, possibly as early as 1204 during the reign of John I, and probably stocked with animals from an earlier menagerie started in 1125 by Henry I at his palace in Woodstock, near Oxford; William of Malmesbury reported that Henry had lions, leopards, lynxes and camels among other animals there. Its year of origin is often stated as 1235, when Henry III received a wedding gift of three leopards (so recorded, although they may have been lions) from Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. In 1264, they were moved to the Bulwark, which was duly renamed the Lion Tower, near the main western entrance. It was opened as an occasional public spectacle in the reign of Elizabeth I. A lion skull was radiocarbon dated to between 1280 and 1385, making it the earliest medieval big cat known in Britain.

The menagerie was open to the public by the 18th century; admission was a sum of three half-pence or the supply of a cat or dog for feeding to the lions. This was where William Blake saw the tiger which may have inspired his poem The Tyger. The menagerie's last director, Alfred Cops, who took over in 1822, found the collection in a dismal state but restocked it and issued an illustrated scientific catalogue. Partly for commercial reasons and partly for animal welfare, the animals were moved to the Zoological Society of London's London Zoo when it opened. The last of the animals left in 1835, and most of the Lion Tower was demolished soon after, although Lion Gate remains.


A Tower raven

It had been thought that there have been at least six ravens in residence at the tower for centuries. It was said that Charles II ordered their removal following complaints from John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer. However, they were not removed because Charles was then told of the legend that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the White Tower, the monarchy, and the entire kingdom would fall (the London Stone has a similar legend). Charles, following the time of the English Civil War, superstition or not, was not prepared to take the chance, and instead had the observatory moved to Greenwich.

The earliest known reference to a tower raven is a picture in the newspaper The Pictorial World in 1885. This and scattered subsequent references to the tower ravens, both literary and visual, which appear in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century place them near the monument commemorating those beheaded at the tower, popularly known as the “scaffold.” This strongly suggests that the ravens, which are notorious for gathering at gallows, were originally used to dramatize tales of imprisonment and execution at the tower told by the Yeomen Warders to tourists. There is evidence that the original ravens were donated to the tower by the Earls of Dunraven, perhaps because of their association with the Celtic raven-god Bran. However wild ravens, which were once abundant in London and often seen around meat markets (such as nearby Eastcheap) feasting for scraps, could have roosted at the tower in earlier times.

The legend that Britain will fall if the ravens leave the tower appears to date from autumn of 1944, and to come from the Stag Brewery in London, where ravens were used as mascots and perhaps unofficial spotters for enemy bombers.

No one can remember the tower without ravens, though during the Second World War most of them perished through shock during bombing raids – the sole survivor being a bird called 'Grip'. However, before the tower reopened to the public on 1 January 1946, care was taken to ensure that a new set of ravens was in place.

There are currently nine ravens, whose wings are clipped to prevent them from flying away, and they are cared for by the Ravenmaster, a duty given to one of the Yeomen Warders. The ravens' names/gender/age are (as of November 2006):

  • Gwylum (male, 18 years old)
  • Thor (male, 15 years old)
  • Hugin (female, 11 years old)
  • Munin (female, 11 years old)
  • Branwen (female, 3 years old)
  • Bran (male, 3 years old)
  • Gundulf (male, 1 year old)
  • Baldrick (male, 1 year old)
  • Fleur (female, 4 years old)

The oldest raven ever to serve at the Tower of London was called Jim Crow, who died at the age of 44.

In 2006, ahead of the H5N1 avian influenza scare, the ravens were moved indoors; as of July 2006, they are once again free to roam about the grounds within the tower complex.


The first prisoner was Ranulf Flambard in 1100 who, as Bishop of Durham, was found guilty of extortion. He had been responsible for various improvements to the design of the tower after the first architect Gundulf moved back to Rochester. He escaped from the White Tower by climbing down a rope, which had been smuggled into his cell in a wine casket.

Other prisoners include:

  • Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr (c. 1200– March 1, 1244) a Welsh prince, the eldest but illegitimate son of Llywelyn the Great ("Llywelyn Fawr"). He fell to his death whilst trying to escape from a cell in the Tower.
  • John Balliol King of Scotland - after being forced to abdicate the crown of Scotland by Edward I he was imprisoned in the Tower from 1296 to 1299.
  • David II King of Scotland
  • John II King of France
  • Henry Laurens, the third President of the Continental Congress of Colonial America.
  • Charles I de Valois, Duke of Orléans was one of the many French noblemen wounded in the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. Captured and taken to England as a hostage, he remained in captivity for twenty-five years, at various places including Wallingford Castle. Charles is remembered as an accomplished poet owing to the more than five hundred extant poems he produced, most written while a prisoner.
  • St. Thomas More was imprisoned on April 17, 1535. He was executed on July 6, 1535 and his body was buried at the Tower of London.
  • Edward V of England and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, also known as the Princes in the Tower.
  • Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI.
  • Sir William de la Pole. A distant relative of King Henry VIII, he was incarcerated at the Tower for 37 years (1502-1539) for allegedly plotting against Henry VII, thus becoming the longest-held prisoner.
  • Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and his steward Sir John Thynne.
  • The future Queen Elizabeth I, imprisoned for two months in 1554 for her alleged involvement in Wyatt's Rebellion.
  • John Gerard, S.J., an English Jesuit priest operating undercover during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when Catholics were being persecuted. He was captured and tortured and incarcerated in the Salt Tower before making a daring escape by rope across the moat.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh spent thirteen years (1603-1616) imprisoned at the Tower but was able to live in relative comfort in the Bloody Tower with his wife and two children. For some of the time he even grew tobacco on Tower Green, just outside his apartment. While imprisoned, he wrote The History of the World.
  • Nicholas Woodcock. He was a sailor who had worked for the Muscovy Company on voyages of exploration and exploitation (walruses and whales) in the early 17th century. He spent sixteen months (1612-13) in the "gatehouse and tower" for leading a ship from San Sebastián on a whaling voyage to Spitsbergen in 1612.
  • Niall Garve O'Donnell, an Irish nobleman, a one-time ally of the English against his cousin, Red Hugh O'Donnell.
  • Guy Fawkes, famous for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, was brought to the Tower to be interrogated by a council of the King's Ministers. However, he was not executed at the tower. When he confessed, he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster; however, he escaped his fate by jumping off the scaffold at the gallows which in turn broke his neck and killed him.
  • Johan Anders Jägerhorn, a Swedish officer from Finland, Lord Edward FitzGerald's friend, participating in the Irish independence movement. He spent two years in the Tower (1799-1801), but was released because of Russian interests.
  • Lord George Gordon, instigator of the Gordon Riots in 1780, spent 6 months in the Tower while awaiting trial on the charge of high treason.
  • Rudolf Hess, deputy leader of the German Nazi Party, the last State prisoner to be held in the tower, in May 1941.
  • The Kray twins, the last prisoners to be held, for a few days in 1952, for failing to report for national service.


Inside the torture chambers of the tower various implements of torture were used such as the Scavenger’s daughter, a kind of compression device, and the Rack, also known as the Duke of Exeter's Daughter.

Anne Askew is the only woman on record to have been tortured in the tower, after being taken there in 1546 on a charge of heresy. Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, was ordered to torture Anne in an attempt to force her to name other Protestants. Anne was put on the Rack. Kingston was so impressed with the way Anne behaved that he refused to carry on torturing her, and Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor had to take over.


The Tower in 1597 (an 18th century engraving)

Lower-class criminals were usually executed by hanging at one of the public execution sites outside the Tower. High-profile convicts, such as Thomas More, were publicly beheaded on Tower Hill. Seven nobles (five of them ladies) were beheaded privately on Tower Green, inside the complex, and then buried in the " Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula" (Latin for "in chains," making him an appropriate patron saint for prisoners) next to the Green. Some of the nobles who were executed outside the Tower are also buried in that chapel. ( External link to Chapel webpage) The names of the seven beheaded on Tower Green for treason alone are:

  • William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings (1483)
  • Anne Boleyn (1536)
  • Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1541)
  • Catherine Howard (1542)
  • Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (1542)
  • Lady Jane Grey (1554)
  • Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1601)
The Traitors' Gate

George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Edward IV of England, was executed for treason in the Tower in February 1478, but not by beheading (and probably not by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine, despite what Shakespeare wrote).

When Edward IV died, he left two young sons behind: the Princes in the Tower. His brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, was made Regent until the older of his two sons, Edward V, should come of age. According to Thomas More's History of Richard III, Richard hired men to kill them, and, one night, the two Princes were smothered with their pillows. Many years later, bones were found buried at the foot of a stairway in the Tower, which are thought to be those of the princes. Richard was crowned King Richard III of England.

The last execution at the Tower was that of German spy Josef Jakobs on 14 August 1941 by firing squad formed from the Scots Guards.

Recent history

The military use of the Tower as a fortification, like that of other such castles, became obsolete with the introduction of artillery, and the moat was drained in 1830. However the Tower did serve as the headquarters of the Board of Ordnance until 1855, and the Tower was still occasionally used as a prison, even through both World Wars. In 1780, the Tower held its only American prisoner, former President of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens. In World War I, eleven German spies were shot in the Tower. Irish rebel Roger Casement was imprisoned in the Tower during his trial on treason charges in 1916.

Reconstruction of the interior of the Bloody Tower

In 1942, Adolf Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, was imprisoned in the tower for four days. During this time, RAF Wing Commander George Salaman was placed in the same cell undercover, impersonating a Luftwaffe officer, to spy on Hess. Although acting covertly and not held as a true inmate, Salaman remains the last Englishman to be locked in the Tower of London. The tower was used as a prison for German prisoners of war throughout the conflict.

Waterloo Barracks, the location of the Crown Jewels, remained in use as a base for the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) into the 1950s; during 1952, the Kray twins were briefly held there for failing to report for national service, making them among the last prisoners of the Tower; the last British citizen held for any length of time was the traitorous Army officer Norman Baillie-Stewart from 1933 to 1937.

A sentry posted outside the Jewel House

Although it is no longer a royal residence, the Tower officially remains a royal palace and maintains a permanent guard: this is found by the unit forming the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace. Two sentries are maintained during the hours that the Tower is open, with one stationed outside the Jewel House and one outside the Queen's House.

In 1974, there was a bomb explosion in the Mortar Room in the White tower leaving one person dead and 41 injured. No one claimed responsibility for the blast, however the police were investigating suspicions that the IRA was behind it.

In 2007 Moira Cameron became the first female Beefeater in history to go on duty at the Tower of London. Cameron beat five men to the job as a Yeomen Warder.


The Tower of London and its surrounding area has always had a separate administration from the adjacent City of London. It was under the jurisdiction of Constable of the Tower who also held authority over the Tower liberties until 1894. In addition the Constable was ex-officio Lord Lieutenant of the Tower division of Middlesex until 1889 and head of the Tower Hamlets Militia until 1871. Today the Tower is within the boundaries of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Crown Jewels

Profile of the Imperial State Crown from the right, the crown's left.

The Crown Jewels have been kept at the Tower of London since 1303, after they were stolen from Westminster Abbey. It is thought that most, if not all, were recovered shortly afterwards. After the coronation of Charles II, they were locked away and shown for a viewing fee paid to a custodian. However, this arrangement ended when Colonel Thomas Blood stole the Crown Jewels after having bound and gagged the custodian. Thereafter, the Crown Jewels were kept in a part of the Tower known as Jewel House, where armed guards defended them. They were temporarily taken out of the Tower during World War II and reportedly were secretly kept in the basement vaults of the Sun Life Insurance company in Montreal, Canada, along with the gold bullion of the Bank of England.


The Tower of London is reputedly the most haunted building in England. The ghost of Queen Anne Boleyn, beheaded in 1536 for treason against King Henry VIII, has allegedly been seen haunting the chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula, where she is buried, and walking around the White Tower carrying her head under her arm. Other ghosts include Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole, and the Princes in the Tower. In January 1816 a sentry on guard outside the Jewel House witnessed an inexplicable apparition of a bear advancing towards him. Reportedly the sentry died of fright a few days later

In fiction

  • The Tower of London, as a place of death, darkness and treachery, is most famously evoked in William Shakespeare's play, Richard III, where it forms the backdrop of Richard's seizure of the throne and the scene of the notorious murder of the Princes in the Tower, and other victims (see above). A classic film version of this is Richard III (1955) with Laurence Olivier in the title role. This story is also reprised in the historical horror film Tower of London (1939) and its 1962 remake.
  • The Tower of London (1840) by William Harrison Ainsworth though written in fictional form, contrives to give a detailed account of the history and architecture of the Tower.
  • The Tower is the setting for Gilbert and Sullivan's 1888 light opera The Yeomen of the Guard.
  • Apparitions of Anne Boleyn at the Tower are the theme of the song " With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm".
  • The Mad Hatter Mystery, a detective novel by John Dickson Carr, where the Tower serves as scene of a murder (Harper & Row Inc., New York, 1933, 1961).
  • The Tower Of London features frequently, and is described in exhaustive detail, in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, especially The System of the World, in which the tower is the setting for one of the series' grandest set pieces.
  • The Tower Of London also features in the 2005 Christmas special of the long-running BBC television science fiction series Doctor Who, in which it was the secret headquarters of fictional military organisation UNIT.
  • The Tower is the setting for the final battle in the anime version of Hellsing, where Alucard faces against Incognito.
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