Castle of the Day  
                 The Tower of London
Location: London, England


Following the successful Norman invasion of England in 1066, William the Conqueror founded the Tower of London when he initiated a vast castle-building project in order to fortify the city of London.

The site the Tower would come to sit on was strategically selected to be on a small hill - now called Tower Hill - on the Northern bank of the Thames River, within the southeast corner of a protective wall constructed by the Romans, which had once protected the entire city - and still did at this time in history.

Initially, the Tower was constructed entirely of wood in the Motte-and-Bailey style and was built between 1066 and 1067, but William - who wanted to give the capital city a stronger, more intimidating defense - eventually ordered the original structure to be removed, and began construction on a great keep.

The construction of the Great Keep - the central area of the Tower - lasted for nearly thirty years between 1078 and 1097. The designer of the tower, and supervisor of its construction was a Norman monk named Gundulf, who had been appointed Bishop of Rochester the year before construction began. When it was completed, it stood as the tallest building in London.

Between the time of the completion of the keep in 1097 up to the present-day, nearly every reigning monarch has had a hand in changing the face of the tower, either through improving its defensive capabilities by adding numerous towers and hundreds of feet of curtain walls, or its aesthetic qualities.

For example, it was during the reign of Richard the Lionhearted that the moat which surrounds the Tower complex was dug. Henry III's reign witnessed the addition of a new entrance protected by drawbridge, new portions of curtain walls, and 13 new towers including Wakefield and Lanthorn Towers, the King and Queen's residences inside the complex.

It is remarkable to consider that originally the Tower of London consisted only of the White Tower, but throughout its 912 year history would come to include two massive sets of curtain walls, 21 towers, some of which have fallen over the years, an all-encompassing flooded moat, plus dozens of residential and official buildings within.

In its history, the Tower was placed under siege only twice. The first took place in 1191 in the absence of King Richard the Lionhearted, when his brother Prince John lay siege to the Tower in an attempt to overthrow the regent Richard left in command, William Longchamp, who surrendered the Tower to John after three days. The second took place during the Peasants revolt of 1381 during Richard II's reign. The King and his family were forced to take refuge inside the White Tower. The Tower also narrowly escaped destruction during the Fire of London in 1666.

It would serve as a residence, both permanent and temporary for dozens of English monarchs; a safe-haven during times of crisis and danger; a prison and place of torture; an astronomical observatory and animal menagerie; the national treasury, armory, and mint; and the storehouse of the crown jewels of England. The Tower is guarded and maintained by two separate groups of soldiers: Her Majesty's Coldstream Guards and Yeoman Wardens called "Beefeaters", who have occupied the Tower since the 14th Century.

Specific Points of Interest

Though each corner of the Tower has a unique story to accompany it, there are certain portions of the complex that are of special interest. Examples include The White Tower, The Traitor's Gate, The Bloody Tower, and The Jewel House.

The White Tower

The White Tower is the more contemporary name for the complex's central keep. It would come to adopt its current name between 1327 and 1377 when Edward III ordered its walls to be whitewashed

The White Tower was constructed using Caen stone, which is a cream-white colored limestone that is found around the city of Caen in northwest France.

The Tower is irregularly shaped, with only one of its four corners making a right angle. Its walls are anywhere between about 110 and 120 feet long on any side, 90 feet high from the ground to its bastions, and range from 11 to 15 feet thick. The Tower's battlements are capped with 4 turrets, 3 square-shaped and 1 round, once used as a royal observatory during the rule of Charles II.

On the second floor of the southeast corner of the keep is the Chapel of Saint John. It is long and semi-circular in shape, and contains two stories, the main floor upon which services were held, and an upper gallery supported by dozens of massive columns rooted on the ground floor.

Adjacent to the chapel are two large chambers called the state apartments, equipped with sleeping areas, garderobes, fire places and a banquet hall. These areas, however, were designed more as a backup residence for the reigning monarch in case the area ever came under attack.

The upper floor contained a council chamber and kitchens while it's basement was rumored to have contained a torture chamber and became known as "little ease".

The Traitor's Gate

The Traitor's Gate was built during a renovation of the Tower as an additional entrance between 1275 and 1279 during the reign of Edward I.

The position of the entrance - on the banks of the Thames River - was strategically placed. At the time, the Thames was used as a major vehicle for trade.

It became the traditional landing place for high-profile criminals who were to be held at the Tower as prisoners awaiting either trial or execution.

Two of the many famous prisoners who entered through this gate were St. Thomas More - who was convicted of treason while serving as an advisor to King Henry VIII, tried within the Tower and executed on the grounds - and Anne Boleyn - Henry VIII's 2nd wife, accused of treason, adultery, and incest, and was also tried and executed inside the complex. Both Boleyn's and More's bodies would be buried in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula, the other place of worship within the Tower's walls.

Bloody Tower

Bloody Tower was built between 1238 and 1272 under Henry III.

It was originally called the Garden Tower and was built mainly for defensive purposes but came to be used as a holding place for prisoners, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, who was held here during his imprisonment under Queen Elizabeth I.

Bloody Tower picked up its infamous nickname following a number of mysterious deaths which occurred inside. Two of the most prominent were the supposed murder of the "Princes in the Tower", thirteen year-old Edward V and his brother Richard, 1st Duke of York around 1483, and Henry Percy, 8th Duke of Northumberland, who is thought to have committed suicide.

The Jewel House

The Crown Jewels of England have been stored within the Tower walls since 1303, though not always in the same place within the Tower.

They were not kept in a specified place until the mid-17th Century. Despite the great significance placed on them, the Crown Jewels had been sold, pawned, broken up, replaced, and nearly stolen between the 14th and 17th Centuries. 

As World War II began, they were moved to unspecified locations for safe-keeping, but upon war's end came to be displayed in the Waterloo Barracks inside the Tower.

In 1994, Queen Elizabeth ordered the jewels moved to the Jewel House, where they currently reside.

The collection is one of the most valuable in the world, though its true worth is kept a secret from public knowledge.

It contains two of the largest diamonds in existence, the 530 carat Cullinan Diamond, and the 108 carat Koh-in-oor diamond.

The Legend of the Ravens

Following a legend that is believed to have begun with the poet Geoffrey of Monmouth, it came to be believed that the presence of ravens inside the Tower was an omen of peace and security for England. If the ravens left, it would mean the crumbling of the Tower, the fall of England, and the opening of the area for conquest.

So powerful was this myth that in 1661, Charles II ordered that a group of six ravens be kept in the Tower at all times.

And so it is that to this day, six ravens are kept perpetually inside the Tower. Their wings are clipped so that they may not leave the vicinity of the tower, and they have a special residence on the Tower green with a raven-master whose job it is to care for the birds.

The Tower in More Recent History

  The Tower continued to play an important role in military affairs well into the 20th Century.

During the First World War, one bomb is recorded to have fallen into the moat surrounding the Tower walls. Also, between 1914 and 1916, eleven German spies were imprisoned and executed inside the Tower.

World War II also saw an even greater usage of the Tower. Many parts of the Tower were damaged during the the bombings that preceded Germany's Blitz of England in 1940 and 1941.

Two of the last prisoners held in the Tower were members of the German army. Corporal Josef Jakobs was a German spy who - in 1941 - became the final prisoner ever executed inside the Tower; and Adolf Hitler's deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, was held in the Queen's House following the surrender of Germany.



Alchin, Linda. "The Tower of London." Castles: Comprehensive Facts and Information. (accessed September 22, 2009).

Hibbert, Christopher. Tower of London. Wonders of Man. New York: Newsweek, 1971.

Kaufmann, H. W., and J. J. Kaufmann. "Medieval Castles and Fortifications - Great Britain: England."
In The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages, 190-191. 2001. Reprint, Combined Publishing, 2004.

Loftie, W. J. Authorised Guide to the Tower of London. 1904. Reprint, London: Harrison and Sons,1907. (accessed September 22, 2009).


<Links :

Fernandez, Jaime, Jr. "Tower of London." Castles of the World. Western_Europe/United_Kingdom/England/england12.htm (accessed September 23, 2009). - Contains numerous pictures of the Tower as well as brief historical notes. Vadnal, Jane, and Philip Maye. "Tower of London." Medieval Art and Architecture. (accessed September 22, 2009).   - A map of the Tower labeling key components with color coding referencing which monarchs built specific structures. Contains links to pictures of various parts of the Tower.  

Author: Joseph Scarcella

Copyright © MMIX by Brian A. Pavlac
Last Revision: 6 October 2009
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