After leaving Warwick Castle behind, we travelled down to London for a couple of days. To be honest, I don’t think we scheduled enough time for this massive city, and so we had to be very picky with what we went to see… and the Tower of London was always going to make the list! However, we had tickets to see The Lion King that night, and when we arrived at the castle later in the day than initially planned, we knew that our time there would be short. We decided to make the most of it by following a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) on one of the free tours.
The Yeoman Warders have actually been at the Tower of London since the 14th century, and since then, have lived with their families inside the walls of the castle. In fact, Mint Street, to your left when you first enter the castle, is the main residential area today. Each Yeoman Warder does their own research and develops their own personal style before taking tours. Our particular Beefeater, I’m sorry to say I can’t remember his name, had a very dry, sarcastic style, and after getting a general feel for the crowd, focused on the bloody stories of imprisonment and execution… which was perfectly fine by me!
After meeting just inside the main entrance in the outer bailey of the castle, our guide led us through the Byward Tower and onto the section known as Water Lane. To our right was the River Thames and the notorious Traitor’s Gate, and to our left were two infamous towers; the Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower. Here, our guide told us how prisoners condemned to death would enter the castle through the gate before being held inside the castle. When their final day came, they would be taken to Tower Hill and beheaded in front of a crowd of people. Their bodies would then be paraded through the city on an open cart as a warning to others, and their heads impaled on a pike onto London Bridge… very gruesome, and, thankfully, a practice from long, long ago. Both Anne of Boleyn and Thomas Moore entered the castle through Traitor’s Gate before their executions.
However, the Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower is not without its own horrid history. The Bloody Tower is linked to the Princes in the Tower; the two young sons of King Edward IV who were supposedly imprisoned, and later murdered in the tower. Supposedly, the boys’ uncle committed this crime, which allowed him to take the throne. Today we remember him as King Richard III. Meanwhile, the Wakefield Tower was where King Henry IV was murdered during the War of the Roses. He was attacked in the chapel, supposedly in the midst of prayer!
After hearing these awful, but fascinating stories, our guide led us through a gate under the Bloody Tower- I believed he said it was the original portcullis- and into the inner bailey of the castle. Here we finally saw the White Tower; the original fortification on the site, and one of the famous symbols of London city. However, it was to the Tower Green where our guide led us. He first labelled the buildings around us, before talking about the very spot we were next to; the place of private execution for ten people. No doubt you’ll recognise some of the famous names; Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII; Queen Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of the same man; Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine-Day Queen’ who was nominated to the throne by Henry’s son, King Edward VI, but later overthrown by Queen Mary I. Others who shared the green as a place of execution include Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn but actually executed along side Catherine as her lady-in-waiting; Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury supposedly involved in a Catholic invasion; Robert Devereux, convicted of treason following a failed coup de’tat attempt; William, Lord of Hastings, a contender for the throne in the eyes of the same Richard who supposedly murdered his nephews; and Farquhar Shaw, Samual Macpherson and Malcolm Macpherson for their role in the Black Watch‘s mutiny. Whilst we stood at the Green, our guide finished the tour with the tragic story of Lady Grey, who was only sixteen years old at her time of execution. Despite her young age, she showed a great amount of courage on her day of execution, and it was clear that the Yeoman Warder telling her story saw it as the most regrettable act to ever happen on the Castle grounds.
With the end of the tour, we asked for advice on what to do in the castle with our limited time left. We were recommended a quick tour through the White Tower, before going to see the Crown Jewels, if the line had died down. We agreed and made our way across to this famous landmark. Here I’d like to pause a minute to admire the history of this 900 year old keep, which has always played a bigger role in history than that of a prison and execution ground.
Of course, as with many other castles we visited in the UK, the history of the White Tower starts with William the Conqueror. Starting in the 1070s, and completed in 1100, the fortress was originally built to intimidate the unruly London mob, and to proclaim the power of the new King. At this time, this would have been the first building of its kind in London, and would have dominated the skyline for miles, something, I think, that can be still appreciated today by staring up at the building. The castle, however, was never a favourite royal residence, but rather a stronghold and fortress.
The castle was first significantly expanded in the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272) with the Wakefield and Lanthorn Tower built. Their original purpose was as the royal apartments when the young boy stayed there in times of civil unrest. Henry also ordered a massive curtain wall on three sides, which was reinforced by nine new towers and a moat. This wall today encircles the inner-bailey, as King Edward I, his son, built a second wall around the first. By this time, the Tower of London was already in regular use as a prison for political prisoners, and its secure nature made it the perfect place for storing official papers and valuables, and for a major branch of the Royal Mint to be established. During the War of the Roses, the Tower probably enjoyed its closest ties to royalties; King Henry VI held tournaments within its walls, and the Tower saw coronation celebrations for King Edward IV and victory parties for King Henry VII.
King Henry VII also added royal residential buildings, while King Henry VIII erected a large range of timer-framed lodgings for the comfort and enjoyment for Queen Anne Boleyn in the 1530s (ironically, she stayed in these lodgings whilst waiting for her execution). From this point on, however, the castle both ceased to be an established royal residence and remained relatively unchanged. The number of political and religious prisoners increased with Henry’s break from Rome until the time of King Charles II.
From the mid-1600s onward, the castle featured a permanent garrison, installed by Oliver Cromwell, and was also the headquarters for the Office of Ordnance. The castle continued to function like this, relatively unchanged, until the 1800s, when the Royal Mint left in 1810, the Menagerie in the 1830s (which formed the nucleus of what later became the London Zoo), the Office of Ordnance in 1841, and the Record Office in 1858. During the two World Wars, the Tower was again used for a prison and execution ground, particularly for foreign spies, and was also damaged considerably during the Blitz.
Today, however, the White Tower houses the Royal Armouries, a nod to its long history as a military storehouse. I loved the ‘Line of Kings’ armour display, show casing some of the finest armour ever made for English Kings. This is a display that was put together during the 1800s, and, something I found rather hilarious, actually originally contained many historical inaccuracies to present the most interesting display. Luckily, the line as been reformatted today, so it’s both impressive and accurate! There are also displays about the institutions that were housed in the castle over the years, the treasures of the Royal Armouries in the former Great Hall, and a large collection of guns, mortars, trophies, pikes, swords, and muskets. Separate to the armoury, but also in the White Tower, is St. John’s Chapel, which has survived complete from the Norman times it was originally built in!
With such a collection, it’s really no surprise that by the time we life the White Tower, we had to get a move on to the beautiful Lyceum Theatre. This meant no Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia (although I did get to see the Crown Jewels of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle). This was, regrettably, just one item in a longer list of things we didn’t get to see… the ‘Medieval Palace’ (interiors of St. Thomas’ Tower, the Wakefield Tower, and the Lanthorn Tower), the Chapel Royal of St. Peter and Vincula in the inner bailey, the Beauchamp Tower containing prisoner’s graffiti (and named after a famous family we’ve already met), the lower section of the Wakefield Tower detailing the history of torture in the castle, the story of the Princes in the Bloody Tower, the wall walks, or even meeting the famous ravens of the castle!
To be honest, I am disappointed in our limited time spent at the Tower of London. If I had the option to go back to the entirety of the UK and see only one site again, this castle would be my first choice. So much more than a prison, I was completely blown away by the years of history. To think I stood in the same place where the wives of King Henry VIII stood all those years ago! Of all the castles, this is the one that left the biggest impression on me, and I can’t wait to get back and spend a full day there!