It has stood as a landmark for over nine hundred years. It has held infamous prisoners and royalty. Millions flock to it every year. The Tower of London has served many functions during its long life.
Nigel Jones in Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London details the story of this famous structure. William the Conqueror who became King of England in 1066 started this fortress in 1078 with the central White Tower. For several centuries successive monarchs expanded on the design building ever stronger fortifications. It also served as a Royal Palace until the time of the Tudors. The complex consisted of the middle White Tower with many smaller towers around the perimeter.
From its earliest days, the Tower began to be used as a prison especially for political prisoners. Rival claimants to the throne found themselves behind its walls. Over time, its reputation struck fear in anyone who entered under guard. Many who disagreed or angered a monarch were sent to the Tower. Even monarchs and their family members faced imprisonment in the structure.
Many well-known individuals spent time in the Tower. Henry VI became a victim of the War of the Roses and faced death by order of Edward IV. Edward’s own sons known as the Princes in the Tower were killed there though historians debate who committed the actual murder. Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, two wives of Henry VIII found themselves at the chopping block. The reign of the Tudor monarchs saw many Catholics and Protestants in the Tower as the religion changed with the whim of the ruler. The Tudors disliked any opposition and seemed happy to have their prisoners tortured. Sir Walter Raleigh stayed many years there as a prisoner. While in the Tower, he began to write a history of the world and also conducted scientific experiments.
The Tower continued to house political prisoners during the English Civil War from both sides of the conflict with some meeting a brutal end. William Penn of Pennsylvania spent time there before coming to America. Another early American imprisoned there included Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress.
The Duke of Wellington victor at Waterloo became constable of the Tower as the complex itself ceased being used to house political prisoners. He helped make it a place for tourists to visit. He oversaw the rebuilding of it after a fire. During the two world wars, prisoners once again were held in the fortress including Rudolph Hess. The last prisoner left in 1954.
The Tower is most famous for housing the Crown Jewels since the time of Henry III. Several attempts have been made to steal them over the years. One thief who tried and failed to steal the jewels, found himself a prisoner briefly before being rewarded with land and a pension. For many years, the Tower boasted of a zoo with lions, tigers, elephants, and other curiosities that people came to see. The Royal Mint also had its home in the fortress with many including Isaac Newton serving as caretaker. As to be expected, several ghosts are said to haunt the complex. The Tower of London has been a fixture in English history for centuries. Its colorful past ensures that interest in the palace, prison, and fortress should last for years to come.
As an English history fanatic, I enjoyed this in depth history of the Tower of London. I remember seeing the Crown Jewels in the Tower on a trip to London, but would like to have more time to spend there. Next to visiting, reading all about it brings it to life. English history has a vibrant history and the Tower of London plays a big part of it.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.