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In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned king of England after defeating Saxon king Harold at the battle of Hastings. William needed to consolidate his hold on London and ordered the building of the Tower of London. Ten years later the original tower was completed—it is now called the White Tower. Over the years 1190-1285, the fortress was enlarged around this original fortification, and the whole complex became known as the Tower of London.
At one time the royal mint was located here as well as the storage of the country’s arsenal of royal armaments for the armies and fleets. In medieval times prisoners were housed in the tower. The tower was always a royal palace until the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, when he decided to make Whitehall his London residence.
After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the tower underwent renovation and restoration in order to house a garrison of troops and batteries of guns were placed along the walls. During the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and the French revolution prisoners were still housed in the tower.
Home to a thousand people at one time, about 150 live within its walls today, chiefly the Yeoman Warders and their families and resident Tower officials. From the Tower’s early days, the custody of the gates and safekeeping of prisoners were entrusted to a body of warders, headed by a porter appointed directly by the Monarch. From Henry VIII’s reign, these duties were carried out by the Yeoman Warders, who were entitled to wear the royal livery, like the Yeoman of the Guard who attended the King.
By tradition, there have always been ravens at the Tower. They originally visited to feed off the abundant refuse of the palace. Charles II decreed that there should always be six ravens in residence at the Tower, although today there are eight. Tradition has it that if they should ever leave, the White Tower would fall and a great disaster would befall the kingdom. They are cared for by one of the Yeoman Warders, who is known as the Ravenmaster.
The Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses takes place every year when the Provosts of Eton College and King’s College Cambridge lay their college emblems (lilies and roses respectively) on the spot where Henry VI, founder of both institutions, is said to have been murdered on May 21, 1471.
According to one tradition, there is buried treasure at the Tower of London. Sir John Barkstead, a goldsmith and Lieutenant of the Tower under Cromwell, was thought to have hidden a large amount of money (some say 20,000 pounds in gold coins) somewhere in the Tower before his arrest and execution at the restoration of Charles II. The diarist Samuel Pepys took part in several searches for the gold, as have a number of enthusiastic governors, but “Barkstead’s Treasure” remains hidden to this day.
The Ceremony of the Keys is held nightly. Every evening just before 10 pm the Chief Yeoman Warder, with military escort, locks the outer gates of the Tower. As he tries to return to the inner ward, he is challenged at the Bloody tower by a sentry. Having identified the keys as those of the sovereign and been saluted by the guard, the chief then gives them to the governor for the night. The Tower then reverts for a few hours to its original condition, a community separate and secure from the outside world.
The area surrounding the Tower is known as the “Tower Liberties”. This is under the jurisdiction of the Tower of London and independent of the City. In the 14th century the location of the boundary markers was firmly impressed on the minds of the local boys who were given a severe thrashing at each spot. These days the ceremony is not quite so painful and the Beating of the Bounds takes place on Ascension Day every three years when local children, armed with willow wands, beat boundary stones.
Every large Royal Navy ship that visits the port of London delivers a barrel of rum to the Governor of the Tower on the Tower Green in a ceremony know as the Constable’s Dues. This happens about once a year and is a reminder of the once more extensive perquisites enjoyed by past Constables.
Visiting the Tower Today
There are many options for visitors seeing the tower in modern times. Start with the royal chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where all who died at the Tower are buried. The present building was erected in 1519-20 and has and organ with carvings by Grinling Gibbons. The Fusiliers’ museum contains exhibits relating to the campaigns in which the regiment has participated and is located north-east of the White tower.
The White Tower is home to a large collection of arms and armaments belonging to the royal armories. Rooms in St Thomas tower and the Wakefield tower above the traitor’s gate have been refurbished to reflect life in the middle ages. Reconstructed artefacts include Edward I’s throne, stained glass in the king’s chapel, and a metalwork corona.
The traitor’s gate is a water-gate built by Edward I; it was so called because of the number of prisoners accused of treason who supposedly passed through it. It is part of St Thomas tower. Also inside the Tower is the infamous scaffold site where seven famous prisoners were executed. Among them were queens Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey.
The most popular exhibit in the Tower is the Crown Jewel house. The Crown Jewels have been on display to the public at the Tower of London since at least 1661 in various locations. Introductory rooms explain the historical significance of the jewels and their role in the coronation ceremony. The line of monarchs room features engraved wooden stalls representing the 40 monarchs since William the Conqueror. The coronation cinema shows different aspects of the 1953 coronation spread out on a triptych screen, and high definition television screens focus on different parts of the regalia magnified up to 40 times to show full detail.
The crowns and diamonds exhibition, located in the Martin tower, gives information on the evolution of the royal crown in Britain. It features a number of crowns never before displayed to the public and more than 12,000 rough and polished diamonds. The most sumptuous crown ever created was the Coronation Crown of George IV, which was made in 1821 and can now be seen in the Martin Tower. It originally held more than 12,000 diamonds and was said to make the monarch look like ‘some flamboyant bird of the east.’
The current Regalia, on show in the Jewel House, mostly date from 1660 when Charles II ascended the throne. The old Regalia, used until the Coronation of Charles I, was either destroyed or disposed of by Cromwell’s parliamentary commissioners who regarded it as symbolic of the ‘detestable rule of Kings’. However, some pieces have survived; the oldest piece in the collection is the silver gilt spoon, displayed alongside the ampulla; it was probably made for Henry II or Richard I. It is the only piece of royal goldsmith’s work to survive from the 12th century.
In the collection are the Imperial Crown of India, the Kph-I-Noor (Mountain of Light) diamond in the Queen Mother’s Crown, the Imperial State Crown worn by the Queen each year at the State Opening of Parliament, and the smallest crown, Queen Victoria’s Small Diamond Crown.
Nearest underground station: Tower Hill, just across the road from the Tower of London; nearby is Tower bridge with an interesting exhibition.
Open: March-Oct, daily from 9am-6pm, Mon-Sat, on Sun from 10am-5pm; Nov-Feb, closes at 5pm; closed Dec 24-26 and Jan 1.
The Ceremony of the Keys is free to members of the public, who must apply to the Tower of London for tickets.
Restaurant and shop
Information line: 0870 756 6060
Ticket booking line: 0870 756 7070
Information regarding special tours can be found on the website.
Website: Historic Royal Palaces
Insider tip: Get to the Tower early to avoid a long wait in line or book tickets ahead on line, by phone or at an underground station (head toward Tower Pier for advanced ticket holder entrance). Visit the Jewel House first, as lineups can be long to get in.
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