Lions and ladies and losing your head: the Tower of London

London is one of those cities where, no matter how long you live there, you’ll never run out of places to go or things to do.  Despite my numerous visits to the city-and the few months I lived there-I always find myself running out of time to do everything that’s caught my eye.  Museum exhibits, a pop-up restaurant, celebratory fireworks, afternoon tea in a corner cafe…but regardless of how busy my schedule is, there’s one place I never fail to visit: the Tower of London.  Maybe it’s my long-standing fascination with the Tower’s (somewhat gruesome) history, or that it represents nearly 1,000 years of history, but the Tower of London is a site I come back to time and time again.

Ask yourself what first comes to mind when you picture the Tower of London.  The beheading of Anne Boleyn?  The two princes buried under a staircase?  Perhaps the brief imprisonment of the Kray twins in 1952?  The Tower has certainly earned its reputation as one of England’s most notorious sites, but look past its role as prison and execution stage and you find so many more layers to London’s first fortress.  After William the Conqueror (his name says it all, doesn’t it?) defeated his main rival for the English crown, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 he began work on a castle which served as a military stronghold and royal accommodation.  William the Conqueror, or William I, actually only built the White Tower-the central building on the grounds of the Tower of London-and began constructing it from timber.  The stone building which stands watch over the Thames today was built beginning in 1078.

By the mid- to late-1100s the White Tower was used primarily as a fortress; with the River Thames to the south and the original Roman walls to the south east, the Tower was well-situated to guard against potential attackers.  Enter another famous English monarch: Richard the Lionheart spent a fair amount on castle expansion during his first year as king, though the walls surrounding the White Tower weren’t built until the 13th century.  We have Henry III and Edward I to thank for that; Henry III focused on reinforcing the inner ward, as he and his barons didn’t get on too well, while Edward I filled in Henry III’s moat, built the walls we see today around the inner keep, and re-dug a moat outside those walls.  Anybody else getting a little confused with all the monarchs and their numbers?  Me too, don’t worry.  The main point here is that throughout the 12th and 13th centuries many kings dedicated financial and labour resources to expanding and fortifying the Tower.  In the midst of all this building and securing, the Tower was home to plenty of four-legged creatures, as well.

If you’re surprised to learn the Tower of London once held elephants, tigers, lions, and even a polar bear, you’re not alone.  On my first trip to the tower I wondered why there were wire sculptures of elephants, monkeys, and wildcats scattered about the grounds.  Turns out, animals were kept at the Royal Menagerie in the Tower from the early 13th century until 1832 when, after several escapes and attacks on one another, visitors, and staff, the animals were sent to the London Zoo for good.  Why would monarchs keep such exotic-and wild-animals in their central keep, you may ask?

…entertainment.  English kings would regularly be presented with animals as gifts and, to the court’s amusement, they would be held in the menagerie.  The Tower even had a polar bear who swam in the Thames (tethered to the Tower with a chain) for some time.

Back to our timeline of the Tower, aside from civil unrest-including the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381-coups, and plots by queens (Queen Isabella, I’m looking at you) things seemed pretty quiet until the War of the Roses dominated the late 1400s.  This time bore witness to one of England’s most horrific regicides.  Remember those two princes I said were discovered under a stairwell?  Perhaps you remember one of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains, Richard III?  After the death of Edward IV, the then-victor of the War of the Roses, his two surviving sons were escorted to the Tower by their loving uncle Richard to await the eldest boy’s coronation…only that never happened.  The two boys, 9 and 12 years old, disappeared and their uncle took the throne, becoming Richard III.  In 1674 workers at the Tower found a box with two small skeletons near the White Tower; they were interred at Westminster Abbey and, while their identities haven’t been proven, popular belief holds that these are indeed the missing princes.  Richard III faced two rebellions during his rule and ultimately faced off against Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  Spoiler alert…Henry won, ending the War of the Roses for good and becoming Henry VII of England.

two princes stairs
White Tower: a stairwell over where the two princes’ bodies were found

Henry’s victory over Richard III marked the end of medieval England and ushered in the Tudor period.  For the Tower of London, this also meant a decline in use as a royal residence in favour of using it as an armoury and prison.  Royals usually only stayed here when the Tower’s political and historical symbolism came into play, such as the days leading up to a coronation.  Though the Tower was used as a prison it was usually only done so for higher-class or noble prisoners for short periods of time.  And while torture did indeed happen in some instances (48 recorded uses between 1540 and 1640) prisoners at the Tower did, for the most part, have the chance to improve their living conditions by buying wall hangings or better quality food through the jailers.  Many executions took place on Tower Hill, a stone’s throw from the Tower of London, though higher-ranked prisoners such as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey were executed within the walls away from public eye.

Tower Green memorial 1
Tower Green: a memorial stands (about) where 7 prisoners, including Anne Boleyn, were executed
Traitors Gate
Traitor’s Gate: connected directly to the Thames, this gate served as a water entry to the Tower

In 1663, after the English Civil War, the Stuart kings remodelled the Tower’s buildings which had fallen into great disrepair.  Further improvements occurred for 200 years, including the moat’s replacement with earth and the construction of the Waterloo barracks on the Tower’s grounds.  The First World War saw 11 men tried for espionage and executed at the Tower, and in World War II the Tower was once again used as a prison, with Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, imprisoned there for four days.  The Tower’s bloody reputation came to an end in 1941 when a German spy was killed in August.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but what else would you expect from a fortress and castle that’s been around for 950 years??  Just walking through the grounds and realising something this monumental and important in England’s history has been there for so long is awe-inspiring.  As an American I am always amazed at how young my country, as it is now, is compared to the rest of the world; consider that the oldest European-settled city in the United States wasn’t around until seven years after Queen Elizabeth I had been crowned.  I mean how incredible is that?!  Before the United States was even on Europe’s radar as a place to seriously invade build up, European and British cities had well-established fortresses, castles, all that jazz.  Whenever I’m asked why London and the Tower are some of my favourite places to visit time after time I try-and fail-to articulate just how astounding this idea is to me.

White Tower and old walls

If you’re planning to visit London, or if you live in the city and somehow haven’t managed to visit the Tower, needless to say I highly recommend it.  Tickets can get a bit pricey with adult tickets at £25, but they’ve got discounts for students and children (under 5s get in for free!), along with family packages.  The Tower of London is one of those sites you have to see, even if it’s a glimpse from the Thames or passing on a bus, though if you’ve got the cash please go in and immerse yourself in the history and sensation that I can’t put into words.

Oh, and mind the ravens.  They like to get a bit cheeky with the tourists!



2 thoughts on “Lions and ladies and losing your head: the Tower of London

  1. Enjoyed reading your post. And, like you, I also enjoy visiting the Tower of London over and over. Yet it’s incredible how many Londoners – particularly ones I know who, unlike myself, were born in London and have never lived anywhere else – have never been. There’s a strange aversion a lot of Londoners have to visiting perceived ‘tourist traps’, which is a great shame. My mission to change their minds, one by one, goes on…


    1. Margaret Brinkley

      First off, thank you! Always glad to hear positive feedback. I agree, most all of my London-based friends are reluctant to go because it’s such a hot spot for tourists. I’ve managed to convince a few of them to visit at slower times so far, but others are still avoiding it!


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