The Ultimate Nerdy Guide To The Tower of London
Updated: Jan 5
“Always there have been six ravens at the Tower. If the ravens fly away, the kingdom will fall.” ― John Owen Theobald, These Dark Wings
Nerds of the world, rejoice. I have here the ultimate guide to the Tower of London.
If you are a history nerd like me, this is a must see site in London on a geographical cure. The Tower is history. 900 years of history. And blood. It has served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, a mint, a military storehouse, a treasury, home to the Crown Jewels, an armory, a public records office, a royal observatory, and a royal zoo.
You will be blissfully immersed in the various successions of the Edwards, the Richards, and the Henrys.
I arrived around 11:00 am and happily walked right in as it was off season in November (in season you can wait up to 2 hours). I loathe queues, so as a precaution I had purchased tickets online in advance. It saves you several pounds to use this method. The Tower is also free with the London Pass.
The Historical Backdrop of the Tower of London
William the Conqueror was a bastard. As a kid he suffered from bastard bullying. This inauspicious beginning colored much of his life. Still, he rose above adversity to become England's first Norman king in 1066, the architect of the Norman conquest, and the builder of the Tower of London.
London was then a feudal society and a large walled city. Fresh from victory but nervous about rebellion, William decided to build forts to protect and control London. Pretty soon, he coveted a real palace. In 1078, he authorized construction of what is now known as the White Tower, which took almost 20 years to build.
Over the centuries, Henry III and Edward I expanded William’s fortress. They added huge curtain walls with a series of smaller towers and enlarged the moat. Medieval kings and queens lived in luxurious apartments at the Tower. They worshipped in the Royal Chapel.
A Royal menagerie was established at the Tower in the 13th century, possibly as early as 1204 during the reign of King John. Henry I reportedly had lions, leopards, lynxes, and camels. The animals were housed in the Lion Tower.
When the Tower of London was later developed as a tourist attraction, the first stop on the tour was the menagerie. Your admission ticket? Bring a live cat or dog as a snack for the animals. Later, the animals were transferred to the London Zoo.
Today, animal sculptures are dotted around the Tower grounds.
Then came the bloody years of the 15th-17th centuries. The Tower was first used as a prison and execution ground by Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Anyone who was a threat to the throne (small or large, real or imagined) was beheaded.
In the reign of Henry VII's infamous son, Henry VIII, the Tower became notorious as a prison for those who fell out of Henry's favor. While Henry lived at the swishy Hampton Court Palace. Henry was a mercurial and narcissistic sort, as evidenced by his ferocious temper and frequent marriages.
Prisoners would enter the Tower through the Traitor's Gate and be held until handed over for their execution on the Tower Green. Henry VIII was especially inclined to axe advisors and queens who thwarted him, sending Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and two wives to the gallows with little or no "evidence" of crimes.
Henry VIII's reign also featured torture, though it was not as prevalent as you may have heard. The favorite instrument of torture was the rack, and you'll find a reproduction of one in Wakefield Tower.
The Gunpowder plotter Guy Fawkes is probably the most famous prisoner tortured in the Tower of London. It's not known whether he was subjected to the rack. However, he was likely suspended from manacles.
Torture was finally declared illegal in 1628.
Henry VIII was the last king to make use of the Tower as a royal residence. After he left for posher digs, the Tower reverted to being a prison, arms warehouse, royal mint, and home of the royal menagerie.
Henry VII's daughter, Queen Mary proved as savage and bloodthirsty as her father. Dubbed "Bloody Mary," she executed and burned anyone who did not bend to her will. Her will being to restore Catholicism.
By the 18th century, the Tower forged a new personality. It was no longer a prison. It became relatively humdrum. Eventually, the tower was developed as a tourist attraction. The armories were reorganized. King George IV refurbished the Crown Jewels.
In 1864, the first ghost was discovered. A sentry abandoned his post after seeing a white figure heading toward the Queen's House. A bayonet through the figure proved fruitless. He was arrested, but acquitted when two others confirmed his sighting of the ghost.
The Tower now has 22 different towers covering 18 acres.
Yeoman Warder Tour
I began with the 45 minute free Yeoman Warder tour, which begins hourly and which most people rave about.
The Yeoman Warders, also called Beefeaters, first appeared during the reign of Henry VII. They were his personal bodyguards. They also guarded the gates and tended to the prisoners. The derivation of the term "beefeater" is unclear. It may be a derogatory term, stemming from the warders' voracious consumption of beef.
In 2007, the first woman, Moira Cameron, was appointed to the post of Yeoman Warder, busting up the glass ceiling. The warders now guide visitors around the Tower. It’s a fairly prestigious gig, and they get to live on the Tower grounds.
These ceremonial guards are great storytellers and bring a touch of drama and theatrics to the place. With booming voices and bawdy jokes, they will gleefully regale you with sinister bits about torture, beheadings, and executions.
You'll learn about the the Tower's ghosts, the story of the murdered princes, and the tale of Anne Boleyn's disembodied head slowly gazing across the crowd as the executioner held it up. Who can resist such ghastly tidbits?
The warders portray the Tower as an enticing blend of history, magic, and horror.
Among the warders' duties is the ceremonial closing of the gates each evening. Known as the Ceremony of the Keys, this 700 year old tradition sees the Chief Warder present the tower keys to the Resident Governor. (Special passes are required to view the ceremony and must be obtained in advance.) The ceremony begins nightly at 9:40 pm.
The warders also take care of the Tower's seven ravens. The black eyed ravens with the fierce pointy beaks are believed to be magical. Legend holds that if they ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Kingdom will collapse.
Charles II is thought to have been the first monarch to insist that the ravens of the Tower be protected, fearing the mythical threat to his crown. There are seven ravens at the Tower today — the required six, plus one spare.
Highlights of a Self-Guided Tour of the Tower:
After listening to the Yeoman Warder for awhile, I forged ahead on my own. I am typically happy with an audio guide (5 quid) and signage.
1. Bloody Tower & the Medieval Mystery of the Two Princes
The Bloody Tower was built by Henry III between 1238-72. It's a Normanesque-Gothic affair. The purpose of the tower was defensive, but it was also used as a prison. It's the site of some legendary murders, from which it derives its graphic name.
One of the Bloody Tower's most famous prisoners was Sir Walter Raleigh. He spent nearly 13 years there. You can see his cell; his quarters don't look terribly prison-like to me. There, making good use of his time, he wrote his renowned the History of the World. Raleigh was eventually released, re-arrested, and then executed.
During the War of the Roses, a series of civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York, Henry VI was murdered there in 1471.
Then, there's the tale of the "two princes." For aficionados of true crime cold cases, the Bloody Tower is the site of the greatest unsolved murder mystery in English history -- the disappearance of the sons of King Edward IV in 1483.
I always love a good medieval mystery. And I especially adore the haunting Paul Delaroche painting of the two princes at the Louvre. In it, the children are pale, melancholy, and look anxious that something is about to happen.
The two princes, Edward V and Richard, were placed in the Tower by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III, of Shakespeare fame) after their father King Edward IV's untimely death. Some say they were imprisoned, not just relocated to the royal apartments. The young princes mysteriously vanished (everyone agrees they were whacked) after Richard was declared king.
In 1674, two skeletons were unearthed in the White Tower's spiral stairway during renovations. The bones were re-examined in 1933 and found to be children's bones. Unfortunately, the bones prove nothing because they haven't been tested by modern technology or subject to a DNA comparison with the bones of Richard III.
Having read various accounts of the infamous tale, I searched out the spot where the possible remains of the two Plantagenet princes were found. There's also a room dedicated to them upstairs.
I am of the minority view that Richard III was not their murderer, despite him being the chief suspect and having an obvious motive to kill the princes. Here's my article analyzing whodunit. And we know from his bones that, contrary to Shakespeare's depiction, he wasn't a hunchback! That's just Tudor propaganda.
2. The White Tower
In the center of the complex lies the White Tower. It was the first tower on the grounds, built by Abbot Gundulf of Bec between 1078-97.
It's rather massive with square turrets. It was constructed out of Kentish ragstone, but limestone was added to strengthen the corners. In 1240, it was whitewashed, giving it its current name. In the 17th century, Christopher Wren restored the tower and added cupolas.
The White Tower has two floors and a basement. The upper floor contains the Chapel of St. John, which dates from 1080. It's austerely atmospheric, lined with limestone and 12 massive round columns. It may be the “most complete surviving examples of early Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical architecture."
On the same floor as the chapel are great rooms. One contains a Norman fireplace, quite rare in England. Before this hearth was built, most fireplaces were put in the center of the room and they vented through a hole in the roof. Chimneys were unknown. This was one of the first fireplaces to vent through holes in the wall.
The White Tower is where you'll find the Royal Armouries and the famous "Line of Kings." The Royal Armouries became a museum in 1661.
The Line of Kings consists of wooden horses and figures with historic armor. The figures represent most of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Charles II. Queens and unpopular kings (like Richard III) were left out. Only Henry VIII and Charles I wore their own specially designed armor.
For centuries, the Line of Kings contained many historical inaccuracies (such as William the Conqueror carrying a 17th century musket). It's been re-arranged countless times over the centuries at the whims of monarchs and curators.
But back to the Armouries. The sheer quantity of the exhibits is overwhelming. Swords and muskets abound.
Most of the surviving armor of the Tudor and Stuart kings is on display here. The Armouries tour starts on the top floor with the armor and swords of the 16th century and then descends to the rifles and small arms on the 2nd floor.
Henry VIII's 1540 armor, made after his jousting accident, is the most famous piece. It's a work of art really, with engravings by Hans Holbein the younger, Henry VIII's court artist. It was made when Henry was 49 and rather portly. It has a chest circumference of 54 inches and weighs 80 pounds.
After the thousandth sword, I staggered out, ready for some different stimulation.
3. The Middle Tower
One of the finest looking of the complex's many towers, Middle Tower was built in the reign of Henry III between 1275-81. It was once accessible only by two drawbridges.
It's a fortification made of two circular towers paired with a square building. Above its main gate of the square building is a stone carving of the royal coat of arms. In 1717-19, the structure was refaced in Portland stone.
This is the official entrance to theTower of London.
Right beyond Middle Tower stands its twin tower, Byward Tower. Byward Tower contains guard rooms and the machinery for the portcullis, which can still be seen in the upper rooms. There's a magnificent medieval mural on the first floor of the Byward Tower, which is the only surviving medieval decoration in the Tower of London.
4. Graffiti in the Salt Tower & Beauchamp Tower
The Salt Tower was also built by Henry III, in the late 1230s. It has a nice view overlooking the Thames. Its purpose was initially residential. It was first known as Caesar's Tower. It's unclear why the name changed. Possibly to signify that salt was an extremely expensive delicacy, served up to the royals and aristocracy during their dinners in the Salt Tower.
In the Salt Tower, you can see prisoner graffiti -- some moving and some desperate. Hugh Draper’s carving, low down in the wall near a window of his cell in the Salt Tower at The Tower of London, is one of the best known of the 300 surviving examples of prisoners’ graffiti at the Tower.
Of them, 74 are known to be from people incarcerated in the 16th Century. Draper's scratching is remarkable not just for being elaborate, but also for being defiant. Accused of witchcraft, he carved an astrological sphere.
Another tower famous for graffiti (shown above) is the Beauchamp Tower, built by Edward I in 1281. The tower was home to the Tower's most famous prisoners. There's an inscription dedicated to Lady Jane Grey. And an elaborate one in memorial to the five Dudley brothers.
When Edward VI died in 1553, Lord Guildford Dudley plotted to put Lady Jane on the throne. However, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and his divorced and discarded wife Katherine of Aragon, had more popular support. She made a triumphant entrance into London. Within nine days, Mary ascended as Queen and Lady Jane Grey and her Dudley supporters were tossed into the Tower and executed.
5. Lanthorn Tower
The Lanthorn tower was built between 1238-72, and is the second largest tower in the complex. It was commissioned by Henry III. It's one of the many towers that were built at that time for defensive purposes. The Lanthorn Tower was named for the lantern that hung in a small turret on top.
The Lanthorn Tower served as a royal apartment for the Queen, while the King was at the Wakefield Tower. Edward I chose to live at the St. Thomas Tower, which he had built for that purpose. At his death, his successors moved to the Lanthorn Tower, depriving the Queen of these apartments.
6. The Queen's House
The Queen's House was the titular residence of the sovereign. Built around 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII, it's a jaunty Tudor half timber with a red coated guard on duty. It was known as the King's House if a king was on the throne.
It was there, in 1608, that Guy Fawkes confess his plot to blow up James I and the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder.
Now, it's the home of the Governor of the Tower.
The Queens House sits next to the Bell Tower, thought to have been built in the late twelfth century. It is one of the Tower's earliest buildings. It was a mural tower defending the outer southwest corner of the castle. It was later used as a prison for high ranking prisoners
7. Tower Green
Next to the Queen's House is the Tower Green. Many of the Tower of London's executions took place on Tower Green. There's a memorial on the site of the execution block, where condemned prisoners were beheaded.
"Private" executions, away from the crowds, were a privilege reserved for those of high rank or for those who had strong popular support. The best-known of those executed on or near the Green are the three Queens of England: Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife, and Lady Jane Grey, the nine day queen.
Anne Boleyn was executed by the clean stroke of an expert swordsman specially imported from France. Another victim, Margaret Pole, was less lucky. A blundering executioner hacked her head and shoulders to pieces. The lower class were usually just hung.
8. The Jewel House: Home of the Crown Jewels
Ah, now we come to what some think it the Tower's main attraction: the Crown Jewels.
The Crown Jewels are significant because they symbolize the passing of authority from one monarch to another during the coronation ceremony. It's said that 23,500 jewels are kept under lock, vault, and key inside the Martin Tower (aka the Jewel House).
And they're invaluable. At the heart of the collection is the Coronation Regalia itself, a group of precious and highly symbolic objects used since 1661 to crown sovereigns of England.
The prize item is a the world largest diamond, named Cullinan I. Its value is estimated at 80 million pounds.
The most sacred item is the St. Edward's Crown. It's made of pure gold and worn only at coronation. Other highlights of the collection include the Prince of Wales Crown, the Imperial State Crown with its blue Stewart Sapphire (with 2800 diamonds made for Queen Victoria), the Hanoverian pearls, and the Sovereign's Orb.
Most visitors seem besotted with the Crown Jewels. To me, they're beautiful in their extravagance, but somewhat boring. Be prepared to wait in a long queue if you are not there off season.
9. The Chapel Royal of St Peter and Vincula
The Chapel is where the most famous Tower prisoners ultimately landed. This includes three queens of England: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey, all of whom were executed in the 16th century.
To get rid of his wives in a quest for a male heir, Henry VIII accused them of adultery and treason. After their execution, the headless bodies of the queens were buried quickly and carelessly under the Chapel without any memorial.
The chapel was restored in 1870, to its original Henry VIII style. During renovation, the stone floor had to be replaced. 1500 bodies were found beneath it. And the laborious process of identification and reburial commenced. In 1970, a memorial to Thomas More was placed in the crypt. The queens were reinterred.
The chapel is often closed for events. It was closed when I was there.
10. Tower of London Ghosts
No 900 year old edifice would be complete without a ghost story. And the Tower's reputed to have quite a few, in keeping with its grisly Tudor history.
The headless figure of Anne Boleyn is said to stalk the site of her execution on Tower Green and her burial place in the Vicuna Chapel. Arbella Stuart, the cousin of Elizabeth I who starved while under arrest for marrying without royal permission, is said to frequent the Queen’s House. Henry VI is said to appear pacing at his murder spot in Wakefield Tower.
Two smaller ghosts dressed in nightshirts are thought to be the two princes in the Tower. The Yeomen Warders even tell a chilling tale of a huge bear who occasionally appears to frighten visitors to death.