Tower of London

The Tower of London, seen from the River Thames, with a view of the water gate called "Traitors Gate."
The Tower of London, seen from the River Thames, with a view of the water gate called "Traitors Gate."

The Tower of London is a landmark in central London—in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets—just outside the City of London.

The White Tower, the square building with turrets on each corner that gave it its name, is actually in the middle of a complex of several buildings along the River Thames in London, which have served as fortresses, armories, treasuries, zoos/menageries, mints, palaces, places of execution, public records offices, observatories, shelters, and prisons (particularly for upper class prisoners). This last use has led to the phrase "sent to the Tower" meaning "imprisoned". One widely known example was that Elizabeth I was imprisoned for a time in the Tower during her sister Mary's reign.


The 15th century Tower in a manuscript of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391-1465) commemorating his imprisonment there (British Library)
The 15th century Tower in a manuscript of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391-1465) commemorating his imprisonment there (British Library)

According to Shakespeare, in his play Richard III, the Tower of London was first built by Julius Caesar. This supposed Roman origin is, however, just a myth. Its true foundation was in 1078 when William the Conqueror ordered the White Tower to be built. This was as much to protect the Normans from the people of the City of London as to protect London from outside invaders. William ordered the Tower to be built of stone which he had specially imported from France. He chose this location because he considered it to be a strategic point being opposite the site where Earl Godwin had landed in Southwark in 1051 during his Saxon rebellion against the Norman influence of Edward the Confessor. It was King Richard the Lionheart who had the moat dug around the surrounding wall and filled with water from the Thames. The moat was not very successful until Henry III employed a Dutch moat building technique. The moat was drained in 1830, and human bones were in the refuse found at its bottom.

The Menagerie

A Royal Menagerie was established at the Tower in the 13th century, possibly as early as 1204 during the reign of King John, and probably stocked with animals from an earlier menagerie started in 1125 by Henry I at his palace in Woodstock, near Oxford. Its year of origin is often stated as 1235, when Henry III received a wedding gift of three leopards (so recorded, although they may have been lions) from Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. In 1264 they were moved to the Bulwark, which was duly renamed the Lion Tower, near the main western entrance. It was opened as an occasional public spectacle in the reign of Elizabeth I. A lion skull was radiocarbon dated to between 1280 and 1385, making it the earliest medieval big cat known in Britain.

By 1804, the menagerie was regularly open to the public. This was where William Blake saw the tiger which may have inspired his poem The Tyger. The menagerie's last director, Alfred Cops, who took over in 1822, found the collection in a dismal state, but restocked it and issued an illustrated scientific catalogue. The menagerie was not to last because the new London Zoo was due to open in Regent's Park. Partly for commercial reasons and partly for animal welfare, the animals were moved to the zoo. The last of the animals left in 1835, and most of the Lion Tower was demolished soon after, although Lion Gate remains.


The Tower in 1597.
The Tower in 1597.

Lower-class criminals were usually executed by hanging at one of the public execution sites outside the Tower. Several high-profile convicts, such as Thomas More, were publicly executed on Tower Hill. Nobles (especially ladies) were sometimes beheaded privately on Tower Green, inside the complex, and then buried in the "Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula" (Latin for "in chains," making him an appropriate patron saint for prisoners) next to the Green. Some of the nobles who were executed outside the Tower are also buried in that chapel. Persons beheaded inside the Tower for treason include the following

The Queen Anne Boleyn, beheaded in 1536 for treason against King Henry VIII, is said to be occasionally seen walking around the tower carrying her head under her arm.

the Traitors Gate
the Traitors Gate

George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Edward IV of England, was executed for treason in the Tower in February 1478, but not by beheading (and probably not by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine, despite what Shakespeare wrote). Edward IV's two sons, the Princes in the Tower, may also have died there after their uncle Richard III became king, but they were not executed for conviction of any crime, and what happened to them is still a mystery.

The last execution in the Tower of London was in 1941, when German army sergeant Josef Jakobs was executed by firing squad for espionage.

Recent History

The military use of the Tower as a fortification, like that of other such castles, became obsolete with the introduction of artillery. However the Tower did serve as the headquarters of the Board of Ordnance until 1855, and the Tower was still occasionally used as a prison, even through both World Wars. In 1780, the Tower held its only American prisoner, former President of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens. In World War I, 11 German spies were shot in the Tower. Irish rebel Roger Casement was imprisoned in the Tower during his trial on treason charges in 1916. Josef Jakobs became the last German spy to be shot on August 15, 1941 during World War II. In the following year, Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, was imprisoned for 4 days. During this time, RAF Wing Commander George Salaman,

Reconstruction of the interior of the Bloody Tower
Reconstruction of the interior of the Bloody Tower

impersonating a Luftwaffe Officer, was placed in the same cell as Hess and though acting as a stool pigeon, George Salaman remains the last Englishman to be locked in the Tower of London. Waterloo Barracks, the current location of the Crown Jewels, remained in use as a base for the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) into the 1950s; during 1952 the Kray twins were briefly held there for failing to report for national service, making them among the last prisoners of the Tower; the last British citizen held for any length of time was the traitorous Army officer Norman Baillie-Stewart from 1933 to 1937.

Sentries being posted at the Tower of London
Sentries being posted at the Tower of London

Anne Askew is the only woman on record to have been tortured in the tower after being taken there in 1546.

Although it is no longer occupied by the Royal Family, the Tower officially remains a royal residence, and as such, maintains a permanent Guard - this is found by the unit forming the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace. Two sentries are maintained during the hours that the Tower is open, with one stationed outside the Jewel House and one outside the Queen's House.

In 1974, there was a bomb explosion in the mortar room in the White tower leaving one person dead and 41 injured. No one claimed responsibility for the blast, however the police were investigating suspicions that the IRA was behind it.


The Tower of London and its surrounding area has always had a separate administration from the adjacent City of London. It was, anciently, under the jurisdiction of Constable of the Tower who also held authority over the Tower liberties until 1894. In addition the Constable was ex-officio Lord Lieutenant of the Tower division of Middlesex until 1889, and head of the Tower Hamlets Militia until 1871.


The Middle Tower (centre) guards the outer perimeter entrance across the (now) dry moat
The Middle Tower (centre) guards the outer perimeter entrance across the (now) dry moat
The White Tower and courtyard
The White Tower and courtyard
The Battlements, as seen from Tower Bridge approach
The Battlements, as seen from Tower Bridge approach

The Tower today is principally a tourist attraction. Besides the buildings themselves, the British Crown Jewels, a fine armour collection from the Royal Armouries, and a remnant of the wall of the Roman fortress are on display.

The tower is manned by the Yeomen Warders (known as Beefeaters), who act as tour guides, provide discreet security, and are something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Every evening, the warders participate in the Ceremony of the Keys, as the Tower is secured for the night.

In deference to an ancient legend, a number of ravens are fed at the Tower at government expense; so long as the ravens remain at the Tower (which is ensured by trimming the flight feathers of the ravens), Britain is safe from invasion. Legend also says that should the ravens leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will crumble and the Monarch will fall, thus, the ravens are the palladium of the realm. The names of the eight ravens currently in the tower are Gwylum, Thor, Hugine, Munin, Branwen, Bran, Gundulf, and Baldrick. In 2006, ahead of the H5N1 avian flu scare, the ravens were moved indoors, and have since remained there.

The Tower includes the following towers, listed in alphabetic order:

Crown Jewels

The Crown Jewels have been kept at the Tower of London since 1303 after they were stolen from Westminster Abbey. It is thought that most, if not all, were recovered shortly afterwards. After the coronation of Charles II, they were locked away and shown for a viewing fee paid to a custodian. However, this arrangement ended when Colonel Thomas Blood stole the Crown Jewels after having bound and gagged the custodian. Thereafter, the Crown Jewels were kept in a part of the Tower known as Jewel House, where armed guards defend them. They were temporarily taken out of the Tower. It was reported that they were secretly kept in the basement vaults of the Sun Life Insurance company in Montreal, Canada, during World War II, along with the gold bullion of the Bank of England. However it has also been said that they were kept in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle, or the Fort Knox Bullion Depository in the United States.


The Tower of London viewed from the Swiss Re Tower
The Tower of London viewed from the Swiss Re Tower

The Tower is located at the eastern boundary of the City of London financial district, adjacent to the River Thames and Tower Bridge. Between the river and the Tower is Tower Wharf, a freely accessible walkway with excellent views of the river, tower and bridge, together with HMS Belfast and London City Hall on the opposite bank.

The nearest public transport locations are:

In fiction

Coordinates: 51.508422° N -0.077226° E


  • Bennett, Edward Turner, The Tower Menagerie: Comprising the Natural History of the Animals Contained in that Establishment; with Anecdotes of their Characters and History, London, Robert Jennings, 1829
  • A DVD box set of the excellent Channel 4 documentary series 'The Tower' was released in June 2005.
  • "1974: Bomb blast at the Tower of London", BBC News, 17 July 1974

Royal Palaces and residencies in the United Kingdom
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