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Tower of London

©Barry Carter 2002 - 2021


London’s riverside fortress outside the City walls

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Beginnings of the Tower

The Tower of London is the oldest royal castle in Europe. It is not, as many people believe, a part of the City of London. It actually comes under the jurisdiction of the Borough of Tower Hamlets. It’s construction was started by William the Conqueror when he built the White Tower in 1078 as a fortress outside the City walls. He is never referred to as the ‘Conqueror’ within the Square Mile boundaries but simply as William I. This is because he never conquered the City. He conquered England but not the City, he knew it held the resources to oust him if need be. He was allowed to enter to discuss granting them privileges in return for their support. The story goes that he built the Tower because he didn’t really trust the government of the walled city and wanted some defence from them. He also built Castle Baynard and Montfichet Tower for the same reason
He named his white stone tower Caesars Tower at that time. Over the course of time, up to and including the reign of Henry VIII, additions have been made and the fortress was expanded outwards to cover an area of approximately eighteen acres beside the river Thames. By the time Henry’s reign was over, it had a total of twenty towers. It was surrounded by a wide, deep, moat, and could only be accessed by the drawbridge or by boat. As well as being a fortress, it was also used as a royal residence and a prison for some historical characters.

Over the years there have been many additions to the original single White Tower. Today, there are twenty towers.
They are named as follows:
Devereux Tower
Flint Tower
Bowyer Tower
Brick Tower
Martin Tower
Beauchamp Tower
White Tower
Wardrobe Tower
Constable Tower
Broad Arrow Tower
Salt Tower
Middle Tower
Byward Tower
Bloody Tower
Wakefield Tower
Lanthorn Tower
Bell Tower
St. Thomas’s Tower
Cradle Tower
Well Tower.

The twenty towers

The Crown Jewels are housed in the Wakefield Tower and are only removed on rare occasions for ceremonial purposes or the crowning of a new monarch. Their monetary value is impossible to estimate. The Cullinan Diamond is amongst the hundreds of gems embedded in the gold. Until 1985 it was the largest cut diamond in the world at 530.2 carats. The jewels can be viewed by paying members of the public visiting the Tower.

The Crown Jewels

The Tower has been used throughout history as a prison for some of the more important prisoners and those regarded as traitors to the throne. The aptly named ‘Traitors Gate’ was often used to ferry them into their prison quietly from the Thames.
Some of the people held here included foreign royalty who had been captured and were to be held here for ransom. Many historical figures were also incarcerated here, quite a few of them ending their lives on the chopping block or the gallows. The last prisoners to be held at the Tower were, believe it or not, the infamous East End gangsters the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie. They were held after deserting from the army while doing their National Service in the 1950’s. They went on to be notorious villains before being jailed after being found guilty of murder in 1969.
The royal mint and the public records office were also housed here as well as the royal arsenal.

Prison for traitors and nobility

There was good reason for William the Conqueror to build the White Tower on this particular site. The City was already enclosed by high walls on all sides but the river Thames, being much wider then, had caused a problem. Because of it’s tidal nature, the constant water movement had caused the City walls by the river to gradually collapse over a period of time. This left a dangerous gap in the City’s defences. For this reason the Tower was placed at this location.
Incidentally, William was never refered to as "The Conqueror" within the City of London, merely as William I. This is beacause although he conquered England, he never conquered the City. He was invited in to negotiate. He knew the financial resources available to them and would be no match for them if they decided he was not welcome and financed an army.

The tidal Thames

Damage to the Tower

In 1090 a storm inflicted a great deal of damage to the lone tower. Both William Rufus, and Henry I carried out repairs, and began to expand the fortress further towards the river, and added castellated walls there.
In 1190 William Longchampe, Chancellor of England, had the outer wall built. He also had a great ditch dug around the Tower which was filled from the Thames. According to John Stow this was because of an altercation with Prince John.

In 1239 Henry III began adding more fortifications to the west side of the castle. A year later they collapsed. The king ordered them to be rebuilt with stronger materials but in 1247 they crumbled once more. The people of the City were not pleased with this, having paid great sums of money for the work to be carried out, a total of 12,000 marks.
Henry was never to see the completion of the walls. Edward I had them rebuilt with mounds of earth and mud, and it was during the reign of Edward IV they were replaced with stone. This part was given the name of ‘Lion Tower’ as it was used to house wild animals accepted from foreign royalty as gifts.
On November 22nd. 1548 a Frenchman managed to blow it up, along with himself, with a barrel of gunpowder. Once again, it was rebuilt.

Constant repair work

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