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 Tower Hamlets in the East end of London. 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 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 and Well Tower.
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 members of the public visiting the Tower.
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 for murder in 1968.
The royal mint and the public records office were also housed here as well as the royal arsenal.
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.
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.
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