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Tower of London

aka Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, The Tower of London

Tower of London complex from the air
Tower of London complex from the air

General History

On October 16, 1066, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold to become the first Norman King of England. He spent the rest of the year securing his new kingdom by fortifying key positions, including London. The original fortification was created in a south-east angle formed by the joining of the original east and south stone walls of the Roman town of Londinium Augusta, with the River Thames providing additional protection from the south. The structure was completed by the addition of a ditch and palisade along the north and west sides. Originally made of earth and timber, the palisade was rebuilt with stone by King William II in 1097.

The tower which gives the whole complex its name was built between 1078 and 1100. Now the oldest stone keep in England, the Tower's original purpose was to keep the monarch safe from his subjects. It's secondary use as a prison began about 1100, when Bishop Ranulf Flambard was accused of extortion and imprisoned there by King Henry I. Despite being a prisoner, Flambard was allowed to maintain his luxurious lifestyle, and that freedom allowed him to also become the first prisoner to escape from the Tower, which he did in 1101.

White Tower
White Tower

Henry III was the first monarch to make the Tower his primary home, and it was he who first had the Towe whitewashed, giving it the name White Tower. Henry also widened the grounds to include a church and added a great hall and other buildings. The Tower also became home to a collection of exotic animals from around the world, known as the "Royal Menagerie," during Henry's reign. The Menagerie remained a Tower fixture until the Duke of Wellington ordered it closed in 1835 and had the animals moved to what is now the London Zoo.

The Tower grew into the complex it is today during the reign of Edward I, who used the Tower more as a prison than a residence. Although subsequent monarchs continued to maintain a residence in The Tower, less and less money was spent on its upkeep. By the mid-16th century The Tower had become so run down that it was deemed unsuitable for anyone but criminals, and its period as one of the most infamous prisons in Europe had begun.

Although the Tower had "hosted" prisoners from the beginning, most of them were from the elite classes and were only held as long as the reigning monarch saw them as a nuisance or threat. What's more, most of those held were allowed to maintain a staff of servants, and few were ever restricted in their movements. All that had changed by the mid-16th century, however, as The Tower began housing more and more political and religious dissidents, in addition to people who directly threatened the monarchy. Not only were these prisoners not allowed the luxuries and freedoms their predecessors had enjoyed, some of them were tortured and some executed within The Tower walls.

Although The Tower's role as prison had peaked by the end of the 17th century, it continued to house important prisoners well into the 20th century. The last well-known prisoner to be housed at The Tower was Rudolf Hess, Deputy Chancellor of Germany, who was held in the King's House for four days in 1941 after being captured while attempting to parachute into Scotland. The last person to be executed at The Tower was German spy Josef Jakobs, who was shot on August 15, 1941. The end of World War II brought an end to The Tower's use as a prison, as well as the need for its fortifications, and it has served primarily as a major tourist attraction ever since. The reigning monarch does, however, still have an official residence within The Tower walls.

Notable Prisoners Held at The Tower
(in chronological order)

  • Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent -- Chief Justiciar of England and Regent to King Henry III; imprisoned in 1232; pardoned in 1234
  • Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales -- imprisoned in 1241; fell to his death while attempting to escape in 1244
  • King John of Scotland -- imprisoned after being forced to abdicate by King Edward I in 1296; allowed to go to France in 1299
  • William Wallace -- leader of a Scottish rebellion; held in The Tower for a short time before his execution (outside the walls) in 1305
  • King David II of Scotland -- imprisoned after being captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346; moved to Windsor Castle in 1347 or 1348
  • King John II of France -- imprisoned after being captured at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356; released to raise his ransom in 1360
  • King Richard II of England -- imprisoned after being overthrown in 1399; taken to Pontefract Castle later that same year; died under mysterious circumstances in 1400
  • James I of Scotland -- heir to the Scottish throne; kidnapped while traveling to France in 1406; moved to Nottingham Castle in 1408
  • King Henry VI of England -- imprisoned after being captured at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471; murdered in The Tower on May 21, 1471
  • George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence -- brother of King Edward IV of England; imprisoned for treason in 1471; privately executed in 1478
  • William Hastings -- fought to secure the throne for Edward IV; beheaded in The Tower on June 13, 1483
  • Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury -- also known as the Princes in the Tower; sent to The Tower by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 1483 "for their own protection" afer the death of their father, King Edward IV, in 1483; believed to have been murdered there
  • Sir William de la Pole -- imprisoned in 1502 for allegedly plotting against King Henry VIII; died of natural causes in 1539, making him the longest-held prisoner in Tower history
  • Thomas More -- philosopher and social critic; imprisoned in 1534 for refusing to publicly acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Queen; beheaded (outside walls) on July 6, 1535; buried in an unmarked grave in The Tower
  • Anne Boleyn -- second wife of King Henry VIII; convicted of adultery, incest, and treason; beheaded in The Tower on May 19, 1536
  • Thomas Cromwell -- King Henry VIII's chief minister; imprisoned for a variety of alleged crimes; beheaded (outside walls) on July 28, 1540
  • Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury -- accused of treason by Henry VIII for supporting Catherine of Aragon; beheaded in The Tower on May 27, 1541
  • Catherine Howard -- fifth wife of Henry VIII; convicted of adultery; beheaded in The Tower on February 13, 1542
  • Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford -- instrumental in bringing about the executions of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; beheaded in The Tower on February 13, 1542
  • Anne Askew -- Protestant reformer; held and tortured at The Tower before being burned at the stake (outside the walls) in 1546
  • Thomas Cranmer -- Archbishop of Canterbury; imprisoned for treason in 1553; moved to Oxford in 1554
  • Lady Jane Grey -- puppet Queen of England for nine days in 1553; beheaded in The Tower on February 12, 1554
  • Princess Elizabeth -- heir to the throne of England; imprisoned for two months in 1554 for her alleged involvement in Wyatt's Rebellion
  • Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex -- leader of a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I; beheaded in The Tower on February 25, 1601
  • Sir Walter Raleigh -- imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I for marrying one of her maids of honor in 1592; released; imprisoned and condemned to death for treason by King James I in 1603; the death sentence was commuted, and he lived at The Tower in relative luxury until being released in 1616
  • Guy Fawkes -- leader of the Gunpowder Plot; held and interrogated at The Tower in 1605; sentenced to death at Westminster, but died after trying to escape by jumping off the scaffold
  • William Laud -- Archbishop of Canterbury; imprisoned for treason in 1640; executed (outside walls) in 1645
  • James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth -- leader of the Monmouth Rebellion -- held in The Tower before being beheaded (outside the walls) in 1685
  • Sir Robert Walpole -- future Prime Minister; imprisoned for six months for corruption in 1712
  • Henry Laurens -- third President of the Continental Congress; captured and imprisoned for treason in 1780; released in 1781; the only American to ever be held in The Tower

The Crown Jewels

The Tower became the repository for the Royal Treasure, including the Crown Jewels, after a number of treasures were stolen from the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster in 1303. The Crown Jewels became a tourist attraction during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and a jewel house was built against the south side of the White Tower in 1508. They have been on public display since 1669.

The Tower Ravens

The Tower of London has been home to ravens since its earliest days. Considered a nuisance by some of The Tower's early residents, their permanent presence was guaranteed during the reign of King Charles II. Legend says that the king was advised that "the Tower would crumble and a great harm would befall the nation" if the ravens ever left The Tower, and at least six have been kept ever since. The flock is cared for by the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, and their wings are clipped to insure that they cannot fly away.


The Yeoman Warders were founded by King Henry VII in 1485. They became the official guardians of The Tower in 1509, at which time the unit was formally renamed Yeoman Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. Exactly how and when they became known as "Beefeaters" is not known.

All warders are retired from the Armed Forces of Commonwealth realms, must be former senior non-commissioned officers with at least 22 years of service, and must also hold the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. They live on The Tower grounds until they retire.

Tower Layout

map of the Tower of London
map of the Tower of London


Ancient Fortresses
Britain Express
Historic Royal Palaces
Royal Central

See Also

World War II
King Henry VIII
Queen Elizabeth I
Sir Walter Raleigh
King James I
Sir Robert Walpole

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The Robinson Library >> London

This page was last updated on August 19, 2018.