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|Tower of London
aka Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, The Tower of London
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 Originally made of earth and timber, the palisade was rebuilt with stone by King William II in 1097.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.
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
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.
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This page was last updated on September 25, 2017.