The Tower of London is one of England’s most famous landmarks, attracting over three million visitors every year. This unique 900-year-old castle and fortress is strategically positioned in central London on the banks of the River Thames and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Throughout history, the Tower of London has served many purposes from royal residence, to barracks, to armoury, to prison, to museum, home of the royal mint, and perhaps most unusually, home to a menagerie for a period of time. However, today, this unique attraction is best known for housing the crown jewels and for holding some famous and infamous prisoners throughout history.
We have compiled seven illuminating facts about this iconic London landmark to whet your appetite for visiting this fascinating historic site.
1. A Royal Residence
The Tower of London is not actually the Tower’s full name. It is in fact called, ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Palace And Fortress, The Tower of London’. Originally, the Tower was a Royal Palace and defensive fortress built by William The Conqueror after his conquest of London in 1066. The Norman invader was very unpopular with the residents of London so he set out to build himself a fortified palace for fear of being overthrown. His fear was so great that he even commissioned the White Tower, the innermost building in the castle, designed to be almost impenetrable to any intruders.
Throughout history, The Tower of London was known as the most secure castle in the land, guarding royal possessions and even the royal family in times of war and unrest. The Tower of London is still officially a Royal Residence of Her Majesty The Queen. She has a house onsite called ‘The Queen’s House’, which she can still inhabit if she wishes to.
2. Infamous Prison
The Tower of London was never intended to become a prison. It was only years later, when it became evident that it was just as good at keeping people in as it was at keeping them out, that it was used as a prison.
This famous London landmark instilled awe and fear across the land, as kings and queens imprisoned their enemies within its walls. During the Tudor times, it became the most important state prison in the country, and anyone who was thought to be a threat to national security came here. Some stayed for a fews days, others for many years, and some never left. The last execution in the Tower of London took place on 14 August 1941. Stories of ghosts still haunt the Tower today. The Yeomen Warders even tell a chilling tale of a huge bear who occasionally appears to frighten the visitors.
3. Home to the Crown Jewels
The Tower of London houses the Crown Jewels and it has done so for many centuries. Today, they are the most popular attraction at the Tower. The estimated value of the crown jewels is said to be in excess of £20 billion ($32 billion) but their actual value is of course priceless. Among the many treasures, the Crown Jewels include the crowns worn by the monarch at coronation and at the state opening of Parliament. The Tower was first used as a repository of royal treasure in 1303 when a number of jewels were stolen from the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster, their previous home. The Tower was known as the most fortified palace in London and therefore deemed ideal for the safekeeping of these priceless royal treasures.
4. Royal Menagerie
From 1200 to 1835, The Tower of London was home to a collection of exotic wild animals, never before seen in London. These weird and wonderful creatures were given as royal gifts to the reigning monarch and they included lions, leopards, polar bears, pumas, eagles, kangaroos, ostriches and even African elephants.
The polar bear, which was a gift from the King of Norway in 1252 was said to be allowed to swim and hunt for fish in the Thames on lead. Over time, the upkeep and practicalities of keeping these exotic animals at the Tower of London became unmanageable, and eventually London Zoo in Regent Park was founded by the original 150 animals moved from the Tower Menagerie.
5. The Yeomen Warders
The Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters, guard the Tower of London to this day. They are recognised as symbols of the tower all over the world and they have assumed their position in the Tower for many centuries. They were originally part of the monarch’s personal bodyguard and during Henry VIII’s reign, he decreed that some of them would stay and guard the Tower permanently. Henry VII’s personal guards were the first ‘Beefeaters’, so named, as it is thought that they were permitted to eat as much beef as they wished from the King’s table.
The post of the Yeoman Warder was once handed down through the family but today, this prestigious position is given to Armed Forces personnel for their meritorious service. The Warders live on site at the Tower and they guard the visitors. They also carry out ceremonial duties which have carried on for many centuries, such as unlocking and locking the Tower every day in what is called the Ceremony of the Keys.
6. The Ceremony of the Keys
The Ceremony of the Keys is one of the most colourful traditions still carried out at The Tower every day. It began in the mid 1300s on the order of King Edward III, who one December evening in 1340, turned up unannounced at the Tower and, to his great fury, he could walk straight in without being challenged. Such was his anger that he demanded a procedure to be put in place to lock the Tower gates at sunset every night, and unlocked at sunrise.
It is believed that the Ceremony of the Keys has only ever been disrupted once, when a bomb fell on the Tower on 29 December 1940.
Since 1826, at precisely 9.53pm, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower, wearing the traditional red Watch Coat and Tudor Bonnet. In one hand, he carries a lantern, still lit with a single candle, and in the other, he carries the Queen’s Keys (King’s Keys when a male monarch reigns). He proceeds at a dignified pace to the Bloody Tower, where he is met by an escort made up of sentries, a sergeant and a guard who represents the role of a drummer, but who in fact, plays a bugle.
The Chief Yeoman Warder then hands the lantern to the drummer and the whole procession marches to the outer gates of the Tower, where the Chief Yeoman Warder, assisted by the Tower’s Watchman, closes, locks and secures the outer gates. The same process takes place at the inner gates.
The Chief Yeoman Warder then takes two steps forward, raises his Tudor Bonnet high in the air and says: ‘God preserve Queen Elizabeth’, to which the guard answers, ‘Amen’, precisely as the clock strikes ten. At this point, the soldier representing the drummer sounds ‘The Last Post’ on a bugle.
This is the oldest military ceremony in the world and it has repeated in the same manner every day for almost 700 years.
In 2012, some of the Tower of London keys were stolen after a momentary lapse in security but nothing valuable was stolen and all the locks were promptly changed.
7. The Tower Ravens
A flock of ravens (at least six) permanently resides at the tower and they have done so for many centuries, cared for by the Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster. In the 1600s, Charles II was the first monarch who insisted that the ravens be protected, for legend has it that the tower and the monarchy will fall if the six ravens ever leave the fortress.
Bringing Learning to Life
Our esteemed illuminate Cambridge summer course designed for girls aged 13-17 is all about creating immersive magical moments that spark intellectual curiosity, provide incredible memories, and forge long lasting friendships. Beyond the classroom, a variety of educational and cultural trips will bring learning to life, and one such visit will incorporate the iconic Tower of London to reflect on the themes of monarchy, parliament, power and prestige as part of our Politics course.
To secure your place on our life enriching summer program, please apply here.