The fortress, the prison, and the Crown Jewels – come and meet the Tower

Another post in my series on British History; this time I am going to look at one of the most secure places in Great Britain, the Tower of London.

The Normans (yes those people again) built around 200 stone fortresses across England to control their conquered lands; the best known of these is the Tower of London. William the Conqueror built the White Tower as a fortress, not a prison. The White Tower later became the central point in a much larger fortress. Eventually there were two moats invaders had to contend with, not to mention the wild animals that used to prowl between the two moats, the drawbridge (every good fortress needs a drawbridge!), the iron portcullis and the high walls, all perfectly designed to keep people out and eventually keep them in.

Talking of animals, King John received the first royal animals in the early 1200’s. Lions, an elephant and a polar bear, which would hunt for fish in the Thames on a lead, were the first exotic residents of this menagerie, with tigers, kangaroos and ostriches being added later.

Remains found in the tower have confirmed that the medieval big cats were male Barbary lions, a now extinct subspecies from North Africa.

The public could come and see these exotic beasts and for 600 years this remained a popular attraction, until the Duke of Wellington closed it down in 1835 and the animals were moved to the newly created London Zoo.

Henry I used the Tower as a prison for the first time by incarcerating the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard, who incidentally was also one of a very few prisoners to escape. Some of the more famous prisoners included: the legendary two boy princes interred by Richard III and possibly murdered on his command, Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned 3 times and in the end was beheaded, Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife who also was beheaded, Guy Fawkes was put into the tower for his role in the notorious gunpowder plot, Lady Jane Grey (who we met in my last post), and probably most famously, Elizabeth I who was put there by her half-sister Queen Mary I.

This fortress turned prison became known for its tortures and executions of its prisoners, although only 22 executions actually took place inside the Tower; the majority taking place on the nearby Tower Hill. The last man to be beheaded there was the Jacobite octogenarian Lord Lovat on 9th April 1747. A scaffold built for the spectators collapsed, killing 20 people, so you see, not even spectators where safe at the Tower!

The last execution in the Tower took place on 14th August 1941, when Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was shot by firing squad.

Over the centuries the Tower of London has been used as a royal residence, an armoury, a treasury, a zoo, the Royal Mint, a records office and today is home to the crown jewels. The most ancient object in that collection is the 12th century coronation spoon, which was last used in 1953 to anoint the head of our current Queen. Most of the original crown jewels from medieval times were lost during Cromwell’s 1648 revolution.

A moving sidewalk takes you past various crowns, orbs, and scepters. One of those items on display is the Sovereign’s Scepter; it’s encrusted with the world’s largest cut diamond, the 530 carat Star of Africa. St. Edward’s Crown is also usually on display, although the exhibition rotates, so one never knows what is going to be on display, but back to the crown. The original was older than the Tower itself and dated back to 1061, the time of Edward the Confessor. This 1661 remake (I know, still old right) is said to contain some of the original’s gold amid its 443 precious and semi precious stones. The weight of this crown is around five pounds, and monarchs of a weaker disposition have opted not to wear it on their coronation. Here is a thing I didn’t know about crowns: Kings and Queens get four arches on their crowns, emperors get eight, and princes only get two arches.

The Yeoman Warders, the famous Beefeaters, were originally tasked with guarding the tower, its prisoners, and the jewels. The origin of their nickname “Beefeaters” is vague, but is thought to possibly come from the original perk of receiving large rations of the king’s beef. All Beefeaters are retired non-commissioned officers from the Armed Forces with distinguished service records and must have completed 22 years of service (they even have a female warder these days!). They, together with their families live on site in small cottages. Nowadays they are great tour leaders and entertain their charges with stories from the past. They do however still perform the oldest military ceremony in the world – the ceremony of the keys. Every evening, at precisely 21:53 hrs an armed escort of the Queen’s Guard set off with the Chief Yeoman Warder to lock all the gates. “Halt! Who comes there?” the challenge goes from one sentry, to which the Chief Warder replies “The Keys”, “Whose keys?” asks the sentry, “Queen Elizabeth’s Keys” answers the Warder, the escort and the Chief Warder are then allowed to pass by as the sentry says “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys, and all is well”. This ceremony has happened every day for hundreds of years without fail.

One tradition, that seems much older than it probably is, relates to the ravens at the Tower. Superstition tells us that should “the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall”. Apparently the earliest reference to a raven at the Tower dates back to 1885 (not as old a tradition as I thought, but still more than 100 years). Today 7 ravens are kept, each having a wing clipped to prevent them from straying too far from their Tower home. One however, did make it as far as a pub in the East End in 1981! During World War II the raven population experience a sharp decline as all but one died from stress during the Blitz. There is even a tiny raven graveyard in the moat near the riverside exit.

There is far more history to be discovered at the Tower of London, in fact, there is more history per square inch here than probably anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The stories of those that came to the Tower via Traitor’s Gate, the Tudor cottages known as “the Queen’s House”, the Tower Green and its bloody history all beckon to be discovered. So, if you are in London for a visit, the Tower of London is an absolute must and is my favourite place in that great city.

img024_edited-1 img021_edited-1


Categories: British History | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Post navigation

8 thoughts on “The fortress, the prison, and the Crown Jewels – come and meet the Tower

  1. The Goons told me that Dartmoor Prison is a cardboard cutout! How do we know that these aren’t?


  2. Love your illustrated history!


  3. Tammy

    I always learn something new in your posts…thanks for sharing!


  4. Pingback: Windsor Castle – 1,000 years of history | My Journey

  5. Pingback: UNESCO World Heritage Sites – how many have you visited? | My Journey

  6. Pingback: Impressions of the Tower of London | My Journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: