The Tower of London was built by William I to overawe and dominate the hostile populace. It evolved to become a bastion of Royal authority within the capital city. In its thousand year history it has witnessed the murder and incarceration of Kings, execution of Queens and became a prison infamous for torture.



The First Castles


London was founded by the Romans in the first century AD. By 1066 it was the economic heartland of England and the centre of Anglo-Saxon power. William, Duke of Normandy invaded in October of that year and, after defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, he advanced on London. Expecting to encounter significant resistance, he started constructing a series of castles to control the approaches into the city and also laid waste to the surrounding countryside as a demonstration of Norman power. The message was received for London's aldermen sent a delegation which submitted to William and invited him to become King. In advance of his arrival, William sent a force ahead of him to prepare a fortress within the town and this is probably when work started on the Tower of London.


William's coronation was held on Christmas Day 1066. The Normans were dubious about the Anglo-Saxon submission and William was surrounded by a large armed retinue. They were clearly nervous for they mistook the cheers of support within Westminster Abbey as an uprising and subsequently set the surrounding buildings on fire. William completed the coronation ceremony, allegedly shaking with fear, and afterwards made a hasty retreat to Barking Castle in Essex whilst his strongholds within London were prepared.


The Normans commenced construction of two castles within the City. The first of these was Baynard's Castle which was located on the waterfront near Blackfriars. The second fortification was the Tower of London which was built in the South East corner of the Roman Town Walls which had been built in AD 200 but were still substantially intact. The Roman fortifications provided the curtain wall for the new fortification on the south and east sides. The north and west were enclosed by a new ditch and wooden palisade. There was also a third fortification built - Montfichet's Tower - but the date is uncertain and may not have been part of the initial Norman defences. It was constructed at some point in the late eleventh century on Ludgate Hill within the perimeter of an old Roman Fort to control the access west over the River Fleet (then a substantial waterway).


The White Tower


Within a few years of William’s invasion, work had started on the White Tower. Under the direction of Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester forced English labour was drawn from the surrounding countryside and compelled to build the new structure. Caen stone was imported from Normandy to give the Tower a unique appearance and, whilst today it seems a relatively low structure compared to London's world famous skyline, in the eleventh century it stood tall above everything else. Due to its palatial function, the Tower had many windows - potentially making it a weak fortification against a well equipped army - but it was built to make a statement of power rather than actually repel an attack.

The White Tower was built by William I to dominate the London skyline.



The castle was expanded significantly during the reign of Richard I (the Lionheart). To cover his absence during his participation in the Third Crusade, Richard appointed William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely as Chancellor of England. William sought to make a clear statement about the continuity of Royal power, despite the absence of the King, and there was no more visible sign of this than expanding the Tower of London. The Roman Wall was retained on the south and east sides but the rest of the site was expanded. The Bell Tower was built and the entire site was enclosed with a stone wall. The upgrades were timely as Prince John (later King John) exploited his brother’s absence and attempted to seize the throne. He besieged the Tower and ultimately gained control of it due to a lack of supplies but his rebellion came to an end in 1194 when Richard returned.  Five years later Richard was killed and John became King. He seems to have been the first monarch to keep lions in the Tower.


The First Barons' War


John's reign was marred by the loss of all of his family's former continental possessions which in turn caused domestic strife as he quarrelled with his Barons. During this period London's other two castles - Baynard's and Montfichet's Tower - were both owned by senior magnates rather than by the Crown. The former was in the hands of Robert FitzWalter whilst the latter was the property of Robert Montfichet. Both rebelled against John and their London fortifications were burnt by the King in January 1213. John’s relationship with his Barons continued to deteriorate and when Magna Carta failed to secure a lasting settlement, the First Barons' War (1215-17) began.


Henry III


John's death at Newark Castle in October 1216 took the impetus out of the war as few of the Barons had any issues with his nine year old successor, Henry III. Nevertheless during the course of his reign, the relations with the senior Barons continued to be turbulent. Henry sought shelter in the Tower in 1238 and noticed the weakness of the defences. This prompted a major building programme which extended the curtain wall in all directions bar the south (which was confined by the River Thames). Nine new towers were added to this defensive wall and a water filled moat was dug around the perimeter by John Le Fossur, a Flemish engineer. To the delight of Londoners, who were alarmed at this massive expansion of the Tower, the new gatehouse collapsed shortly after being built.


Edward I


After the reigns of John and Henry III, the English monarchy had been severely weakened. However, in 1272 Edward I succeeded to the throne. He had already forged a credible military record due to his victory against the rebel Barons at the Battle of Evesham (1265) and during a crusade. His reign was characterised by restoring the power and credibility of the monarchy. Whereas his father had expanded the Tower to provide a safe haven, Edward I wanted to make a statement of his power. Henry's expanded curtain wall now became an inner defence as John Le Fossur's moat was filled in and a new curtain wall built expanding the perimeter of the castle even further. A new moat, larger than before, was dug and successfully flooded. An elaborate half moon barbican was built to control access and would later host the Tower's zoo.

The barbican at Goodrich Castle. The (now demolished) structure at the Tower of London was probably very similar.

A Royal Prison


The Tower had long been used as a prison but during the reign of Edward III (1327-77) it held a number of important prisoners. In 1346, in support of the French who were suffering from the English King's continental campaign, David II of Scotland invaded Northern England. However, he was defeated at the Battle of Neville's Cross in October the same year and taken into English captivity. Greater still was the victory at Battle of Poiters in 1356. Here Edward, (Black) Prince of Wales led his forces to victory and captured King John II of France. Both of these monarchs were held in castles across southern England - John's residences included Windsor and Berkhamsted whilst David stayed at Windsor and Oldiham Castles - but for ceremonial purposes both Kings were periodically paraded at the Tower of London.


The Peasant's Revolt


The Black Death had struck England in the 1340s and had decimated the population causing a myriad of social and economic issues. The legacy of this, coupled with high taxation to fund the war in France, led to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. On 14 June of that year, after the rioters had rampaged through the City of London, the fourteen year old King Richard II rode out to meet them. The gates of the Tower were not secured behind him and a mob, around 400 strong, stormed the stronghold. The garrison was not harmed but the rebels sought out the leaders of Richard's Government. Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury was dragged from the White Tower's chapel, taken to Tower Hill and beheaded. The young Henry Bolingbroke, whose father (John of Gaunt) was one of the rebel's key targets, was saved when a soldier hid him in a wardrobe. Whilst the rebellion would be defused by the actions of the young King, he perhaps had reason to regret the survival of his cousin Henry; in 1399 Bolingbroke overthrew Richard II and briefly held him at the Tower, where he was compelled to abdicate. Richard was later taken to Pontefract Castle where he was murdered.


Wars of the Roses


The weak and ineffective rule of Henry VI, third Lancastrian King, led to the ambitious Richard, Duke of York to make a bid for the throne. Whilst he was killed at the Battle of Wakefield (1460) his son - Edward, Earl of March - continued the challenge and successfully defeated the Lancastrians at the battles of Mortimer's Cross and Towton in 1461. Edward becoming King (Edward IV) and, although Henry VI escaped, he was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tower. He was briefly restored in 1470 but the defeat of the Lancastrians at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury saw Edward IV re-claim his throne. At Tewkesbury Henry's son - Edward, Prince of Wales - was killed meaning there was no benefit in keeping the old King alive. Henry VI was murdered within the Tower allegedly whilst at prayer.


The death of Henry VI was not the only Royal murder during this bitter Civil War. In 1483 Edward IV died leaving his 12 year old son, Edward V, to succeed him under the protection of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. However, Richard had designs on the throne himself and declared the boy King and his nine year old brother as illegitimate. The disinherited boys were held in the Tower and disappeared from history, their fates unknown but probably murdered. In 1674, during repair work in the Tower of London, the skeletons of two boys were found in the White Tower and are presumed to be the Princes in the Tower.

The 'Princes in the Tower' were accommodated and possibly murdered in the Bloody Tower.

The Tudors


The victory of Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) heralded the start of the Tudor era. Henry added some Royal residential buildings at the Tower and his son, Henry VIII, made somewhat grander additions. Nevertheless, it was during the Tudor era that the Tower acquired it notorious reputation as a prison and place of torture. From 1533 onwards, England was in the grip of the religious changes of the Reformation with many non-conformists persecuted. In particular Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher were both imprisoned here before their executions as were two of the King's six wives - Anne Boleyn (1536) and Catherine Howard (1542). When Mary I came to the throne and attempted to revert the country to Catholicism, numerous Protestants were held at the Tower including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I). Despite her own experience, Elizabeth continued to use the Tower as a political prison as did James I. Guy Fawkes was held and tortured at the Tower during the latter’s reign.


The Civil War and Restoration


During the Civil War London supported Parliament and the Tower, along with its arsenal of gunpowder and artillery, was soon in their hands. It played no  further part in the conflict but during the Commonwealth, the first permanent garrison was installed in the castle. However, after the restoration of Charles II, the Tower's use as a prison declined when it simply became a munitions store.




A purpose built barracks was built within the Tower's Inner Bailey in 1841 (which now houses the Crown Jewels) and at this time the moat, which was increasingly silting up, was drained and converted to a dry ditch. However, although the garrison was maintained - and was used against the public in the Chartist riots of the 1840s - the site was becoming more of historical interest than military use. As early as 1838 tickets were being sold to tourists and by 1901 over half a million people were visiting each year.


World Wars


The Tower's role as a prison and place of execution was resurrected during both World Wars. Between 1914 and 1916 several spies were held there and some executed including Franz Buschmann. Likewise during World War II, Josef Jakobs was shot by firing squad within the castle's precincts. Rudolf Hess, Hitler's Deputy Fuhrer, was briefly held at the Tower and became one of its final prisoners.





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What's There?

The Tower of London is a major tourist attraction and incorporates a number of different museums including the Crown Jewels. Note that some quite significant areas, such as the Queen’s House (where Guy Fawkes was interrogated), are not open to the public.

Tower of London Layout. The complex started as a small enclosure within a corner of the Roman walls. It was expanded significantly during the reigns of Richard I, Henry III and Edward I.

White Tower. The White Tower was built by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester between 1075 and 1079. The elaborate structure was intended to serve as an occasional Royal residence and accordingly was equipped with halls and chambers for governmental and ceremonial functions. Stone sourced from Caen in Normandy gave the structure its white appearance.

Middle and Byward Towers. These two towers were added by Edward I during his major upgrades to the castle. The former was so called because it was positioned after a semi-circular barbican (now destroyed).

Legge's Mount. An artillery bastion added by Edward I. It was originally fronted by a wet moat.

St Thomas Tower and Traitor's Gate. St Thomas Tower (left) was built directly over the watergate (Right). The latter is more famously known as Traitor’s Gate. In reality many visitors, prisoners or otherwise, used the entrance as the river was the primary means of transport through London.

South and Eastern Curtain Wall. The Devlin Tower can be seen in the centre with Well and Cradle Towers visible to the left. Constable's Tower is to the far right. This entire section of the curtain wall was built by Edward I.

Bloody Tower. The Princes in the Tower were accommodated in this tower and it is allegedly where they were murdered.

Governor's House. Guy Fawkes was interrogated and tortured within the Governor's House. There is no public access.

Waterloo Barracks. A purpose built barracks was built within the Tower's Inner Bailey in 1841. it now houses the Crown Jewels.

Getting There

The Tower of London is located adjacent to Tower Bridge. The use of public transport is strongly recommended. The Tower is in the immediate vicinity of Tower Hill Underground Station.

Tower of London


51.5080N 0.0787W