The Tower of London

Aerial view of Tower of London

Aerial view of Tower of London

The Norman conquest of England in 1066 changed the face of England forever. The victorious invader William of Normandy would go on to become known as “The Conqueror”, to cement his power over the people of England, and to bring the people of London, the country’s most important city, to heel, he began to build fortresses up and down the country. The most famous of all of these is The Tower of London.

The great fortress had rather humble beginnings. Archaeological evidence suggests there was a timber Motte and Bailey castle built in the south-east corner of the Roman city walls, one of a number built by William after his coronation as part of his masterplan to ensure control of the city. This stronghold would eventually be replaced with a stone tower, named The White Tower. Construction of this tower was begun in 1078. William had entrusted the job of overseeing the building to the new Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf. Some of the stone used was imported from Normandy, and Norman masons were employed, labour was provided by Englishmen. William wanted this fortress to stamp his authority on the city, and it certainly did the job. The White Tower was completed in 1097, standing at approximately 118 feet tall and 90ft wide, nothing had ever been seen like this in England before, and its presence dominated the skyline for miles around. Sadly William died ten years before it was completed.

Although later used as a royal residence, the Tower was never intended for such purpose. This was a military stronghold to house men, provisions and horses, and as a retreat for the royal family in times of civil unrest. Protected by Roman walls on two sides and 25ft wide, 11ft deep ditches on the west and north sides, it was never designed as a first line of defence against invasion but it could certainly put up one hell of a fight if an invading army should attempt to come up the River Thames.

Later monarchs realised the potential as a military powerbase and updated and expanded the fortress, adding successive lines of fortification. These updates began under the reign of Richard I, The Lionheart, who almost immediately left England on crusade after his coronation, leaving his chancellor William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely in charge of the Tower. By 1191 Longchamp had doubled the fortress in size, by adding new defences, just in time for the Tower’s first test as a defensive fortress. In King Richard I’s absence his brother John, besieged the Tower in an attempt to overthrow the powerful Longchamp, the Tower’s defences held out, but lack of provisions left the Bishop no choice but surrender after just 3 days. When the same John became King in 1199, he frequently stayed at the Tower, and was probably the first person to keep lions and other animals housed within the Tower’s walls. It would continue to serve as a royal menagerie until 1834 when the animals housed there were transferred to create London Zoo. In 1210 King John ordered a moat to be dug around the outside of the city of London wall, this moat was successfully flooded with water from the Thames but not until 1236, under the reign of King Henry III, who also ordered ten new towers , gateways and drawbridges to further fortify the Tower.

Late 15th-century image - the earliest surviving non-schematic picture of the Tower of London.

Late 15th-century image – the earliest surviving non-schematic picture of the Tower of London.

Nowadays The Tower of London is mostly associated with being a prison and place of execution, although that was never its original purpose. The first state prisoner recorded as being housed in the Tower was Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, imprisoned in August 1100 by King Henry I on charges of embezzlement, Flambard would also go on to become the first prisoner to successfully escape from the Tower! Another daring escapee Prince Gruffydd, who was imprisoned between 1241 and 1244, fell to his death during his attempt.

Under the reign of King Edward I the Crown Jewels were moved from their previous home at Westminster Abbey, to the confines of the Tower, which still serves as a treasury to this day. A Royal Mint was also established, and would not leave until 1812. A Royal residence was added by King Henry VII in the late 15th century, and further buildings added by his son Henry VIII, although no longer visible today. By the 1700’s the Monarchy no longer used the Tower as state apartments. In 1653 in the wake of the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England and installed the first permanent garrison, and after the restoration of the monarchy the Tower became the headquarters of the Office of Ordnance, providing military supplies and equipment until 1855. The majority of building works by this point were maintenance of the existing towers and defences, although a new gateway and drawbridge were added in 1774 to give access to the wharf from the Outer Ward.

In 1845 the moat was drained under the orders of the Duke of Wellington, and on the 14th of June that year work was begun on the Waterloo Barracks. During the Second World War there was considerable bomb damage and a number of buildings inside the Tower of London were destroyed, including the 19th century North Bastion, which took a direct hit.

An engraving of the Tower of London in 1737 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck

An engraving of the Tower of London in 1737 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck

The expansion and fortification of the Tower has led to the large castle complex we see today. There are 21 different towers, including The White Tower, The Bloody Tower, Beauchamp Tower, Bell Tower, Bowyer Tower, Brick Tower, Broad Arrow Tower, Byward Tower, Constable Tower, Cradle Tower, Develin Tower, Deveraux Tower, Flint Tower, Lanthorn Tower, Martin Tower, Middle Tower, St Thomas’s Tower, Salt Tower, Wakefield Tower, Wardrobe Tower and the Well Tower. The structure also contains two chapels, The Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula, which houses the remains of some of the Tower’s famous prisoners, including two wives of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and The Chapel of St John the Evangelist, inside The White Tower.

Today the Tower of London is a successful tourist attraction. It is easy to see why with such a broad and interesting history. It is cared for by Historic Royal Palaces and is a World Heritage Site. The person in charge of England’s principal fortress is the Constable of the Tower, the first person to hold this honour, Geoffrey De Mandeville, was appointed by William the Conqueror in around 1068. The Constable of the Tower as of 2009 is General Richard Dannatt, estimated to be the 159th constable.

Caz