Tower of London

Tower of London

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The Tower of London is a castle located in London alongside the River Thames which was first built by William the Conqueror from c. Often referred to in England as simply 'the Tower', it has served as a fortress, palace, prison, treasury, arsenal, and zoo.

A castle with the darkest of reputations, fallen kings, queens, and traitors were amongst those sent to the Tower, although surprisingly few inmates were executed within the castle's grounds. Today, it is a major tourist attraction with visitors eager to experience for themselves a place steeped in the history of England like no other, to admire the picturesque Beefeaters, and be dazzled by the fabulous Crown Jewels.

The White Tower

When William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and embarked on the Norman Conquest of England, the new king sought to make his realm secure by building motte and bailey castles at strategically important locations. London was an obvious choice for a new castle and so work began on what would become the Tower of London around 1077. The castle was one of the first in England to have a free-standing tower keep or donjon. Work continued until c. 1100 using Kentish ragstone with details using dressed limestone from Caen in Normandy, and by the time it was finished, the two-storey rectangular tower was so impressive it gave its name to the whole castle: the Tower of London. The keep only received its now-famous name, the White Tower, thanks to a whitewashing project in 1240 using white lime.

The castle was rather more than the White Tower, though, as it was surrounded by a curtain wall with corner towers.

The tower measures 36 x 32.5 metres (118 x 106 ft.) and is 27.5 metres (90 ft.) tall. Access was via a wooden staircase on the south side that reached to the first floor - this was protected by a short tower in the 12th century (destroyed in 1674). The first floor and the second were divided into unequally sized halls by a central cross-wall. It is not clear what these chambers were used for, and there is no record of William ever staying in the castle so perhaps it was originally intended as a showpiece of Norman power. A spiral staircase gave access to the upper floors, and a basement, likely used for storage, had access to a well. Chambers, toilets, fireplaces, chimneys, and drains were cut into the tower's thick walls. The tower had a sloping roof on either side of the cross-wall, and the top floor contained the chapel of Saint John the Baptist; its apse gives the tower its curved eastern corner. Inside, the chapel has an arcade of thick arch-bearing columns, a barrel vault ceiling and a gallery running around the sides. Three stained glass windows showing the Virgin and Christ child were added around 1240.

The castle was rather more than the tower, though, as it was surrounded by a curtain wall with corner towers. Two sides of this wall utilised old Roman walls which had been repaired by the Anglo-Saxons - probably the principal reason why William choose the site in the first place. The castle was given a protective ditch and a wood and earth palisade on two sides while the river protected the other two. In 1097 William Rufus converted the palisade curtain wall into stonework. The main entrance to the castle was on the west (city) side and protected by an elaborate barbican fortification. The structure, built at a 90-degree angle to the entrance for extra security, became known as the Lion Tower.

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Multi-Purpose Home of the Monarch

English monarchs used the tower as an occasional residence up to and including Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547), and many of them made important additions and improvements over the centuries. In the 12th century, the massive polygonal Bell Tower (c. 1190-1200) was added to the southwest corner of the curtain wall, a tidal moat was dug (50 metres / 160 ft. wide), and the wall was extended on the south side so that more money was spent on the complex than any other English castle except Dover. Henry III of England (r. 1216-1272) paid particular attention to the apartments within the castle and even established a small zoo (although King John, r. 1199-1216, may have been the first to keep exotic pets here). Leopards, lions, an elephant and even a polar bear were all resident at one time or another, usually diplomatic gifts, and the Tower Menagerie only closed down in 1835. Another curiosity of the 12th century was the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket (r. 1162-1170) doing a stint as the castle's constable in the 1150s.

The Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower were added during the reign of Henry III of England (1216-1272), as were three D-shaped towers on the east side and three on the northern side of the curtain wall. In addition, the free-standing Great Hall was rebuilt (now gone), which measured 24 x 15 metres (80 x 50 ft.). Generally, though, the 13th century CE saw a trend towards increasing comfort rather than military security of castles. In 1240 an order stipulated for the

queen's chamber to be wainscoted…and to be painted with roses…a wall to be made in the manner of panelling between the said chamber and the wardrobe of the chamber [and] to be tiled outside.

(quoted in Pounds, 83).

Meanwhile, the king's chamber was painted with the royal arms and a turret added to the corner to act as a drain directly into the Thames after complaints from Henry III about the smell of the previous ensuite toilet. Another of Henry's projects was the almost complete rebuilding of the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula in the northwest corner of the bailey.

The Tower was becoming multi-purpose, too. First, Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307), finally achieved the castle's permanent layout by completing the now double-circuit wall on the three land sides and adding the watergate structure known as Saint Thomas' Tower. The latter was used as the royal chambers and stood over the entrance that state prisoners were escorted through direct from the river: Traitor's Gate. Next, Edward moved one of the royal treasuries to the castle and made it the home of a royal archive (eventually settled in the Wakefield Tower) and the kingdom's main mint (in a row of little workshops with 30 furnaces known as Mint Street). Henceforth, the Tower also became England's main arsenal (where siege weapons, arms and armour of all kinds were made and stored). For greater security for all these valuable assets, Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377) ordered that all guards and officers remain within the castle at night with all gates being locked from sunset to sunrise.

During the reign of Richard II of England (r. 1377-1399), the basement was reinforced to bear the extra weight of the heavy guns stationed on the roof, some of which weighed 600 lbs (c. 270 kg). Also in this period, there was another 'before-they-were-famous' attachment with the Tower when Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) acted as the Clerk of Works before he established himself as one of medieval literature's most celebrated poets. From 1377 to 1661 the Tower even got a look-in on pomp and ceremony and hosted the start of a vigil procession on the eve of coronations. The soon-to-be new monarch traditionally spent the night in the castle before being crowned in Westminster Abbey. The royal robes worn in these ceremonies, along with many other precious textiles like tapestries, were all kept in the Tower Wardrobe. In the 1490s, a third floor was inserted into the tower, resizing those below, as indicated by still visible marks on the walls of the original roof eaves.

Famous Prisoners

One important function of the Tower was as a prison. A history of the inmates is like reading through a who's who of the history of England with many famous names ending up in the castle, some to be finally released and others to be executed - although only seven people were executed within the castle prior to the 20th century (most executions took place elsewhere such as Tyburn).

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England & second wife of Henry VIII, was kept in the tower on charges of adultery & treason.

Oddly, there were no purpose-built cells prior to 1695, rather, prisoners were put in whatever chambers were available. People were most often imprisoned for political or religious reasons and so they tended to be important people fallen from grace. The accommodation might not have been so bad but confessions were frequently extracted by torture. This was the case with Guy Fawkes of the failed Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, whose shaky confession-statement signature indicates his 10-day torment following his capture on 5 November 1605. Torture was rare but when it was used, the preferred methods were hanging the victims by their wrists, stretching them out on a rack or slowly crushing bones in the device known as the 'Scavenger's daughter.'

Henry VI of England (r. 1422-1461 and 1470-1471) was imprisoned in the tower for nine years during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) until he was saved by a Lancastrian army. This was to be only a temporary reprieve though, as a Yorkist army put Edward IV of England (r. 1461-1470 and 1471-1483) back on the throne and Henry found himself once more in his old prison, where, a month or so later, he was most likely murdered.

When Edward IV died in 1483, the Tower received two if its most infamous prisoners: the young sons of the dead king, Edward and Richard, known as the 'Princes in the Tower.' They were put their by Richard of Gloucester as he made himself king Richard III (r. 1483-1485) and within two months both princes were murdered with everyone, including Shakespeare in his play Richard III, pointing a finger of accusation at the usurper king. Two skeletons of youths were discovered near the White Tower when the forebuilding was demolished in 1674 and these remains, identified then as the two princes, were reinterred in Westminster Abbey. The remains were re-examined in 1933 and confirmed as young males of similar age to the princes.

Sir Thomas More (b. 1478), an opponent of the Protestant Reformation who refused to swear an oath recognising the king's supremacy as head of the church, was a prisoner of the Tower in 1534 until his trial and execution on 6 July 1535. He would later be made a saint by the Catholic church.

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England (r. 1533-1536) and second wife of Henry VIII of England, was kept in the Tower on charges of adultery and plotting to poison her husband, which she denied. Anne, whose real 'crime' was not giving Henry a male heir, was executed on the castle's lawn, the Tower Green, in May 1536, meeting her unjust death with great dignity. Catherine Howard (b. c. 1520), Henry's fifth wife, would meet exactly the same fate in 1542. Even Henry's daughter Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), while still only a princess, was sent to the Tower for a couple of months in 1554 by her suspicious sister Queen Mary I of England (r. 1553-1558).

The adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh found himself put in the Tower three times - once for marrying a lady without the queen's permission, then for plotting against James I (r. 1603-1625), and finally for violating a treaty with Spain while he was searching for El Dorado in South America. He at least was accompanied by his family in his confinement and found time to write poetry over the next 14 years until his execution in 1618.

The Tower did not always keep a hold of its prisoners; 37 got away, even if freedom was sometimes only temporary. One success was Roger de Mortimer (1287-1330) who had served as the king's lieutenant in Ireland but got on the wrong side of Edward II of England (r. 1307-1327). Imprisoned in the Tower, he had an ally drug the guards, allowing him to escape using a rope ladder and flee to France in August 1324. Roger would return and rule as regent of England but was eventually hanged by Edward III in 1330. Then there was the Jacobite Lord Nithsdale who gained his freedom in 1716 dressed in his wife's clothes and makeup. These examples show that prisoners were often confined within the vast castle grounds and not any particular part of it. However, escapes did not go without consequences, as when Ranulf Flambard (c. 1060-1128), the former Bishop of Durham, first wined and dined his captors and then escaped by climbing down a rope hung from a window; the constable of the castle was consequently stripped of one-third his lands by Henry I of England (r. 1100-1135) as punishment for his neglect.

Post-Medieval History

From the 16th century onwards the Tower was less of a royal residence - monarchs preferring Westminster - and became merely an armoury, barracks, storehouse (especially of gunpowder) and, as we have seen during the reigns of the ruthless Tudors, a (sometimes) terrible prison. The complex did continue to receive new buildings for various purposes, usually connected to the manufacture, testing, and storage of arms. These included the Grand Storehouse, completed in 1692. Indeed, the castle was becoming so packed with materials of war that the buildings were literally bursting. The flooring of the top floor of the White Tower collapsed under the weight of 2000 barrels of gunpowder in 1691; fortunately, no explosion ensued.

Despite its military redundancy as a fortress and the ravages of time, the castle would become one of the most glamorous weapons and treasure stores in history and, as time went on, it began to attract public visits for pleasure. In 1506 a garden was added. From the 1660s, the Crown Jewels were put on display in the Tower for the paying public to admire (see below). In the same century, the Armouries Building was added and the White Tower received its present turret roofs, new window surrounds and doorways. Fortunately, the Great Fire of London in September 1666 spared the castle. Great names continued to weave their way into the castle's history. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), for example, served as Warden of the Tower Mint in 1696 and was then the Mint Master for 28 years. In 1700 large windows in the White Tower replaced the smaller old ones as defence was no longer a necessary consideration.

In the 19th century, the Tower became a major military headquarters with a large garrison and the Waterloo Barracks added in 1845, which is today the headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Occasional fires took their toll on specific buildings such as the one that destroyed the Grand Storehouse in 1841 and several outer buildings were damaged by bombs during the Second World War (1939-1945). The castle, though, has continued to evolve with additions, demolitions, and restorations right up to the present day, largely in an effort to restore the castle to its medieval appearance.

The castle continued to be used as a prison into the early 19th century, with even unruly members of parliament not immune to incarceration. Even in the 20th century, important captives found themselves here. One of the last such inmates was Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler's deputy, who spent four days there in 1941.

Beefeaters, Ravens, & the Crown Jewels

The royal bodyguard, officially known as the Yeomen of the Guard (and by everyone else as the Beefeaters since at least 1700), were charged with guarding the Tower and its occupants from an unknown date sometime in the 15th century. The Yeoman Warders still patrol today - and act as tourist guides - wearing their striking red Tudor livery. As distinctive a presence on the grounds as the Beefeaters are the ravens. It is not known when these birds first arrived, but a legend goes that as long as they remain, the kingdom will endure. There was a very close call during the Second World War when bombing killed all but one of them. Fortunately, Gyp the sole survivor carried on the tradition, and they can still be seen today wandering across the lawns with that certain aloofness which comes with protected residency.

Today the Tower hosts displays from the Royal Armouries and, of course, the Crown Jewels. The imperial regalia, various items of which are still used in coronation and state ceremonies, includes crowns, rods, sceptres, swords, rings, orbs and a pair of spurs. Unfortunately, much of the original regalia was sold off and destroyed in 1649 following the execution of Charles I of England (r. 1600-1649) and the (what turned out to be) temporary abolishment of the monarchy. However, the replacements are impressive and many of them include recycled elements from regalia dating back to the 11th century.

Some of the largest and most famous gemstones in the world are found in the Crown Jewels such as the massive 530-carat Cullinan I diamond, also known as the Star of Africa, sparkling at the top of the King's Sceptre and the Black Prince's ruby (actually a balas or spinel), now in the centre of the Imperial State Crown worn by Elizabeth II at her coronation in 1953. This crown also boasts the Cullinan II diamond in it as well as the Stuart Sapphire, Saint Edward's Sapphire, over 2,800 diamonds, 15 more sapphires, 11 emeralds, four rubies, and even Elizabeth I's pearl earrings. The 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond from India has appeared in several crowns but now rests in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Visitors today can admire these treasures in the Jewel House inside the Waterloo Barracks and stand on a moving walkway which, somewhat tantalisingly, transports them gently past the glittering glass display cases.

We're finding out all about royal palaces with Historic Royal Palaces

Now the Tower of London is quite old. In fact, parts of the tower are very old indeed – much older than my Gran’s Gran… and her Gran before her!

More to click.

The Tower’s been around since Roman times and has seen many changes over the years. Here’s some handy history facts!

Roman Origins

The Tower dates back to AD 200 – that’s Roman times, when the original structure was built at the corner of a wall around Londinium. The line of this wall is still visible within the Tower site on the east of the White Tower and parts of the wall are visible by the Ravens shop.

William the Conqueror

After the successful Norman invasion in 1066, William the Conqueror (1066-1087) set about building his capital and the Tower was one of three fortifications which controlled and protected the eastern entry to the City from the river, as well as serving as his palace.

Work on the White Tower began in around 1078 and they say took 25 years to complete. It was one of the first great stone towers to be built in Britain and the tallest tower in the country.

Medieval Times

During the reigns of Richard I (1189-1199) and Henry III (1216-1272), the Tower was strengthened by the addition of a curtain wall surrounding the keep. Henry III’s son Edward I (1272-1307) built a second curtain wall, which was surrounded by a moat (which is today drained and now a great grass area).

By the end of the 14th century, Richard III (1377-1399) had completed building a wharf separating the outer wall from the river. Apart from some later minor changes, his fortress is the one we see today.

The Tudors

During Henry VIII’s long reign (1509-1547), how the Tower was used changed as the Tudor dynasty grew. Royal palaces were no longer used as defensive strongholds and became residences to show off the monarch’s wealth and power. Henry spent lots of money on improvements to the Tower for the splendour of Anne Boleyn’s coronation.

Because of its strong defences, the Tower was the perfect home for the London Mint and a great place to keep important prisoners. During the Tudor period, famous prisoners included Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and Walter Raleigh, as well as a young Princess Elizabeth (who later became Elizabeth I).

People sometimes think of executions at the Tower but only 7people were executed within the Tower. Most were executed outside the Tower on Tower Hill.

The Stuarts

The 17th century was a topsy turvy time for Britain with a civil war and many political changes. During the reign of King James 1 (1603-1621), the failed gunpowder plotter, Guy Fawkes, was imprisoned, interrogated (in the Queen’s House) and tortured at the Tower.

After the Civil War (1642–1651), Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector, ordered the original crown jewels to be melted down during the 1650s, possibly within the Mint itself! After the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II (1660-1685) had the Crown jewels remade.

During the Stuart period, the Tower was used as a prison and storehouse for munitions, as well as for the Royal Mint.

Victorian era

During the Victorian period leisure time for workers increased and so the Tower began to see more visitors. The White Tower also became home to some important government departments during Victoria’s reign, including the Public Records Office and the Board of Ordnance (which controlled supplies to the army and navy).

20th Century

During the Second World War, parts of the Tower were destroyed by bombing, including part of a building used by the Royal Mint and the Main Guard.

War Prisoners, including the German deputy leader, Rudolph Hess, were kept as prisoners in the Tower.

Prisoners and Executions at The Tower of London

The first prisoner known to have been held at the Tower was Ranulph Flambard in 1100, and the Tower of London went on to house many notorious traitors and powerful political prisoners. Most of the prisoners were executed just outside of the Tower on Tower Hill, in full view of a large crowd. Noble prisoners were generally beheaded, but those of the lower classes who were unfortunate enough to be condemned for treason were hung, drawn and quatered. This barbaric form of execution was not abolished in Great Britain until 1821 and was last carried out in 1753. It should also be remembered that until the 19 th century, executions were regarded as a public entertainment and large crowds would gather to enjoy the spectacle. Some of the most famous executions however took place within the walls of the fortress, on Tower Green, but even then there would have been many official onlookers gathered around the scaffold.

Many of the prisoners who were executed within the Tower itself or on Tower Hill were buried beneath the flagstones in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, and around 1500 bodies were discovered there during excavations undertaken in the time of Queen Victoria. It is believed that the headless corpses were covered in quicklime to make them decay faster and it was common practice to parboil the heads and then display them on spikes on London Bridge as a warning to any who were considering opposing the might of the crown of England.

Tower Green and the Beauchamp Tower

Life with the lions: the Tower of London menagerie

To the people of London in 1252, a giant white bear must have been an unusual sight. The animal was a gift from the king of Norway to Henry III, and as such he was placed in the Tower of London menagerie that had been established to contain royal beasts by Henry’s predecessor, King John.

The bear was not always to be found in the menagerie, however. He had arrived in London with instructions that he be allowed to swim in the Thames while attached to a long cord. At this time the river was well stocked with fish and the likely intention was that the Arctic visitor could sustain himself with the bounty in the waters.

In the medieval period and beyond, the feeding of animals at the menagerie was something of a haphazard process. Without modern zoological knowledge, there was no guarantee that the inhabitants would receive the required nutrients and myths abounded about what they could and couldn’t eat. There was, for example, a popular misconception that ostriches could digest iron nails. In the 1750s one unfortunate bird died after consuming a nail (most likely thrown by a visitor) “that stopt its passage”.

The lion that killed the queen

Although a wide range of animals made their home at the Tower, it was always the lions that the menagerie was best known for. Representing one of England’s national symbols, the lions were, in the words of exhibition curator Dr Sally Dixon-Smith “a kind of living heraldry”.

They were closely connected with royalty as well, to the extent that lions were often named after the reigning king or queen of the period. A legend even arose that when the namesake beast expired then the days of the monarch were numbered. So when Elizabeth I the lion died in 1603, its keepers would not have been unduly surprised that the Virgin Queen herself passed away shortly afterwards.

Another legend was that the animals would become agitated if a woman came close by who wasn’t a virgin. This surfaced in Tobias Smollett’s 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker where a servant, Win Jenkins, was disconcerted to see one of the Tower’s animals “roaring and bouncing” when her mistress walked up to it. Convinced that “my lady is as good a firchin, as the child unborn”, Jenkins determined that “the lion oft to be set in the stocks for bearing false witness”.

The badly behaved leopards

The menagerie was a popular visitor attraction ever since John II of France slipped a keeper three gold coins to see the lions while detained in the Tower in 1360. People came in their droves to see the beasts but, unlike visitors to modern zoos, they did so at no little risk.

Leopards seemed to be among the most frequent miscreants. Diarist Ned Ward recalled in 1699 how a leopard “loves not to be looked at” and would be liable to “piss on you”, if you came too close, with urine that “stinks worse than a polecat’s”. An 1829 book on the menagerie complained that one female leopard had “always evinced a particular predilection for the destruction of umbrellas, parasols, muffs, hats, and such other articles of dress as may happen to come within her reach”.

Some incidents were of a much graver nature. In 1830 a man called Joseph Croney had been hired to remove unwanted bones from the menagerie. One Saturday he was at work when a leopard escaped from its den and flung itself upon him.

The Times reported: “The poor fellow shrieked out in the most excruciating pain, and expected nothing but instant destruction.” Fortunately a couple of keepers heard Croney’s cries and came to his assistance, beating the leopard over its head until it relinquished its victim. Croney was taken to a surgeon and it was reported that despite being in “excessive agony”, he was “considered to be doing well”.

The tigers that fought a lion

While the tower’s inhabitants could be a danger to keepers and the public, they also posed a risk to each other. During the reign of James VI and I, this was actively encouraged, with regular displays of lions being baited by dogs, bears, bulls and other ferocious beasts. The king even had a viewing platform installed to watch these blood sports.

Yet there were also occasions when animals accidentally came into contact with different species. Here too the consequences were predictably violent. In 1828 a secretary bird was left without a head after coming too close to a hyena, but the most shocking incident occurred a couple of years later when a keeper accidentally removed the barrier between a lion and two tigers.

Tigers, who had a long history at the Tower, were often given decidedly unthreatening names such as Will, Dick and Phillis. However when it came to a fight, even the king of beasts stood little chance. A contemporary wrote that “the various agitation, the roaring, howling, and shrieking, the signs of fierceness and horror of the other inmates of the Tower… surpassed all description”. The animals were eventually prised apart, by which point the lion had been fatally wounded.

The grizzly bear that outlived the menagerie

One of the most celebrated inhabitants of the early 19th-century menagerie was Martin, a grizzly bear presented to George III by the Hudson Bay Company in 1811. He arrived at a time when the menagerie was undergoing a period of decline but its fortunes were soon reinvigorated by an energetic new keeper, Alfred Cops, who was appointed in 1822.

Under Cops’s auspices, the collection of animals was greatly increased so that by 1828 it included three kangaroos, an African porcupine and over 100 rattlesnakes, among other creatures. The grizzly was still there, now going by the name of Old Martin. An observer related: “His size is far superior to that of any other bear that has ever been seen in this quarter of the globe and his ferocity, in spite of the length of time during which he has been a prisoner, and of all the attempts that have been made to conciliate him, still continues undiminished.”

Yet the menagerie’s heyday would be short-lived. The Duke of Wellington had been made constable of the Tower in 1826 and he feared that the wild animals were impeding the fortress’s military functions. Furthermore, the Iron Duke was an inaugural member of the London Zoological Society, which had very different views about the way animals should be studied and displayed. William IV had little interest in the menagerie and was happy to allow Wellington to dismantle the centuries-old institution.

So it was that the royal beasts were transferred to the new London Zoo in 1831 and 1832, leaving a few of Cops’s own animals at the Tower until they too were removed three years later. Old Martin outlasted both the Tower menagerie and William IV, finally dying in London Zoo in 1838.

Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine.

The Royal Menagerie is Opened to the Public

In its early days the royal menagerie was the private attraction of the king and his favoured courtiers, but during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I it was opened to the public, who had to pay three half pence for a ticket or supply a cat or dog to be fed to the big cats.

Lots of dog skulls were also excavated alongside the two lion skulls, testimony to the cruel sport of lion and bear baiting by dogs that was so popular in those days.

By the 16 th century the wild animal collection has also expanded to include a tiger, a lynx, a wolf, a porcupine and an eagle. King James I showed an especial interest in his royal menagerie and added a flying squirrel from the American Colony of Virginia, five camels and an elephant.

King James’s biggest interest was the Tower of London’s lions. He even had a special feed bottle with a teat made so that some orphaned lion cubs could be fed and he also had an exercise yard created for them in the Tower’s moat in the vicinity of the Lion Tower.

The Keeper of the Tower’s animals was also well looked after, as in 1672 the great Christopher Wren was set to designing a new Lion House, which the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie was allowed to use as a home for life.

5. Subaltern, escaped 1916

In 1916, a young officer was brought to the Tower and accommodated somewhere in the East Casemates. Unlike the POWs of the time, the man’s charges related to being unable to honour his cheques due to insufficient funds in his account.

The man was clearly attentive to everything around him, as was proved when he nonchalantly passed the distracted guard outside his quarters and marched through the main gate, honoured with the salutes of unsuspecting personnel.

Catching the Underground, the mystery man subsequently dined sumptuously in the West End, paying for his dinner with another fraudulent cheque.

Curiously, he decided to return to the Tower, discovering his actions had caused considerable consternation. Of his background, nothing is known. The only reference concerning the man is Subaltern.

John Paul Davis is the international bestselling author of 10 thriller novels and three historical biographies. A Hidden History of the Tower of London is his first book for Pen & Sword.

If you enjoyed this article, you can find more of John’s favourite escapes here.

Tower of London Prison Facts

Tower of London is a historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames in central London that was used as a prison from 12th to 20th century. During this time, this historic structure gained great notoriety in the English nation, symbolizing oppression enforced by the wealthy class and the ruling place of the entire country. Inside of its walls many famous people served their sentences, some rightfully and some imprisoned because of their political and religious beliefs. Although popular culture describes this prison as a place of death and torture, only seven people were executed in it before the start of the Second World War. However, almost all prisoners that waited for their death sentence in Tower of London were not executed there, but in the nearby notorious Tower Hill to the north of the castle (record show that over 110 people were executed there over 400 year period).

Tower of London is a complex of several buildings, arranged inside of two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. It was built by the William the Conqueror in 1078, and since then it has received several upgrades and expansions - mostly by the Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. Current look of the structure was finalized in late 13 century, and since then it remained almost unchanged (Tower received damage during the WW2 Blitz, but it was repaired).

During its long history Tower of London served several purposes. In addition of being prison, it also hosted an armory, treasury, menagerie, coin minting factory, and of course as a royal residence. The peak usage of this structure as a prison happened in 16th and 17th century, when many prominent figures fell from the courts grace and found themselves imprisoned in the tower. As the centuries went on, Tower of London continued to change its purpose, but its use as prison always came back. During the time of First and Second World War, Tower was again repurposed to be prison and 12 men were executed for espionage.

After the end of the Second World War, Tower of London was repaired from the damage it sustained during the Blitz and was opened to the public. Today, this historic castle represents one of the most popular tourist attractions in the England. Tourists from all around the world come to this place to witness themselves halls where many famous people were imprisoned (Sir Thomas More, King Henry VI, Rudolph Hess and the wives of the of King Henry VIII) and try to find the see some of the medieval ghost that according to many still haunt this ancient prison.

The crypt

Inside the Tower’s crypt lie more pieces of the Tower’s history, including a record of the births, deaths and marriages of people involved with the Tower of London dating back to the 16th century.

McGowran knows this side of the chapel well: “I used to be the chapel archivist and families all over the world get in contact for information about ancestors at the Tower. I had to learn Old English to find some of it,” he says.

The crypt, like More’s cell, is kept out of sight from the general public. “This is one of the oldest parts of the Tower. It’s a really protected space. For a while you couldn’t make more than a pin-hole in the walls,” says McGowran. Luckily, some restrictions have been lifted, meaning McGowran and his colleagues could mount plaques honouring people who lived at the Tower, voluntarily or otherwise.

If the wealth of knowledge proffered by Chief Warder McGowran is any indication, guided tours are a must for visitors to the Tower of London. Whether it’s the macabre wall etchings of Tudor prisoners, the superstition-cloaked ravens or the glittering Crown Jewels, you’ll easily find something to capture your imagination here. After all, the Tower still manages to inspire those who have lived within its walls for many years.


elaine on August 01, 2018:

my grandson wants to know whether any apparitions have been reported and where have the most claims of seeing or hearing ghosts

elaine on August 01, 2018:

what type of ghostly spirits are there my grandson is very interested in the paranormal and would like to have and have a look around one day

Gloria Caires on May 22, 2018:

I was at the Tower of London in September 2016. I had visited in 2005 as well. Both times I got an overwhelming feeling that took my breath away in Wakefield Tower in same spot. My daughter-in-law was with me in 2016 and felt it too. I took a picture in 2005 and again 2016. The picture I took in 2016 has a face, looks like an old man with a beard and on the doorway it looks like someone ( a knight) standing.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on November 07, 2011:

Keep that hub traffic rolling Habee and then you will be able to come to London, and I will show you around the Tower. These days they let us back out again! Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment

Holle Abee from Georgia on November 07, 2011:

Awesome! I hope to see the Tower of London before I die. voted up!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 30, 2010:

Glad you enjoyed the ghosts of the Tower of London MaryRenee. Luckily in Britain we have plenty of history and pleanty of hauntings - lots more to write about!

MaryRenee on May 30, 2010:

wonderful hub! History & Hauntings, what could be better to read about? :)

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 28, 2010:

Glad you enjoyed reading about the hauntings in the Tower of London, katiem2, it was a wonderfully spooky topic to write about

Katie McMurray from Ohio on May 27, 2010:

What a pleasure to read about such an interesting topic. Well done! Peace : )

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 13, 2010:

Thanks esatchel, glad that you enjoyed reading about the hauntings in the Tower of London. There are probably so many ghosts because so much human suffering and misery was concentrated in one small area

PDGreenwell from Kentucky on May 12, 2010:

A great deal of unhappiness certainly occurred within the Tower walls. I have always had a great crush on British history, as well as Britain&aposs ghosts. This was an enjoyable read. Thank you for this well written and interesting hub.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 07, 2010:

Hey Ron, glad that you enjoyed reading about the Ghosts of the Tower of London. As to Richard III, there is no actual proof that he did away with his nephews and he was trying to survive in uncertain times. I&aposll have a read of your Texas blog when I get some time.

Ron on May 07, 2010:

I love ghost stories and the British Isles have some of the best. I&aposd say that ol&apos Richard III was just bound and determined to be king and let nothing stand in his way! (I have begun writing up some of the ghost stories of Texas on my website&aposs blog.) Thanks for some interesting tales.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 01, 2010:

Glad you enjoyed the Ghosts of the Tower of London, saddlerider1, and that it brought back happy memories of your visit to Lonodn. We are very lucky in the UK that we have so many interesting historic buildings, and so many ghosts and hauntings!

saddlerider1 on May 01, 2010:

What an interesting hub, I am a firm believer in ghosts/spirits and am a witness to a visit by one. I did have the opportunity to visit London back in 68 being a historic buff I visited many castles and of course The Tower was one of many. I was only 19 at the time and walking the Sir Walter Raleigh walk was an experience. The many tortures and killings and beheadings make me shutter even today. Another ghostly place is Hampton Court and Canterbury Cathedral. They say the Black Prince still frequents the halls of Canterbury. Great post, brought back memories of my visit.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 28, 2010:

Glad that you enjoyed reading about the Ghosts of the Tower of London wrenfrost56 - go visit the Tower on a hot, sunny summer afternoon when there are lots of tourist around and you will probably enjoy a ghost free trip

wrenfrost56 from U.K. on April 28, 2010:

Another great hub CMHypno, as ever I always enjoy your work. I think I would dare to go to the tower of london, although I would be really scared if I saw any of the ghosts!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 27, 2010:

Thanks for reading about the Ghosts of the Tower of London, efeyas. Ultimately, we really are not sure of the true fate of the Princes in the Tower, but if they did meet their end in the Tower they must have been really terrified.

Elizabeth from Some Sunny Beach, USA on April 27, 2010:

So sad about the two little princess. I can&apost imagine how scared they must have been. No child deserves that fate, royalty or not. Great Hub. Thanks for the interesting read!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 25, 2010:

Hi De Greek, it was regarded as a privilege, because you weren&apost dragged through the baying hordes of the general populace to be publicly executed on Tower Hill. Crowds who at that time regarded a public execution as a good day out! You were just expected to meet your death with dignity in front of a hundred or so court officials instead!

De Greek from UK on April 25, 2010:

"where the privileged few were executed"? I like this :-)

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 25, 2010:

Thanks Sandyspider - the Tower of London is an eerie place to visit and a poignant reminder of how people have suffered in the past

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on April 24, 2010:

Interesting story about this haunting.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 24, 2010:

Hi Hello, hello, hopefully they have all found peace and the ghosts are just a bit like a video replaying over and over again. You have a very kind heart.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on April 24, 2010:

Thank you for this sad hub. It is such a shame that they can&apost find peace.

Watch the video: Jane Austen House - Εκδρομή από δωμάτιο σε δωμάτιο - Chawton Hampshire - Life of Jane Austen (July 2022).


  1. Duqaq

    I think you admit the mistake.

  2. Beth

    As that sounds interesting

  3. Kubas

    Bravo, what is the right phrase ... great thought

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