Standing proud and forbidding on the north bank of the River Thames, the Tower of London was founded by William the Conqueror towards the end of 1066 as an enduring and resented symbol of the might of the Normans.
The White Tower, which was built by William in 1078, came to represent the oppression of the capital by the new rulers of England. This is the building which gives the entire castle it’s name.
However, the Tower is so much more than its well-known central structure; it is a made up of several buildings or towers set within massive defensive walls and a moat. The Tower saw much expansion in the 12th and 13th centuries under Richard 1st, Henry 111 and Edward 1st and the general layout we see today was established by the late 13th century despite later activity.
The Tower has played an extremely prominent role in English history and has been besieged several times; whoever had control of the Tower effectively had control of the country, little wonder it was so jealously guarded.
The castle was used as a prison since at least 1100 but it has also served as an armoury, a mint, a treasury and even a menagerie; and of course, the monarch would stay here the night before his (or her) coronation.
It is said that when Anne Boleyn was taken to the Tower as a prisoner, she was lodged in the same apartment which she used the night before her coronation. This house, known as the Queens House is a short walk from Tower Green where poor Anne was beheaded by the French swordsman on May 19th 1536.
Anne’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth ( later Elizabeth 1st) was also imprisoned in the Tower in 1554 by her half-sister Mary 1st after the Wyatt rebellion. She was lodged in the Bell Tower. It is at this time…in the 16th century that The Tower earned its reputation as a place of execution and torture, but only seven people met their deaths within its walls.
William, Lord Hastings (1483).
Anne Boleyn (1536)
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1541)
Catherine Howard (1542)
Jane, Lady Rochford (1542)
Lady Jane Grey (1554)
Robert Devereux Earl of Essex (1601)
All these unfortunates were executed by beheading and all are buried beneath the alter in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower.
Most executions took place on Tower Hill and they were a great draw for the crowds. Men, women and even children would all gather round and watch as the poor unfortunate prisoner was dispatched….and it wasn’t always a quick death. If the executioner was unskilled or nervous he sometimes botched it and only after several strokes of the axe would the head part from the body. Yes, it was a grand day out for all the family.
The Tower now stands surrounded by ugly modern buildings of glass and concrete…but these 21st century symbols of wealth and power will never, in my opinion be as mighty, as beautiful or as enduring as The Tower.