The terrible tales of the Tower of London

Murdered children, decapitated queens and the world’s largest diamond – over 900 years of Britain’s most famous fortress

After his conquest of England in 1066, William of Normandy set about securing his throne by sending a clear message that he was here to stay – a message written in stone. The king built castles all over the country to stamp his authority, and the biggest and most imposing of them all was London’s White Tower.

To construct the Tower, William shipped stone over from Caen in France, while Anglo-Saxons provided most of the labour. It took around 20 years to complete and when it was finished it stood at 27 metres tall with walls 4.5 metres thick; walls designed to intimidate the defeated Londoners and act as a defence against them.

The second and third floors – the most secure parts of the keep – were reserved for royalty and nobles. This also includes St John’s Chapel, one of the earliest Norman chapels in the country. The first floor was used by domestic staff, and the cellar stored provisions and wine racks. Years later it would house a different kind of rack – one designed for stretching limbs and breaking bones.

The original entrance was on the first floor. Now accessible via a wooden staircase, in Norman times this would have been a ladder that could be quickly withdrawn to prevent intruders. If enemies did gain access, the spiral staircase would have put them at a disadvantage. Right-handed attackers wouldn’t have been able to swing their swords as effectively as the defenders – the wall would have got in the way. What’s more, the steps vary in size, so anyone unfamiliar with the layout could lose their footing if they weren’t careful, often fatal in a sword fight.

First and foremost, the Tower of London was a palace, not a prison. However, the first inmate was also the first escapee! Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, was imprisoned in 1100. A year later his friends smuggled in a rope inside a wine casket, which the guards heartily consumed. As they slept, Ranulf is said to have used the rope to abseil to freedom.

The Tower of London continued as a royal residence for William the Conqueror’s descendants, who made their own mark on the fortress. Henry III (1216–72) and his son Edward I (1272–1307) added royal apartments and built not one but two concentric walls of defence and a 50-metre-wide moat – further than an archer could shoot accurately. However, in 1843 this moat was drained when sewage, carcasses and the bodies of plague victims turned it into a stinking pit of disease encircling the 2,500 people living in the Tower.

Another of the defensive features are the portcullises. French for ‘sliding door’, these heavy metal gates could be lowered and raised by a pulley. The most infamous of these lies at the bottom of St Thomas’ Tower. Originally, this was used as the water-gate entrance for Edward I’s royal barge. Later it became known as the trader’s gate, where supplies were delivered, but then things took a dark turn. In the 16th century this same entrance became known as Traitors’ Gate, and it was through here that prisoners were brought to the Tower to be tried. The route to the gate took the accused along the River Thames and under London Bridge, where the heads of executed prisoners gazed down at them from spikes.

In 1279, Edward I moved the Royal Mint to the Tower. This was where the coins of the realm were manufactured under the close scrutiny of guards. Medieval coins were made of silver, which was easy to bend and break, meaning criminals could flood the market with fake coins. When an enraged Edward learned of this ploy he placed the blame on England’s small Jewish community. Many were consequently hanged and 600 were imprisoned in
the Tower.

Bloody stories such as this earned the fortress a grisly reputation, and no one dared challenge its power until 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt. On 14 June that year, an angry mob of militant rebels breached the Tower walls. One of their targets, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s chancellor, was saying his last prayers in the chapel when they seized him. He was dragged to Tower Hill and promptly beheaded.

Clearly being a resident of the castle did not always guarantee your safety. During the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was murdered while at prayer in the King’s Private Chapel in the Wakefield Tower. Years later, the children of his Yorkist enemy, Edward IV, mysteriously disappeared within the fortress.

It was 1483, and 12-year-old Edward V was awaiting his coronation. He was taken there, as was tradition, along with his nine-year-old brother. Better known as ‘the Princes in the Tower’, the boys became prisoners when their uncle Richard (who later became King Richard III) declared them illegitimate and took the crown for himself. Months later the princes vanished. Rumours of their murder saw the Garden Tower where they were kept renamed as the Bloody Tower. For centuries no one knew what happened, until renovation work in 1674 uncovered the skeletons of two children under a staircase in the White Tower.

Yet more royal blood would be spilled during the reign of King Henry VIII. This time, however, the executions were ordered by the state and carried out in full view of the public. The Tudor tyrant signed the death warrants of two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and some of his closest friends, including Sir Thomas More. While most of these executions took place on the nearby Tower Hill, seven nobles were executed within the walls of the Tower in relative privacy.

A temporary wooden scaffold was erected on Tower Green – an open space by the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula – to give the onlookers a better view. The condemned would climb the stairs onto the platform and give the executioner a purse of gold and silver as a final act of forgiveness. They would then utter their last words before laying their head on the chopping block to await the blow of the

executioner’s axe. In the case of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, it took several blows to finish the deed. The nobles who died here were buried in the grounds, and a memorial stands on the scaffold site today.

The Tower had become Henry VIII’s personal prison, and he believed it should be protected by part of the royal bodyguard. The Yeoman Warders were created in 1485 and have guarded the castle ever since. It is said that they gained the nickname of ‘Beefeater’ because they were originally paid in food, in particular beef as it was a luxury item. It was a coveted position and one that could be sold for 250 guineas until the Duke of Wellington abolished this purchase system in 1826.

In his role as Constable of the Tower he made other changes, such as getting rid of the Royal Menagerie – a collection of exotic animals that had been there since the 13th century. He wanted to keep the Tower as a strictly military stronghold and even constructed the Waterloo Barracks for 1,000 soldiers.

The Iron Duke didn’t entirely get his wish though, as today the Tower of London is one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the world. It continues the tradition of housing the Crown Jewels, and Yeoman Warders still stand on ceremonial guard, but their duties now include giving guided tours. But the Tower doesn’t shut down when the visitors leave. The 37 Warders live on the premises with their families, the Resident Governor and a garrison of soldiers. There’s an onsite doctor and chaplain and even a secret pub. Over 900 years on, the castle that was built to inspire awe and fear in Londoners is now one of the city’s most treasured landmarks.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 117, written by Jodie Tyley 

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