The Tower of London
The Tower of London is a historic fortress and a museum in central London; it also houses the famous collection of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.
Above: the Tower of London from across the River Thames; photo Ignacio Ferre Pérez.
History and architecture
The Tower of London is an architectural complex – comprising several buildings, defensive walls, and courtyards – built between the 11th century and the 19th century.
The oldest building is the famous White Tower, a keep built by William the Conqueror in the early 1080s. The White Tower is an imposing structure, mostly made of a light gray limestone known as Kentish ragstone, with four turrets at each corner which was created to accommodate many functions under one roof, but mainly as a military fortress on the River Thames, a residence for the king and his court, and a prison.
In the following centuries, the castle was expanded many times. First to the south with the construction of the innermost ward, in the 12th century, and then with the inner ward during the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the outer ward in the 14th century. A number of buildings were also added both during the expansions and later, including two churches, thirteen towers, and an armory. One of the last buildings of the complex to be completed, in 1845, is the imposing Waterloo Block, a large Gothic-revival building that housed originally barracks for up to 1000 soldiers, and contains today administrative offices and the famous collection of jewels of the British Crown.
The Tower of London, view from the north-east with the Shard in the background, photo David Brossard.
An aerial view with the Tower Bridge on the left and the Tower of London on the right. Photo Mike McBey.
Map of the Tower of London, image © Historic Royal Palaces.
The Waterloo Block, image Hnphotog.
The Tower of London is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United Kingdom, with nearly 3,000,000 paid visits in 2019 (source: visitbritain.com).
The worldwide popularity of the castle is due to its beautiful architecture, the location right in the heart of the British capital, the pivotal historical events that happened here, and the many attractions it contains.
Most popular attractions include the famous Yeomen Warders, the guardians of the tower popularly known as Beefeaters. Wearing a uniform whose iconic design dates back to the Tudor period, the Beefeaters were originally both royal bodyguards and warders of the Tower’s premises; today, they are their main duty is to guide the visitors of the Tower and provide them valuable information about the castle and its history.
Almost as famous as the Beefeaters, the Tower’s ravens are a small colony of six birds which, since the 17th century, are believed to protect the Crown of England; the ravens are cared for by a specially-appointed Yeomen Warder known as Ravenmaster.
Other interesting features include the so-called Bloody Tower, a prison where prominent people – including the young Edward V and his brother Richard in the 15th century, and Sir Walter Raleigh in the 17th century – were kept, the Beauchamp Tower prison with its graffiti, the Saint John’s Chapel, a Romanesque building built in the 11th century, and the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, a late-Gothic church dating from the 16th century; a line of the Roman wall of Londinium, the ancient city of London, can be seen in the Tower’s inner ward.
A bit gruesome but historically interesting, the “Torture at the Tower” permanent exhibition is also a pretty popular attraction.
A series of sculptures by British artist Kendra Haste reminds us that, from the 1200s to 1835, the Tower housed a menagerie of exotic wild animals, including an elephant sent by the King of France in 1255; photo Pikakoko.
The 11th-century Chapel of St. John; photo Wei-Te Wong.
The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, photo Lawrence OP.
A view of Sir Walter Raleigh’s study in the Bloody Tower, where Raleigh was detained for 13 years during the reign of James I; photo Mario Sánchez Prada.
The Crown Jewels
Yet, the most popular attraction in the Tower of London complex is arguably the famous Crown Jewels collection.
The collection comprises crowns, orbs, scepters, rings, bracelets, swords, and other ceremonial objects belonging to the British Monarchy. Most notable objects include the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign’s Scepter and famous gems such as the legendary Cullinan I and Koh-i-Noor diamonds, and the Stuart Sapphire. The collection is on display at the Tower of London since 1661.
Yet, only a handful of objects in the collection are older than a few centuries; almost all the medieval originals were destroyed in 1649, just after the Civil Wars, and were later remade by King Charles II; only an 11-century spoon and three swords escaped meltdown. A curiosity: the famous Imperial State Crown, with which Queen Elizabeth II was coronated, dates to 1838 but was largely remade in 1937 for the coronation of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, after being accidentally crushed at a state ceremony in 1845.
The entrance of the Crown Jewels permanent exhibition. Photo Kevin Hackert.
The Imperial Crown of India, made for George V’s appearance, as Emperor of India, at the Delhi Durbar of 1911; © HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2001.
The Queen Consort’s Ivory Rod with Dove, 1685; Queen Mary II’s Scepter with Dove, 1689; the Queen Consort’s Scepter with Cross, 1685; © HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2001.
The Tower of London at night, photo Nan Palmero.
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