A short history of the Tower of London
William the Conqueror
crossed the Channel in September of 1066. After a short campaign he made himself
King of the English. King William then had the Tower of London built as a stronghold
to control and administer London. London was the largest town in England, a
flourishing port and center of finance and commerce.
The Tower was built at the edge of the city next to the city wall that had been built by the Romans.
The first recorded state
prisoner at the Tower was Bishop Ranulf Flambard in 1100. Ranulf was the chief minister of
King William II Rufus of England (ruled 1087-1100). As administrator of the royal
finances, Ranulf raised vast sums by increasing taxes and by extorting funds from the
barons and the church. In 1099 Ranulf was made bishop of Durham. On August 2,
1100, King William II was struck in the eye by an arrow and killed while hunting.
Whether the arrow was a stray shot or premeditated murder is still under debate.
William's younger brother Henry moved fast to take power and was crowned King Henry I on
the 5th of August. Henry then imprisoned Ranulf in the Tower of London as a
scapegoat for the late king's unpopular policies. Ranulf also has the distinction of being
the first prisoner ever to escape from the Tower. Early in 1101 Ranulf escaped to Normandy
and incited Duke Robert II Curthose to attempt an invasion of England, which was
unsuccessful. Ranulf was restored to royal favor and to his bishopric in 1101, but he
never regained his former position as chief minister.
After the reign of William II, the Tower remained unchanged for a century. Around 1190, William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, Justiciar of all England and Constable of the Tower of London, expanded this, his principal fortress. He extended the Roman wall westwards along the waterfront, added the Bell Tower and then built a wall that heads north creating the Outer Ward. Longchamp had a wide, deep ditch dug around the outside of the walls and tried to flood the ditch with the River Thames but failed. In 1191 Prince John returned to England to confront Bishop Longchamp. John set siege on the Tower (its first). After only three days, lack of provisions forced Bishop Longchamp to surrender but the Towers defenses had proved that they could resist attack.
The reign of King John (1199-1216) saw little new building work at the Tower, but the King made good use of the accommodations. Between 1211 and 1213 the city of London dug a moat outside the city wall. Its eastern end terminated close to the Tower which caused friction between the Mayor of the City and the Lieutenant of the Tower, the complaint being that the City ditch drained into the Tower moat. The smell of the moat would become quite foul.
During King Henry III's long reign (1216-72) reinforcement of the royal castles was a high priority. His work at the Tower of London was more extensive than anywhere other than at Windsor Castle. Henry III was only ten years old in 1216, but his regents began a major extension of the royal accommodation in the enclosure which formed the Inmost Ward as we know it today. The great hall and kitchen, dating from the previous century, were improved and two towers were built on the waterfront, the Wakefield Tower as the Kings lodgings and the Lanthorn Tower (rebuilt in the 19th century), probably intended as the queens lodgings. A new wall was also built enclosing the west side of the Inmost Ward. By the mid 1230s, Henry III had run into trouble with his barons and opposition flared up in both 1236 and in 1238. On both occasions the King fled to the Tower of London. In 1238 Henry III launched an ambitious building program at the Tower; he had the Roman wall demolished to make way for the construction of a great new curtain wall round the east, north and west sides of the castle. The new wall doubled the area covered by the fortress, enclosing the neighboring church of St Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Jail). The wall was reinforced by nine new towers, the strongest at the corners (the Salt, Martin and Devereux). Of these all but two (the Flint and Brick) are much as originally built. The fortress was then surrounded by a moat that was flooded with water from the Thames. The citizens of London grew more apprehensive as the tower became larger. Even though Henry paid for the property which the expansion consumed, the owners were not happy to be forced to sell to the King.
It was during Henry's reign that the Tower became a royal palace. Henry also kept a private zoo at the Tower. Crowds would flock to watch the King's polar bear fishing in the river. A building was constructed for the King's elephant while lions and leopards were kept in the Lion Tower. Most of the animals were diplomatic gifts from foreign kings.
King Edward I (1272-1307) completed the defensive works begun by Henry III. Between 1275 and 1285 the King created Englands largest and strongest castle with multiple lines of defense. The work included building the existing Beauchamp Tower, but the main effort was concentrated on filling in Henry IIIs moat and creating an additional curtain wall on the western, northern and eastern sides, and surrounding it by a new moat. This new wall provided two new entrances, one from the land on the west, passing through the Middle and Byward towers, and another under St Thomass Tower, from the river. New royal lodgings were included in the upper part of St Thomass Tower.
The Tower played a crucial
role during King Edward II's (1307-27) reign as he used the Tower for a royal refuge and
to maintain royal authority. Edward II moved his own lodgings from the Wakefield
Tower and St Thomass Tower to the area round the present Lanthorn Tower. The use of
the Tower for functions other than military and residential had been started by Edward I
who put up a large new building to house the Royal Mint. The old royal lodgings were now
used for his courtiers and for the storage of official papers by the Kings Wardrobe
(a department of government which dealt with royal supplies). This began the use of
the castle as a place for storing records.
The Tower also served as a treasury (the Crown Jewels were moved from Westminster Abbey to the Tower in 1303).
Edward III (1327-77) put up a new gatehouse between the Lanthorn Tower and the Salt Tower and added the Cradle Tower. His most substantial achievement was to extend the Tower Wharf eastwards as far as St Thomass Tower. In 1381Richard II and many of his family and household were forced to shelter in the Tower while over 10,000 rebels plundered and burned the capital for two days. The King and his Queen sheltered there again in 1387, when the barons clashed with the Earl of Oxford. On 1 October 1399 King Richard II, condemned as a tyrant, renounced the crown in his chamber in the White Tower and Henry IV was proclaimed King the next day. Throughout the 1400's the Tower of London was a key asset to those who held the throne. It was used to hold lavish courts in 1465 and 1470, celebrations for Richard III's coronation in 1483 and entertainments for the supporters of Henry VII.
The first Tudor monarch, Henry VII (1485-1509) was responsible for building the last permanent royal residential buildings at the Tower. He extended his own lodgings around the Lanthorn Tower, adding a new private chamber, a library, and a long gallery; he also laid out a garden. These buildings were to form the nucleus of a much larger scheme begun by his son Henry VIII (1509-47) who put up a large range of timber-framed lodgings at the time of the coronation of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The building of these lodgings, used only once, marked the end of the history of royal residence at the Tower. In the reign of James I (1603-25) the Lieutenants house - built in the 1540s and today called the Queens House - was extended and modified; the kings lions were rehoused in better dens made for them in the west gate barbican.
The castle was regularly used
as a prison. Some prisoners were kept the various towers while other, more prominent
prisoners, would have their own servants and be confined to several rooms, an example
being Prince Gruffydd who was confined to the state apartments of the White Tower.
After the elephant died the less fortunate were locked up in the elephant house. Here is a
list of some of the more notable prisoners and their fates:
1232: Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, Chief Justiciar of England, was incarcerated but returned to favour in 1234.
1241: The Welsh Prince Gruffydd became a "guest", in honourable confinement where he enjoyed the company of his son and a number of his supporters.
1244: Prince Gruffydd fell 90 feet from the roof of the Tower to his death while trying to escape.
1296: King Baliol, King of Scotland. Released after three years and banished to France.
1322: Lady Badlesmere (Margaret de CLARE) has the dubious distinction of being the first woman recorded as a prisoner of the Tower. Queen Isabella was traveling from Canterbury and sent servants to Leeds Castle to demand a night's lodging. Lady Badlesmere not only refused the Queen, she had the royal messagers killed. King Edward II led the siege of Leeds Castle and had its governor hanged and Lady Badlesmere thrown into the Tower.
1471: King Henry VI was murdered by order of King Edward IV while imprisoned at the Tower.
1483: Edward V (age 12) and his brother Richard, Duke of York (age 9) disappeared while imprisoned. In 1674 during some demolition work a wooden chest containing the skeletons of two children, believed to be the princes, was discovered.
1478: George, Duke of Clarence in 1478 (allegedly drowned in a butt of wine).
From the 1530s onwards the unrest caused by the Reformation (when Henry VIII broke with the Church in Rome) gave the Tower an expanded role as the home for a large number of religious and political prisoners.
1535: Both Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher of Rochester were executed for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the English Church.
1536: Anne Boleyn, the Kings second wife, was executed along with her brother and four others. Her ghost has frequently been seen both on the Green and more spectacularly in the Chapel Royal situated in the White Tower. It was in the Chapel that a Captain of the Guard saw a light burning in the locked Chapel late at night.
1540: Thomas Cromwell was executed. He was the Earl of Essex and former Chief Minister to the King - in which capacity he had modernized the Towers defenses and, ironically enough, sent many others to their deaths.
1542: Catherine Howard, the second of Henry VIIIs six wives to be beheaded, met her death outside the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula which Henry had rebuilt a few years before.
1552: Duke of Somerset and his confederates met their death at the Tower, falsely accused of treason.
During Mary I's (1553-8) brief
reign many Protestants and political rivals were either imprisoned or executed at the
1554: Lady Jane Grey, the most famous victim, was executed along with her husband, her father, and the Duke of Northumberland.
1554: Princess Elizabeth is the most famous prisoner to be at the Tower. She was there for 8 weeks before being moved to Woodstock. When Queen Mary died in 1558 Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).
During Elizabeth I's reign the
tower was full of prisoners. Bishops, archbishops, knights, barons, earls and dukes
all spent months and some of them years languishing in the towers of the Tower of London.
1618: Sir Walter Raleigh was held in the Wardrobe Tower and the Brick Tower before he was Beheaded in Old Palace Yard.
The last execution at Tower Green was in 1601 but the castle has seen capital punishment since then. In 1743 Scottish deserters were executed by firing squad. During World War II spies were executed (shot) in Mint Street.
In September of 1666 London burned. At first the wind drove the fire west away from the Tower but when the winds stopped the fire started to burn east. It would have consumed the fortress had fire fighters not used barrels of gunpowder to blow up the houses near the Tower. Devastation had reached the gates but the Tower survived.
Fire has left its mark on the Tower of London. In October of 1841 a fire broke out in the Bowyer Tower. Hand operated fire engines were almost useless due to the lack of a large water supply. The Bowyer Tower was lost and sparks started fires on the roof of the Grand Storehouse. For half an hour or more soldiers carried valuable pieces to safety until the roof collapsed.
A final note on the history line of the Tower:
During World War II the Tower was hit with incendiaries, high explosive bombs and V-rockets. The only buildings lost were the Main Guard and the North Bastion. On a postive note, this did reveal part of the wall build by Henry III.