The Tower of London is an architectural bully, a big tough bouncer at the door of England’s history.
Don’t worry, the people at the Tower are lovely and helpful. But the walls themselves? They were built to keep the likes of you and me in our place. The many towers were put there to spy on us, to scare us, and to make sure the king and his treasures were safe from us.
I love walking through the gate, across the massive moat, now dry, but still impressive. That moat means business, and those great stone walls block most of the sights and sounds of modern London.
In Your Bucket Because …
- The Tower is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for its contribution to the making of modern England and as an example of Norman and mediaeval defensive buildings.
- The Tower is the real-life setting for many true stories you may have already heard, particularly from Tudor times.
- You can spend an hour or a day here, depending on your interests.
- Good for families, fans of the Tudors, anyone interested in authentic historical sites. Things children may like: armour and weapons displayed in the White Tower, the Crown Jewels, the prisoner graffiti, the animal sculptures. They may also have fun walking along the top of the walls where there are non-scary sculptures representing archers.
The Tower of London, Fortress, Prison, Zoo and More
The Tower of London started as one building in the 1070s, William the Conqueror’s original White Tower. The other towers and walls were added by later kings, to make the fortress bigger. They used the Tower as a residence and refuge, and in Tudor days in particular, as a feared prison.
The River Thames is only steps away, lapping at the base of Traitor’s Gate. Imagine young Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) stepping out of her boat here, entering under protest as a prisoner of her half-sister, Queen Mary Tudor. The water always looks grey, the lattice of the gate is menacing, and the low arch of the gate suggests, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
Elizabeth swore she was no traitor, and fortunately, neither am I. I should have no problem getting out at the end of my visit.
I go upstairs and wander through the Mediaeval Palace of King Edward I, along the top of the wall and admire the view of the Tower Bridge. And now as I stand by the White Tower thinking about having lunch, I can’t help but notice that there’s an elephant in front of me. Earlier I passed some monkeys, and at the entrance, some lions. What’s going on?
These lifelike statues, made of a ghostly grey wire mesh, are reminders of the former Royal Menagerie. Thank goodness the Tower is no longer a zoo. Those animals didn’t look too happy.
Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London
When I was a little kid, someone taught me to sing a song a lot of Brits will know: “With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm, She walks the Bloody Tower …” referring to Anne Boleyn. Hoping not to meet her, with or without her tucked head, I enter the Bloody Tower (the name is right there on the sign). What’s this? No blood, but a comfortable room with a fireplace, a writing desk and chair and lots of papers, set up to show how Sir Walter Raleigh lived. Raleigh, a great explorer, was a prisoner more than once. He and his family spent 12 years in the Tower.
Eventually Raleigh’s luck ran out and he was executed. But where is Anne Boleyn?
It seems a mocking irony that Anne Boleyn was executed at the Tower. In 1533, still enchanted by his new wife, King Henry VIII had built a royal suite for her here, and this is where she prepared herself to be crowned Queen at Westminster Abbey. To be brought back in disgrace only three years later, knowing death was near, must have been both terrifying and humiliating.
Anne may be the most famous Tower prisoner, but to get an idea of just how many there were, and of their often high social standing, I explored the graffiti in the Beauchamp (pronounced Beecham) Tower. Dozens of names and symbols, even some elaborate coats of arms, have been etched into the stone walls by people without the freedom to leave. Just imagine looking at Tower Green from the window of Beauchamp Tower and knowing your turn is coming.
The White Tower and the Crown Jewels
I have two more important stops to make. First I climb the steps to the White Tower. Halfway up, I swear I hear a boy say, “But I thought I was going to be king!” There is no boy. Instead, there’s an open door and a plaque saying this is where they found the bones of the Princes in the Tower. These were the two young nephews of King Richard III (yes, the one whose bones were found in a Leicester car park). Some people claim that Richard had the boys executed because they were ahead of him in line for the throne. Others defend Richard.
I wonder, did no one else hear the boy today? Nobody is stopping to look.
Perhaps they’re in a hurry to see Henry VIII’s armour (kind of a before and after situation: young Henry the athletic jouster and old Henry the fat man with codpiece). Or maybe they know that at the top of this austere, imposing tower there is a heavenly chapel, peaceful and calm.
After all this, and after admiring the glossy black ravens, and the Tudor uniforms of the Yeoman Warders (nicknamed the Beefeaters), my final stop is to see the Crown Jewels. Compared to the Tower, the jewels are new. Kings and Queens have had crowns and regalia forever, it seems, but after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the English goodies were almost all destroyed. New ones were created starting with King Charles II. You can see an impressive display of crowns, sceptres, orbs and more in the Jewel House, behind very thick doors, in closely-guarded cases.
The Jewel House is hushed and dark. On a short moving sidewalk we drift effortlessly past more gold, silver, and precious stones than I could have imagined. Queen Victoria’s crown is tiny and delicate compared to the Imperial Crown with its 3,000 gems. The sceptres are lined up like a row of Olympic torches. I saw a diamond like a golf ball.
The Tower of London was built to protect the wealth that these precious crowns represent, and the people who wore those crowns. Over 900 years later, it’s still doing the first part of that job.
- The Tower of London is on every “Top Things to Do in London” list for a reason: it’s an impressive historic site. Because it’s popular, it can be crowded. Do what you reasonably can to avoid the crowds. Go in poor weather, be willing to go early or late in the day, avoid weekends and school holidays if you have a choice.
- People with limited mobility may not be able to tour the entire site. If accessibility is a concern, consult the Tower’s website for advice.
- The Tower is one of the Historic Royal Palaces properties. If you plan to visit multiple times, or to go to several properties in the group, a membership may save you money.
- The Tower’s website (part of the Historic Royal Palaces’ website) is excellent and will be a big help in planning your visit.
- If time or money don’t allow you to visit the inside of the Tower, you can still see a lot and learn about it by walking around the outside and reading the interpretive signs.