The world’s oldest palace, fortress, and prison can all be found in one location. The famous Tower of London is actually a complex of walls, towers, and other buildings, and every structure on the grounds has a unique historical value, making this site one of the most visited tourist locations in the world. Once surrounded by a moat, the complex has a roughly rectangular shape, with concentric walls and intermittent towers providing great defense for the various treasures held inside. Over the years, the treasures entrusted to the Tower of London have included the Crown Jewels of England (since 1303), the royal menagerie full of exotic animals, the treasury, and the Royal Mint.
The most famous structure of the tower grounds is the White Tower, built around 1078 by William the Conqueror, though some sources (including Shakespeare) believe it was built by the Romans. Indeed some Roman ruins are found throughout the site. Though it is the oldest structure within the walls, it still stands taller than other structures on the grounds at 90 feet. The sturdy protective walls are up to 15 feet thick at the base. In its time, it was built with the most advanced security features of the time- because during the medieval era, the White Tower served as the home for the royal family.
Today, you can enter the White Tower to see the famous armoury. This collection includes room after room of weaponry and armor from various centuries including the armor of King Henry VIII. This is the most comprehensive collection of war implements in the world. The Chapel of St. John, exhibiting classic Norman architecture, is also located within the White Tower. Tours are available every day at 10:45, 12:45, and 14:15.
Surrounding the White Tower is the Inner Ward, the first ring of walls. The Inner Ward has 13 towers along its length, each would have served defensively and for other purposes as well. One of the towers is the Bell Tower, named for the bells in the top that at one time were rung to warn all the guards of the castle to raise drawbridges and assume defensive positions. The tower was also used to house prisoners over the years, including some royal family members.
Further along the wall is the Wakefield Tower, constructed during the 1200s. The lower chamber was once a guardroom, and the upper chamber was filled with royal residences. Today, you can see a recreation of the chamber of King Edward. A lot of research has gone into making sure the bed chamber accurately shows what a royal bedroom would have looked like. From about the 1870s to the 1960s, Wakefield Tower was the home of the Crown Jewels. Today the jewels are located in the Waterloo Barracks.
The Bloody Tower, as suggested by its name, is one of the creepiest towers in the whole building. It was originally called the Garden Tower, but after a series of murders it gained the name of Bloody Tower. Several accused heretics were kept here before their executions, a poet was poisoned and killed inside, and many other mysterious deaths are recorded. Most heinous of all the murders was the killing of the two young Princes Edward V and Richard, in 1483, likely as a plot to usurp the throne by Richard III. But it’s not all gore. During his imprisonment here, Sir Walter Raleigh, who is known as the colonist who settled Virginia, was able to perform many scientific experiments here.
Throughout the rest of the chambers you will find various torture devices. These include examples of branks, sort of iron masks that would have fitted around the head and prevented speaking, and headcrushers, which were skullcaps that could be screwed down to put pressure on the skull. The Rack is the most famous torture device in the Tower of London, a table that would have been used to gradually stretch bodies to the point of dismemberment, unless a confession was obtained.
The Tower Green is an open grassy area. Here you’re likely to see the ravens of the London Tower wandering around. These eight named birds have clipped wings, since superstition and legend say that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the British Commonwealth will fall. Also on the Tower Green is the site of the execution block, where high-profile offenders were executed, including Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and Catherine Howard- three of the wives of Henry VIII. Nearby lies a chapel where executed persons were buried beneath flagstones.
The guards are an integral part of the functioning of the Tower of London complex. They are known as the Yeoman Warders, nicknnamed the Beefeaters, an elite guard created around the year 1500 and to this day wearing historic uniforms. They act as tour guides, raven caretakers, and personnel for the entire operation. Every night, at seven minutes to 10, the Yeoman begin their Ceremony of the Keys to close the Tower. This ceremony has been going on for 700 years, and today you can watch it mostly in its original form.
Today, the Tower of London lies in the shadow of the sleek and modern skyline of London. Here you can view the architecture and culture that has been in place at the site for a millennium and experience the inspiring feeling of standing in one of the world’s most historic locations where the most infamous figures in western history lived and died.