For centuries, the Tower of London has held an important role in London from its earliest days as a military fortification to its present use as a museum and repository for important Royal artefacts. The Tower’s role has been ever-changing to suit the needs of the Sovereign and the British government, which has resulted in one of the richest histories of any building in the city. Join us as we explore the role that the Tower of London has held for London and its people from its construction to today.
The construction of the Tower of London began in 1066, not long after William the Conqueror marched into the city to be crowned king at Westminster Abbey. The first Tower was a wooden fortification enclosed by a palisade that was intended to serve as a means for William to maintain his control of England’s capital. It would be another 12 years before the stone White Tower was constructed, which served both as fortification and the seat of William’s power. It intentionally dwarfed other buildings in the City of London to remind its citizens who was in charge and, unsurprisingly, was viewed as a symbol of oppression by the Anglo-Saxon residents.
By the time of the Plantagenets’ reign, the Tower had a chance to prove its might as it was besieged by forces of Prince John who had attempted to take power while John’s brother, King Richard I, was waging war on the European continent. By the time John became king legitimately, its defences were tested again during the First Barons’ War when John’s own nobility revolted against him. Later Plantagenets further fortified the castle extended its walls to their present-day limits. It was also during this dynastic period that the Tower of London was increasingly used as a prison, with the most famous prisoners being the “Princes in the Tower” whom King Richard III allegedly ordered murdered to cement his own claim to the throne.
With the War of the Roses over, the Tower of London’s time as a Royal residence also came to an end. King Henry VIII and his children preferred more opulent royal palaces, and the Tower instead developed its reputation as one of the most foreboding prisons in England. Any number of prominent prisoners were housed here during the Tudor era, from Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, to Elizabeth I’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. The Tower of London most often served to hold those persons the Crown considered a threat to their power, something extended into the reign of the Stuarts as the Gunpowder conspirators were also imprisoned there before their executions (a fate of nearly all prisoners held here). The Stuarts also relied on the Tower’s decades-long use to store ordinance and valuable items for the Crown. In fact, the Stuarts relied on funds for the Office of Ordnance to remodel the Tower.
The Tower of London ceased to be a major defensive stronghold after the beginning of the Hanoverian dynasty. It also saw less and less use as a prison and the final person to be held and executed at the Tower was German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941. Post-war, the Tower’s importance to London shifted to make it one of the city’s top tourist destinations. This was assisted, in part, due to the housing of the Crown Jewels, which had been on public display in the Tower since 1669. While the tower had been a tourist attraction since the late 19th Century, by the mid-20th, that served as its primary role. Today visitors can see the famous Crown Jewels, the Ceremony of the Keys, numerous exhibits and museums, and the Tower’s most popular permanent residents—the ravens.
From fort to home to prison to attraction, the role that the Tower of London has held has been ever-evolving to suit the needs of the Crown and the city. No matter the use, it has remained a place of constant importance and will likely continue to be a significant location for many years to come.