Tower of London

When you emerge from the Tower Hill underground station, follow the signs to the entrance to the Tower, located in the westernmost tower on the Thames, the Middle Tower. Until the London Zoo
opened in 1834, the tower to the left of this one, the so-called Lion Tower (now gone) was the home of the royal zoo.

At the southeastern corner of the Roman city walls, William the Conqueror had the first building of today’s sprawling castle, the White Tower, erected in the 11th century. Two centuries later, under Henry III, the tower was first whitewashed, whence its name. At the end of the 12th century, Richard I added a moat, and a hundred years after that Henry III added a wall with 13 towers around the inner courtyard to increase its security. By the 14th century, the outer fortifications were virtually completed with the addition of a new outer ward by Edward I. Only a few utilitarian buildings were to be added to the inner courtyard.

Right from the start the Tower had a number of different jobs to perform: to protect the capital, to control the city population, to secure the safety of navigation on the river and of the palace. It also functioned as an armory, treasury and state prison. Among its many famous prisoners we may list the Bishop of Durham, builder of the White Tower; the queen of nine days, 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey; Sir Walter Raleigh; Elizabeth I before her accession; and two wives of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, who were also executed here. A small memorial tablet to the left of the White Tower marks the site where the scaffold once stood and heads of enemies of state rolled in the dust. Commoners were hanged at Tyburn, near today’s Marble Arch. The old observatory in the Tower was relocated to Greenwich in 1675, while the Royal Mint moved out to a nearby building in 1810.

Today the Tower attracts more than two million visitors a year. One special attraction are the Crown Jewels in the Jewels House behind the White Tower. Since renovations in 1994, 20,000 visitors a day can view the glittering regalia from an automatic walkway. At the entrance to the treasure chamber there’s an informative exhibition on the history and significance of the Crown Jewels, most of which date from the period after 1660, as during the Revolution Oliver Cromwell had nearly all pieces of jewelry melted down or sold to raise funds.

Worth a look is the crypt of the oldest surviving Norman church in London on the second floor of the 90-foot (28 m) White Tower. The two-story barrel vaulting of the fortress’s church, built in 1080, rests on plain columns decorated only on the capitals and bases. The only new features here are the windows, which date from the Victorian period. As you leave the White Tower you arrive at Waterloo Barracks, which house Henry VHI’s extensive collection of weapons and armor, including exhibits from up to the period of World War I. The most impressive pieces are certainly the four bombastic suits of armor of the monarch which clearly show the stature of the man – in every respect.

Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife and mother of Elizabeth, was imprisoned for the 18 days preceding her execution in the picturesque, half-timbered Queen’s House, built in Henry’s reign and adjoining the Bell Tower. The house is now the Governor’s residence, but has also seen Guy Fawkes and Rudolf Hess as unwilling guests. The countless ravens strutting on Tower Green, the expanse of grass on the west side of the White Tower and site of the scaffold, are not there simply to provide “local color” in tourists’ snapshots, but are official members of the Tower, by royal statute, and serve an important function. According to an old Celtic myth about a god of war being metamorphosed into a raven, the crown will fall should the ravens ever quit the Tower. Their wings, therefore, are regularly clipped and the birds fed on meat paid for from the royal purse.

If you wish to leave the Tower by a different route, you will come to the Bloody Tower, built under Richard II, where Sir Walter Raleigh, during some 13 years of imprisonment (1603-1616) following conviction for treason, wrote his History of the World. Upon his release he undertook an unsuccessful expedition to South America, after which he was again arrested, incarcerated anew in the Tower, and this time executed.

After crossing the outer ward you will see St. Thomas’ Tower, below which is the exit Traitor’s Gate, guarded by the Yeoman Warders or Beef’eaters in their red Tudor uniforms. Contrary to popular opinion, their name does not derive from their predilection for beef but from the French word buffetier, meaning a cupbearer. Every night the Beefeaters perform the Ceremony of the Keys or the locking up of the Tower; by 9:53 p.m. at the latest they must have reached and locked the main gate. From the path in front of the walls you can enjoy a fine view of Tower Pier and Tower Bridge, which was renovated in 1994 for its 100year jubilee; it commands a fantastic panorama over the City and the docklands. Along with the Tower, Big Ben and St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge is one of the trademarks of London. It is a drawbridge which can open fully within 90 seconds to allow the passage of large ships, although this happens only a few times a week. Built by the engineer John Barry, this bridge over the Thames is a technical masterpiece whose old hydraulic lifting gear was later replaced by an electrical system. Since 1982, the towers of the bridge have housed a museum of the history and technology of the bridge; here, you can find out when the bridge will open next.

Proceed along Tower Pier underneath the bridge and past the Tower Hotel, and you will come to St. Katharine’s Docks. This harbor was shut down in 1968, and successfully transformed five years later into a yacht harbor and recreation center with exclusive apartment blocks, galleries, stores and restaurants. On your way back toward Tower Pier, turn left into Lower Thames Street, and at the corner of Byward Street you will pass Billingsgate Market, the old central fish market. Today’s main fish market has been relocated to the Isle of Dogs, and this hundred-year-old structure now houses offices of City finance companies. The adjoining Customs House still functions as offices of the Customs and Excise service; there has been a customs house on this site since the ( 4th century. Not far after this, London Bridge connects the City to Southwark. The first bridge we know of, the wooden one built by the Romans, was torn down almost 1,000 years ago and replaced by a bridge made of stone. Today’s bridge is only 20 years old, its predecessor not having been able to cope with the increasing volume of traffic (it was dismantled and shipped to the U.S.A.). The extension of the bridge leads northwards directly to the Monument, a column of white Portland stone erected by Wren in 1671-77 to recall the Great Fire of London. It is exactly 202 feet high (61.5 m) and this reputedly is the distance to the baker’s shop in nearby Pudding Lane where the fire broke out on September 2, 1666. A spiral staircase on the inside takes you up 311 steps to a viewing platform.

Continue northwards to Cannon Street and there turn left. On your right is 1 1 Victoria Street where the ruins of a Roman Mithraic temple were discovered in 1954; it is thought the temple was used between 90 and 350 AD. The remains have been reconstructed in the temple courtyard, while the head of Mithras found here is exhibited in the Museum of London.

Left of Cannon Street your route leads via Wading Street to Bow Street and another Wren church, St. Mary-le-Bow. A church stood on this site back in AngloSaxon times, and even Wren’s church needed to be renovated due to the bomb damage it suffered during the war. This church is famous for its bells; no one can call himself a true Cockney unless he was born within earshot of Bow Bells.

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