Let’s face it – 99% of visitors who come to the Tower of London are there primarily to see the Crown Jewels. And it’s understandable – they’re incredibly impressive, overwhelmingly large and sparkly, and are certainly worth ogling, mouth slightly agape in wonder, for 10-15 minutes. When we visited the Tower we did indeed make a bee-line for those jewels, and we were floored by the sheer enormity of what lay before us in those air-tight, ultra-secure cases. But there’s so much more to the Tower of London than almost incalculable wealth.
When you hear about the “Tower of London,” you might conjure up images of one imposing building rising ominously above the city. While the central White Tower gives the castle complex its name, it only comprises a small part of the whole. Built in 1078 by William the Conquerer after the Norman conquest of England, the White Tower became a symbol of oppression for the people of London. The castle and walls were gradually built up around it – principally augmented by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I in the 12th-13th centuries. The castle primarily served as a royal residence, but throughout its history also held (some famous!) prisoners and housed the armory, Royal mint, public records office, treasury and, of course, the Crown Jewels. As you can see – there’s a lot going on there!
Here are the less flashy highlights according to Abbey:
The White Tower: built upon Roman foundations, this central fortress was the castle’s keep and served as a royal residence, accommodation for important prisoners, a records house and an armory. Most infamously, however, it is likely the final resting place of King Edward IV’s sons, Edward and Richard. They were cloistered in the Tower by the Duke of Gloucester after their father’s death in 1483 (they were 12 and 9 years old) and were never seen again. During 17th century renovations to the Tower, the bodies of two boys were discovered in a rough coffin under a stairway, and historians believe them to be the two missing princes. Their bones were then reinterred at Westminster. The White Tower was actually opened to tourists in the late 16th century, and today houses 18th century, wooden statues of horses and many suits of royal armor displayed as part of the Line of Kings detailing the history of the British Monarchy. Let me tell you – Henry VIII had more elaborately decorated, gold-inlaid armor than any one person needs!
The Mint: tucked around a corner just inside the entrance, the Royal mint churned out coins from inside the Tower property from 1279-1809. Each coin was hand-cast and went through a careful (sometimes not) process of weighing and counter-weighing before distribution. British currency was debased and essentially re-made several times throughout this period – for example, Elizabeth I ordered all coins in circulation to be returned to the mint where they were melted down and re-issued, at a cost of 1 million pounds (back then!), in an attempt to strengthen the currency. The Mint’s move from the Tower in the early 19th century was necessitated by the size of the new-fangled, mechanized coin presses introduced at that time to fulfill the higher demand for coin production.
The Walls: two sets of walls and a moat enclose the castle property, and royal residences, prison cells and soldiers’ quarters were all built into the inner structures of the fortifications. The heavy, outer curtain wall surrounded the entire castle complex just inside the moat, while the inner wall boasts 13 towers (they all have names; I won’t list them here – see the map) and served to contain and further protect the Inner Ward containing the White Tower and all other castle buildings. The walls were primarily constructed by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I in the 12th-13th centuries to fortify the Tower grounds and expand the Royal living quarters. Today, you can walk through several sections of the walls and a number of towers, view Edward I’s bedchamber, peek into a luxurious prison cell complete with writing desk and fireplace, and pretend to be a soldier preparing for an assault on the castle. As you exit the walls, you are even greeted by a pair of tame Ravens kept on the Tower grounds who gladly pose for photos.
I know, I know, I’ve left out all the juicy bits…what about the executions (Anne Boleyn!)? Well, only 12 took place inside the Tower itself – hundreds more were carried out on the infamous Tower Hill to the north of the White Tower, and the last just took place after WWII (a German spy). After all, the Tower served as a prison until 1952! Then there’s the vast riches alluded to above – Google photos of the Crown Jewels, I couldn’t take pictures inside anyway! And the torture chambers – what about the rack? Just watch the TV show The Tudors and you’ll have no more questions.