The Tower of London was one of the attractions that we were most excited to visit in London — mostly because an obscure novel that both Tracy and I had read at least five years earlier contained a bunch of Tower history amidst the plot.
After getting off the Thames river cruise, we walked up the street toward the entrance to the Tower.
Here was another attraction covered by our London Pass. Tickets would have cost £24 each (or a total of £48), and we only needed to save an additional £34 to recoup the cost of the London Pass. Which means that not only had we broken even, but we actually came out £14 ahead! And our ticket allowed us to skip the line going into the Tower complex, which would have been decently long.
Some of the first adornments we saw around the Tower were these metal sculptures of lions. In the book I mentioned — The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise — we learned about how the Tower of London was home to the city’s first menagerie (and a precursor to the London Zoo) back in the Middle Ages.
In addition to lions, the Tower was also home to a polar bear and even an elephant. The animals were not treated well back in the 1300s, which is unfortunate, but I appreciate that history acknowledges their existence all these centuries later.
The royal crest was still everywhere as we walked around the Tower. Gotta love the lion and the unicorn.
Here was the first Beefeater we saw as we made our way into the tower. Now, it’s hard to really paint an accurate picture of the Beefeaters when all I have are still photos because their booming voices and larger-than-life personalities are their hallmark, but those iconic uniforms are unique in themselves.
Unfortunately, as we rounded a corner into the Tower courtyard, we saw a sandwich board proclaiming that the last Beefeater tour for the day had already left. This discovery threw a huge wrench in our plans, because we knew that the tours were the main reason to come to the Tower. Luckily, just as we were getting stressed out about our bad timing, a tour started to make its way down the walkway. Since it was already a huge group, we were able to slip in amongst the crowd without anyone questioning whether we had been there the whole time. And it seemed like we really hadn’t missed much.
Our loud-mouthed tour guide was named Peter (or “Beefeater Peter” as he called himself). We followed him around the Tower complex as he spouted information about the history of the place and the job of the Yeoman Warders. The shtick for which the Beefeaters are well known is that they are essentially supposed to be gruff and loud and strike a balance between a prison guard and a medieval town cryer as they recount the long story of this fortress — which includes lots of bloody stories about prisoners and executions.
We could tell after the first little bit of storytelling that we really liked Beefeater Peter. And for good reason, too, apparently. Looking him up more than a year-and-a-half later, it seems as though he has been promoted to the position of Deputy Beefeater, which puts him in charge of the group of 35 Yeoman Warders living at the Tower and leading its tours.
Now, about the Tower itself, it was erected on Tower Hill at the behest of William the Conqueror in the 1060s. Using the original Roman town walls (because London was once an entirely walled in city) as some of its fortifications, the castle was built to help fortify the metropolis against potential invaders coming from the other side of the Thames. The White Tower was the main structure of the complex. It got its name from the lightly-colored Caen stone that was imported from France to build its facade. It was also frequently white-washed during its early history to help it stand out. This “keep” featured lodging for the king and some of his higher-ranking subordinates.
In the late 11th century, King William II ordered the construction of walls around the Tower complex to further bolster its defenses. An outer set of walls were then added in the 13th century to make impregnation of the fortress almost impossible. The Tower’s first prisoner was held beginning in the year 1100, kicking off a period of almost 1,000 years during which the complex would often be used to hold perceived lawbreakers. In the 1200s, the king had a water-gate built to transport prisoners into the Tower. It became known as Traitors’ Gate, and many of the most notable historical detainees came through the gate into the Tower complex.
The Bloody Tower got its name because it is widely acknowledged to be the place where the young Princes Edward and Richard were murdered in the 15th century as part of their uncle’s plot to steal the throne after their father’s death.
There are really great views of nearby Tower Bridge from inside the Tower of London complex.
Other key prisoners throughout history who were kept in the Tower included Guy Fawkes, who was tortured here after confessing to his plot to blow up Parliament, and Anne Boleyn, who lost her head during her stay within the complex. Walter Raleigh was considered lucky to imprisoned in the Tower in the 17th century, because it was safer than many of the city’s other prisons — especially during the time of the plague. Even the future Queen Elizabeth I spent some time locked up here when Queen Mary thought that she might be involved in a treasonous plot.
Several buildings are off-limits to guests because they serve more mundane purposes, such as administration and housing. It’s easy to forget when walking around the Tower that the Beefeaters (and their families) actually live here. As we stood on the edge of Tower Green, many of the residential buildings could be seen around the perimeter.
Here you can see two Tower stalwarts. First, the Queen’s Guard always has a presence (similar to the soldiers outside Buckingham Palace). They have the same booths to protect them from the elements, and they are just as statuesque and non-smiling as ever. Second, here is a glimpse of one of the Tower’s ravens. Since the late 1600s, the complex has always been home to at least six ravens, who are fed and cared for by the Yeoman Warders. The ravens have had their wings clipped so that they can’t escape — not that they would want to because they are treated like royalty themselves. The tradition is part of a superstition that if there aren’t ravens at the Tower for any length of time, the Crown will fall. Tower ravens have all been given names and historically live for up to 40 years.
The last stop on our Beefeater tour was the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula. In addition to being a functioning church for Tower residents, this chapel is also the burial place of many prisoners who met their maker as prisoners of the Tower, including two of Henry VIIIs wives and Lady Jane Grey. I took this picture right before Beefeater Peter asked that our group not take photos in the chapel, so it’s the only one I’ve got, but there were lots of very interesting artifacts to be found in there, including a list on the wall of every famous personage ever buried on the grounds.
When our Beefeater tour was done, we parted ways with our very knowledgable and likable guide to walk around the rest of the complex on our own. We still had a few important sights to see within the Tower grounds before heading out, but here are just a couple more pictures of building exteriors.
I love the juxtaposition of antiquity and contemporary architecture in this picture, with the famous Shard building seen just beyond the walls of the Tower. The two structures were built about 800 or 900 years apart from one another — quintessential London.
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