by Debra Brown
The Tower of London: does this phrase strike you with trepidation? Officially Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, the famous landmark was founded during the Norman Conquest of 1066. The White Tower was the first stone keep built in England, and it was begun by William the Conqueror in 1078.
Although the Tower is often thought of as a prison, it was built to be a royal residence and was strongly fortified as such. Early protection was afforded by the River Thames, ditches and ancient Roman town walls. Over the first few centuries of its being built, the fortress became all but impossible to enter without permission. The White Tower came to be surrounded by double concentric walls, the outer being 15 feet thick, and a moat, 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep, on all but its south side, which overlooks the Thames. Visitors had to cross a drawbridge, which could suddenly be pulled up by counterweights, leaving them to drop into pits. If an intruder could get through the first formidable doors, he was likely to be killed traveling across a courtyard to the second by sharpshooters who were well protected behind stone walls. The river side walls were also supplied with arrowslits. Each door had its dangers, such as holes through which boiling oil could be poured from above, and there were even lions and other animals inconveniently placed, though the Lion Tower is now demolished. Over the centuries, modifications such as gun ports were made to address the development of offensive weaponry.
The Tower was broken into violently only once, during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Anger over the poll tax, at the time, was directed at Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was within the Tower walls. He was unpopular, also, with the Warders of the Tower, or the peasants could never have entered. He was dragged out and killed, beheaded with a lack of skill as his skull reveals. His body was given proper burial as the Archbishop, though without his head, which remains at the Tower. The following pictures are from the place of execution on Tower Hill.
Once, in the year 1340, the king arrived via the Thames unannounced and found the Water Gate open and unguarded. There was punishment at hand, and ever since, there has been rigidly structured attention to locking the gates. Even today, every night of the year, the Queen's Keys are carried in great ceremony to lock up the gates of the Tower. The Chief Yeoman Warder, at 9:53, meets his escort warders and they walk to the gates.
This ancient ceremony was interrupted only once since the 14th Century. During World War II there was an air raid on London. Bombs fell on the Victorian guardroom just as the party was coming through the Bloody Tower Archway. The noise knocked the Chief Yeoman and one of the Warder escorts. In the Tower is a letter from the Officer of the Guard in which he apologises to King George VI for the ceremony finishing late, as well as a reply from the King which states that the officer is not to be punished since the delay was due to enemy action.
See also The Tower of London ~ It's Prisoners
Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, a Victorian sweet romance and mystery inspired by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.