Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Tower of London~ Part One

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.

Photo by Thomas Bredøl

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.

Photos by Mike Peel~ www.mikepeel.net

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.

They arrive at 10:00 PM exactly and are challenged by a sentry with a bayonet, who cries loudly, "Who comes here?" The reply by the Chief is, "The Keys." "Whose keys?" "Queen Elizabeth's keys." "Pass, Queen Elizabeth's keys, and all is well." The party passes through the Bloody Tower Archway into the fortress and halts at the Broadway Steps. At the top of the stairs, the Tower Guard presents arms and and the Chief Warder raises his hat and proclaims, "God preserve Queen Elizabeth." The sentry replies, "Amen!" Afterward, the keys are taken to the Queen's House for safekeeping and the Last Post is sounded.

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.
Her Website
Her Blog


  1. Thank you Debbie for this interesting Post. I was at the Tower a couple of years ago doing research for "Gang Petition". Have you ever visited?

  2. No, Peter, I've never been. Don't start me cryin'. :)

  3. one of my favourite places, Debra, thank you.

  4. That's British stiff upper lip for you. Great post.

  5. Thanks to Debra Brown, author of the Victorian romantic mystery, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire for this fascinating, fun and informative article on the history of The Tower of London.

  6. That was very interesting. I didn't know many of the things you've mentioned. Can't wait for the next part.

  7. I recall doing a blog about Ranulf Flambard, who died 5 September 1128 and is best remembered as the first person to be imprisoned in the White Tower – and indeed the first person to escape from it. He jumped out of the window attached to a rope, and landed in the cess pit before making a speedy exit!
    Thanks for the excellent article.Mike

  8. Thanks for the interesting and informative post. It brought back some good memories. We were lucky enough to be able to attend the Key Ceremony one night. It was magical and you felt part of history. Being at the tower after dark was very special!

  9. Thanks for your comments. It would be awe-inspiring to be there for a centuries-old nightly ceremony. The ceremony is carried on even on Christmas Eve when no one is there to see. These warders are not actors or tour guides; they are soldiers, and this is all for real. The fortress is no match for modern weaponry or even helicopters, of course, but there would be serious defensive action if there was an attack. While the Queen is not in residence there, the Crown Jewels and the warder's wives are! Can you imagine moving in there? But they do. They have small apartments in buildings built centuries ago.

  10. Fantastic post. I was there last summer and was awed by it.

  11. I learned a bit with this posting and look forward to the next installment. It sure pays to read the comments too as many people have good additional thoughts.
    Thanks for the posting.

  12. The Tower is an exciting place. In centuries past, people got so excited they lost their head there.

    Good post, Debbie.

  13. Thank you for giving us a more in depth look at the Tower. It was exciting to read about all its "eccentricities."

  14. Always so much to learn! But not all events at the Tower were grim, Simon de Montfort and Eleanore of Pembroke were married there. Though later, when Henry III was in residence and invited the lords to come to him there with their complaints, the popular response was, he invites us like the fox invites the hare to his den.

  15. i want to see this place once in my life this is really beautiful Place.



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