by Kathy McGillick

Part 1 - Part 2 >>

Overview and Introduction

Founded nearly a millennium ago, The Tower of London has been expanded upon over the centuries by many a king and queen. The first foundations were laid in 1078 and the castle has been constantly improved and extended.

The Tower of London is the oldest palace, fortress and prison in Europe. History has it that King Edward of England backed down on his promise to give the throne to William, Duke of Normandy and ended up giving the throne to Harold Godwinson, his English brother in law.

William, quite angry, sent his army across the English Channel to conquer England and on October 14, 1066 he met Harold at Hastings. The Duke's Norman warriors won the battle, and later that year on Christmas day Wiiliam was crowned king.

William decided he needed a stronghold to keep the unruly citizens of London in line. The site upon which William chose to build his fortress was the very same site upon which Claudius, the Roman Emperor, had built a fortress more than a thousand years before that and traces of the Roman wall are still seen within the Tower grounds.

The addition of other smaller towers, extra buildings, walls and walkways, gradually transformed the original building into the splendid example of castle, fortress, prison, palace and finally museum that we enjoy today.

The Tower began its life as a simple timber and stone enclosure. The original structure was completed by the addition of a ditch and palisade along the north and west sides. This enclosure then received a structure of stone, which came to be called The Great Tower and eventually The White Tower, as we know it today.

Around the year 1240 King Henry III made the Tower of London his home. He whitewashed the tower, widened the grounds to include a church, and added a great hall and other buildings. The Normans called the tower 'La Tour Blanche' [White tower].

The White Tower formed the basis of a residential palace and fortress suited for a king or queen. As history has shown to its occupants, the Tower of London became the perfect all-purpose complex. The Tower of London has been used as a fortress to protect a prison, used to imprison (for many an accused, it was the last sight they saw on earth), as a home for kings and queens, and as a royal mint and treasury.

Originally, the caps at the top of the four turrets were conical, but were replaced by the present onion-shaped ones in the sixteenth century. It was Henry III that renamed the entire area the Tower of London to White Tower. Although he used it as a prison, he continued to use it as a palace and entertained guests and many came with gifts of animals. These gifts were kept near the drawbridge where he built Lion Tower; a zoo where visitors would be greeted by roaring beasts.

Today it houses the Crown Jewels and is keeper to the Royal Ravens. The ravens are flightless birds due to the fact their wings are clipped and this tradition points to the superstition that the English still believe dating back from time of Charles II that when there are no longer ravens in the Tower both the White Tower and the Commonwealth of England would fall.

The Tower was a dynamic and changing project for the kings of England, king after king built upon the Tower adding walls and smaller towers (thirteen inner and six outer) and finally encircling it was a moat whose water was delivered by the Thames River.

Today the official title of the Tower is still 'Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London' although there isn't actually a Tower of London. It is not quite known when the name was first used but through the ages Tower of London has become the accepted term of description for the entire complex.

In part two of this series of articles on the Tower of London we'll take a closer look at the history of the Tower, and some of the famous (and infamous) events that have transpired within its walls.

Part 2 >>

Tower Hill, EC3.

Tower Hill, Thames waterbus to Tower Pier.

Tower of London Map

Tower of London Timeline

About the author
Kathy McGillick is an attorney in the United States. She and her son have been traveling together since 1996. (London naturally is their favorite place)