The Tower played a key role as fortress and prison in British History, like when Edward III imprisoned the kings of France and Scotland, and when Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, two of Henry VIII, were executed. During the two World Wars, it was used as military base and place for execution of enemy spies. The structure as we see it today, comprehensive of more than 20 towers, was completed around 1300 by Richard II. Most of Towers were built by Henry III, as well as the Watergate, a secret passage by the river that allowed him to move unseen – it is known today as the Bloody Tower, because of the numerous murders that were committed in the underground passages. Less hidden are Traitor’s Gate, renovated for Anne Boleyn’s coronation (and that later saw her crossing the entrance as a prisoner, not a queen),and Byward Tower, as old as the principal building, the White Tower.
Every corner of the Tower is full of stories, and the Beefeaters are excellent guides. They are chosen among the best of military veterans, and they live inside the Tower, that for them is like a village: the Beefeaters have any kind of duty, from guided tours, to the Ceremony of the Keys (the official closure of the Tower every night), to feeding crows. There is an appointed Ravenmaster that feeds them and checks that they don’t go too far… the legend goes that when the crows will abandon the Tower, it will fall together with the Monarchy. Charles II was the first king to have them protected, against the will of his astronomer, John Flamsteed, that was obstructed by the birds in his observations. In the past, ravens were the least impressive animals that inhabited the tower: in fact, from 1210 the Tower was used as a Menagerie, a sort of zoo, for the animals that came as a gift to the king from far lands. Is used to host, in different times, a dozen of lions, a polar bear sent by the King of Norway, an elephant, several ostriches and an ocelot. The Menagerie was moved to Regent’s Park in the 1830s, when it became too big, but some sculptures by Kendra Haste commemorate its existence.
- HOW TO GET THERE: Nearest Tube stations are Tower Hill and Tower Gatwick. Buses 15, RIV from Central London; 100 and several others from East End. By river, Tower River is the pier. Most important sightseeing buses stop at the Tower as well.
- RIGHT TIME TO GET THERE: Opens daily from 10:00 to 16:30. To avoid crowd, better visit outside lunch hours (12 to 3pm). Suggested visit time is around three hours.
- STATE OF MAINTENANCE: Excellent. The Tower of London is now cared by an independent trustee, Historic Royal Palaces, and it’s a capital occasion for tourists and Londoners to learn more about British history.
- PRICE: Adults tickets, inclusive of all exhibitions, are 24.50£ and 2.50£ are a donation for Tower maintenance.
- SUGGESTED ITINERARY: Beefeaters run popular, free guided tours of one hour. They practice for several months and do a lot of research before speaking to an audience, so each of them has his particular style. No one knows the Tower better than them.
You could start with one of this guided tours, than go to the spots you didn’t visit. Let’s start with the White Tower, siège of the national collection of armouries and weaponry: at the very entrance you will find the Line of Kings, with armours that belonged to Charles I, Henry VIII and James II amongst others. At the first level, the beautiful Norman chapel of St. John, the best-preserved example of Norman architecture still existing. On the second floor, you will learn more about history of the Tower via interactive learning that will amuse the children – and adults will have the chance of handling a real ballista. Every 15 min, actors in costume will narrate episodes that took place place at the Tower. From the spiral stairs we can than descend to the basement, where the biggest part of weaponry collection is set, and torture chamber for prisoners used to be. Just outside the White Tower there is the Crown Jewels exhibition, a favourite of tourists. In 1815, visitors could reach and touch the Royal Treasure, until a woman managed to wrench the State Crown. Be sure not to miss the Medieval Palace, the ensemble of towers that hosted royal residences in 13th century. Bedchambers,fireplaces and chapels have been reconstructed to look as they did in the Middle Age, for a real jump in the past.
No one should manage to escape from London without paying a visit to the Tower – with its richness of history and beauty, this is definitely a stronghold of English cultural Heritage.
Tower of London – United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland