Tower of London: A Symbol of English Strength

Used over the centuries as barracks, royal residence, court, and prison, the Tower of London has played a leading role in the history of England since its founding in the eleventh century, becoming not only one of the most emblematic buildings of the city of the Thames, but a true symbol of the permanence of the British monarchy, embodied in the crown jewels that guard its mighty walls.

The Tower of London

The origins of the set of fortifications that we know under the generic name of Tower of London date back to one of the most crucial episodes in the history of Great Britain. In 1066, Duke William of Normandy the Bastard, claiming somewhat ethereal rights to the succession to the English throne, landed on the island at the head of an army with which he defeated in the vicinity of Hastings the other pretender to the crown of England, Harold Godwinson, who was killed in battle. William the Bastard thus became William I the Conqueror, and the English Channel, defended from then on by a strong and unified state, became an impassable barrier that no other invader has managed to overcome to this day. After the Battle of Hastings, the fate of the island was sealed, but the Duke of Normandy was not yet King of England. He needed to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, as he had been months before his rival Harold, and to reach Westminster it was essential to control London, the powerful economic capital of the Saxon kingdom. But London was, at that time, a well fortified city, provided with its own army, seasoned in the fight against the Vikings, so William did not try to conquer it, but surrounded it, razing all the surrounding city. Isolated, the city surrendered shortly before Christmas, and the duke could be crowned. 

William I The Conqueror, the first Norman King of England

A few days later, work began on a new fortress by the river, at the southeastern end of the old Roman enclosure, intended to house the Norman garrison that would guarantee both the protection and the submission of the city. It was not a great work, but simply a wooden tower surrounded by a palisade and a moat, but it was the embryo of the Tower of London, and also the first of the many castles with which, in the style of continental feudalism, William consolidated his control over English territory. Ten years later, having consolidated his power, the conqueror ordered the replacement of this first construction with an ambitious stone fortress, the present White Tower - so called because of the plastering it bore for some time -, which would serve as a model for many other Norman castles.

The project was commissioned to the monk Gundulf, who brought a simple but imposing structure, square in plan -35.9 × 32.6 m at the base- and more than 27 m high, flanked by three rectangular towers and a circular one. For the walls, more than 4 m thick, large blocks of Kent limestone were used, reinforced at the angles and openings with white Caen stone from the Norman domains of the Conqueror. Later, in the Tudor period, the arrow slits that were originally its only openings were replaced by windows, and the towers were crowned by graceful domes, but in the time of the Norman kings the figure of the Tower, raising its massive structure above the agglomeration of wooden houses of medieval London, must have been an impressive and somewhat sinister sight, which probably corresponded to the intentions of its founder.

The White Tower - the most recognizable image of the Tower of London

The End of the Middle Ages.

Gradually, under the successors of William I, new bastions, walls, and towers grew up around this initial core, turning the whole into one of the most invulnerable fortresses in Europe and, from our point of view, a magnificent example of the evolution of military architecture throughout the Middle Ages. Its uses also diversified over time. From its foundation, the Tower had been designed to serve as a secondary royal residence and contained a series of rooms intended for this purpose, including the beautiful early Norman chapel of St. John. This function progressively intensified, and by the mid-13th century, when the fortress had grown to the more than 7 ha it occupies today, Henry III had an elegant palace surrounded by gardens built within its walls, suitable to accommodate a court that had also grown in both size and refinement. The wars and disturbances that marked the end of the Middle Ages in England forced the kings to reside with unusual frequency in the Tower, sometimes for their own safety, sometimes as prisoners. Its walls always proved impregnable except on one occasion, during the bloody peasants' revolt of 1381, when a group of rebels managed to make their way into the White Tower, murdered several dignitaries, and ransacked the royal chambers.

Portraits of monarchs Edward IV (left) and Richard III (right)

The use of the Tower as a prison also dates from its earliest days, but never before this confused era had the prisoners been the kings themselves. In 1399, Richard II was taken prisoner, forced to abdicate and later murdered by his cousin Henry IV of Lancaster, whose grandson would suffer exactly the same fate in 1465 at the hands of Edward IV, thus marking the beginning of the War of the Two Roses.

Crimes and Executions.

Although, as we see, it was not the first royal crime that took place in the Tower, the event that cemented its sinister fame was the murder in 1483 of two children, sons and heirs of Edward IV, presumably by order of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who usurped the throne under the name of Richard III. The scene of the crime was the so-called Garden Tower, since then known as the Bloody Tower. The Tudor dynasty, which began just two years later with the defeat and death of Richard III at Bosworth, was not exactly concerned with changing this reputation. Under the Tudor kings, the Tower gradually ceased to be used as a residence and instead accentuated its character as a state prison. And the times that ran, marked by religious persecutions and the troubled married life of Henry VIII, presented itself to the existence of prisoners of high rank. Two of Henry's wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, spent their last days in the Tower before being executed, as did Bishop Fischer, Thomas More, and other victims of the Reformation. 

The infamous Bloody Tower

When Henry was succeeded by his daughter Mary, who tried unsuccessfully to re-establish Catholicism in England, the persecution changed sign, and then the men who had made the Reformation possible, like Cranmer and Latimer, occupied the dungeons of the Tower. Even Mary's sister, the future Queen Elizabeth, was held prisoner in the fortress for two months, accused of conspiracy. She must not have felt very sure about her fate, considering that she entered the enclosure through the so-called Traitors' Gate, which led to the river, and through which, according to a sinister tradition, few of those who entered came out alive. The experience did not, however, prevent Isabella, after her accession to the throne in 1558, from continuing to actively use the Tower to imprison and execute her enemies. The most notable prisoner of her reign was the celebrated navigator and writer Sir Walter Raleigh, who would later be again arrested and executed by James I, after having written in the Tower his monumental "History of the World."

The Crown Jewels.

Under the Stuart kings, the Tower continued to play an important role in the events of the country. During the brief republican experience, the royal apartments were demolished by order of Cromwell, and in 1666 the fortress was nearly razed to the ground by the fire that destroyed old London. A century later, in 1780, the last execution took place in the Tower. The building already had its own mythology, including the legend of the ravens, which probably settled in the Tower from its foundation, as they were very common animals in medieval London. At some point, the belief arose that the kingdom would be lost when the crows left the Tower, and today the small volatile colony is fed at taxpayers' expense. 

The museum inside The Tower of London, house of many royal antiques

Other attractions of a visit to the Tower, as they still are, are the impressive collection of arms and armor, largely assembled by Henry VIII, and illustrating the evolution of the art of war from the Middle Ages to the Napoleonic Wars, and of course the crown jewels. 

Only after World War II did the Tower definitively abandon its role as a prison; in fact, one of its last guests was the Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. Since then it has been exclusively a busy museum, and a symbol loaded with history that the Yeomen of the Guard, popularly known as Beefeaters - "meat-eaters," because of the privileged status enjoyed by its members-, keep alive in their bright Tudor uniforms and ancient rituals.

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