Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress The Tower of London
by Kenneth L
It towers over the northern bank of the River Thames, four spires rising high into the London skyline, ringed in by two stone walls and a moat. Its imposing façade certainly does nothing to detract from the aura of awe and mystery that surrounds it and clings to its name: the Tower of London. Fortress, palace, high prison, and execution ground are its well-known facets, though it has also served the more obscure roles of armory, treasury, zoo, mint, public records office, observatory, and even home to the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. This compound has been and continues to be England’s storied Swiss Army Knife of governmental applications, a complex that can seemingly serve any conceivable purpose, and has.
The Tower of London was founded in 1078 AD, when William the Conqueror ordered the construction of the White Tower (the main building usually referred to as the Tower of London), as a bastion to anchor the defense of the southeast corner of London’s walls. Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, was appointed architect, and the Tower was completed using specially imported Caen stone from France. When finished, its purpose ironically became as much to protect the Norman conquerors from the populace of London as it was to shield against outside invaders.
In the 12th century, King Richard the Lionheart began an expansion of the tower’s grounds, enclosing it within a stone wall and building a moat that would theoretically be filled by water from the Thames, but which remained dry until King Henry III reworked it with a Dutch moat-building technique the next century. Henry III also strengthened the stone wall and added palatial buildings, transforming it into a major royal residence. Construction of the modern Tower of London was finally finished by King Edward I, who added the second wall and moved the moat so it enclosed both walls. The Tower remained a royal residence until the time of Oliver Cromwell, who had the old palatial buildings demolished.
Sometime in the early 13th century, a Royal Menagerie was also established at the Tower, stocked with big cats from Africa and India and other exotic creatures. Occasionally opened to the public during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1804 it became a full-fledged zoo that lasted until the construction of the London Zoo, at which time the animals were transferred there.
It is as a prison, however, that the Tower gained its fame and notoriety. Only prisoners of high rank, religious dissidents, and other important prisoners were housed in this royal fortress, with political prisoners housed in luxurious quarters and religious dissidents tossed in cold cells where they each awaited torture and execution. The first prisoner in the Tower was Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, arrested in 1100 for extortion. Ironically, he had been one of the architects who designed the Tower, and soon escaped by climbing down the side on a rope smuggled to him in a wine casket.
Over the years, many other prominent figures would spend prison time in the Tower. Prominent inmates include King Henry VI (he was murdered there in 1471), Queen Elizabeth I (imprisoned for two months in 1554 on charges of supporting Wyatt’s Rebellion), Guy Fawkes (of Gunpowder Plot fame), Rudolf Hess (deputy leader of the German Nazi Party and the last state prisoner held there), and the Kray twins (the last inmates of the Tower, held there a few days in 1952 for failing to report for national service).
With the rise of modern artillery, the Tower became obsolete as a fortification and the moat was drained in 1830. It remained the headquarters of the British Board of Ordnance for a while and served as a Prisoner of War camp in WWII, but slowly began to fade from practical applications and become more of a national symbol. The Crown Jewels are still held there and, despite no longer housing a royal residence, it is still considered a royal palace and maintains a permanent royal Guard. In 1974, an explosion in the Mortar Room of the White Tower killed one person and injured forty-one. Though no group ever claimed responsibility for the action, it is suspected to have been set off by the IRA.
Even as a tourist attraction and worn symbol of Britain’s past, the Tower continues to hold power as a place of mystery and superstition. Many believe that the ghosts of those executed on its grounds still walk the halls and fill the cells of the old fortress. Even if this isn’t the case, the Tower of London will always look out on its city, a guardian now keeping the secrets of Britain’s past if not the troublemakers and problems of its present.
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