The fascinating Tower of London has a towering presence in British history

Tower of London has a fascinating history of palace intrigues, fluctuating fate and royal tragedies

The fascinating Tower of London has a towering presence in British history

Soma Chakravertty

Tower of London has a towering presence in the annals of British history. It has been a royal palace, a prison, a place of execution, storehouse for arms and ammunition, royal mint, the repository for royal treasure, public record office and even had a menagerie!

William I, the Conqueror, started to erect the tower on the north bank of river Themes in 1066. The oldest stone tower known as White Tower came up in 1078. Later, Henry III (1216-1272) and Edward (1272-1307) added to the existing Tower in order to fortify the defence and over the period of time built 13 towers around it. Some of the better-known Towers are the Bloody Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Beauchamp Tower. Once upon a time, it was surrounded by a moat fed by river Themes. The complex covers 18 acres and served as a royal residence till 1834.

Tower of London has a fascinating history of palace intrigues, fluctuating fate and royal tragedies. Henry VI was murdered in the private chapel of The Bloody Tower In 1471, during the Wars of the Roses. Adolescent Prince and heir to the throne Edward and his brother Richard disappeared from the tower in1483. 1n 1674 two skeletons were discovered and re-examination of the boned in1933 revealed that they were of boys aged twelve and ten years. The princes when they vanished without a trace were of the same age. It is believed that they might have been killed by Richard III, who occupied the throne.

The Tower became a formidable prison and place of execution during the medieval period. Royals, religious or political decedents, spies and low-down faced the fate alike. Executions took place on Tower Green or on Tower Hill in public. Some of the people who were executed there are Sir Simon Burley, tutor and advisor of Richard II in 1388, William Hastings, who tried to support the claims of Edward VI children to the throne in 1483, statesman Edmund Dudley (1510), Sir Thomas More (1535), Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII on charges of adultery and treason in1536, Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley who unwittingly got trapped in palace intrigues, in 1554, Katharine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn and fifth wife of Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the House of Lords with gunpowder (1606) and Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618. The last execution in Tower of London, was of Josef Jakobs, a German Spy, by a firing squad.

Royal Menagerie was located at Lion Tower from 13th century till 1834 when it was shifted to a zoo in London. It had lions, tigers, leopards, a polar bear, an African elephant, eagles, ostrich and even a baboon.

During the regime of Edward till 1810 all coins were minted at the Tower Mint. The Tower was originally a fortress, the gun platforms were added around 1680 and storehouse for arms and ammunition was built between 1622 and 1702. An impressive collection of arms exhibited at the Tower features a set of armour gilded with gold, of Charles I. (1612) among others armours.

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

In 1303, a number of jewels and treasure got stolen from the Abbey of St Peter at Westminster and thus began the role of the Tower as a repository of Royal Regalia. A jewel house was built against the south side of White Tower in 1508. Unfortunately, much of the original Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia were destroyed in order to do away with all symbols of monarchy, by a decree of Parliament in 1649 after the civil war and execution of Charles I when England experimented with democracy. The Regalia was mostly melted and precious stones sold. What survived was a 12th-century gold Anointing Spoon and three steel coronation swords –the Swords of Temporal Justice, of spiritual justice and of Mercy.

Charles II returned to England in! 660 after fourteen years of exile. To bring back the glory of monarchy and establish continuity with past, he recreated the Coronation Regalia consisting coronation crown, state crown, a gold sovereign orb, gem cast sceptre, swords, spurs, ring and bracelets and used them for his own coronation. These are used in every coronation since then.

Crown jewels and Coronation Regalia even today are kept in the Tower, guarded by a garrison of soldiers. These are used during important state functions. The collection has the largest clear diamond, Cullinan 1, set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre with a cross, on the Imperial State Crown is the Cullinan II, the Stuart Sapphire, St. Edward’s sapphire and the Black Prince Ruby. Koh-i-Noor, which apparently brings bad luck to men, adorns Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mothers crown since 1837.

The Chapel Royal of St.Peter ad Vincula is best known as the burial ground of three queens of Henry VII, Anna Boleyn, Jane Grey and Katherine Howard who were beheaded at the Tower Green.

Between closing and opening of the Tower Gate for the hundreds of visitors in Key Ceremony performed by Yeomen Warders, there is yet another side or rather life, of Tower of London. It is the home for the Yeomen Warders and their families. Originally they were personal bodyguards of the King. Henry VIII decreed that they were to stay on the premises for guarding the Tower. They got the name of Beef Eater as they were permitted to eat as much beef as they could from Kings ‘s table. They still don the Tudor uniform. Now they guide the visitors, guard the Tower and one of them as Raven Master looks after the seven Ravens staying in the Tower. Legend says the Tower and Monarchy will fall if the Ravens leave the Tower! The Tower has a Resident Governor, the garrison of soldiers, a doctor, a Chaplin. And sometimes, according to the Yeoman Warders, Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, two little Princes and a black bear is sighted.

Tower of London was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

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