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Tower of London

Tower of London from River Thames

ABOVE: The Tower of London, viewed from the River Thames. INSET BELOW: A Yeoman Warder describes dramatic scenes from the Tower's history.

Tourists and Beefeater at Tower of LondonThe Tower of London is one of Britain's premier historic sites, drawing some 2.5 million tourists and Londoners per year.

Fortunately, the nearly 1,000-year-old castle has plenty of room for crowds, with 18 acres (7.3 hectares) of towers, walls, and green space overlooking the banks of the River Thames.

An eight-year, £20 million restoration and improvement project has made this UNESCO World Heritage Site even more attractive, accessible, and convenient for visitors.

The Tower of London is operated by Historic Royal Palaces, a Royal Charter Body that also manages Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, and the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

Capsule history:

White Tower at Tower of London

ABOVE: The shadow of the axe falls before the White Tower, which was begun in 1077 and finished 20 years later. INSET BELOW: Tudor reenactment near the Queen's House on Tower Green.

The Tower of London's history can be traced back to 1067, when William the Conqueror ordered a wooden fortress built along the Thames to keep Londoners from rebelling against their Norman occupiers.

Ten years later, work began on the White Tower, a stone keep built atop ruins of Roman fortifications.

Tudor re-enactment on Tower Green, Tower of LondonThis stronghold--which William named the "Tower of London"--soon grew into a full-scale castle with concentric walls, a moat, and other buildings such as the Garden Tower or Bloody Tower (where the Little Princes are said to have been murdered in 1485), Beauchamp Tower (famous for its carvings and inscriptions of medieval prisoners), and Queen's House, where Elizabeth I was imprisoned on orders of her half-sister, Queen Mary, for several months in 1554).

The Tower is perhaps best known as a prison, a role that it served from the beginning of the 11th Century until the early years of World War II.

It has also housed the Royal Mint, a menagerie, an armory, and the Crown Jewels.

Since World War II, the Tower of London has been open to the public as an historic site and a tourist attraction.

Famous prisoners:

Actors portraying prisoners at Tower of London

ABOVE: Actors portray inmates at the Traitors' Gate, the Tower's main entrance on the Thames. Left to right: A German WWII prisoner, Ann Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Bishop Ranulf Flambard.

The Tower of London was the celebrity prison of medieval and Tudor times, attracting a better class of inmate than your common-garden dungeon or gaol.

The Tower's first prisoner (and escapee) was Bishop Ranulf Flambard, who received Concierge Floor treatment in the White Tower after being imprisoned by Henry I in 1100. The bishop subsequently hosted a party his guards, then slithered down a rope and escaped in a waiting boat while they were drunk.

Sir Walter Raleigh inhabited the Garden Tower (a.k.a. the Garden Tower) for 13 years with his wife and children as companions. Raleigh, who is said to have taught Queen Elizabeth I how to smoke, raised grew tobacco on Tower Green when he wasn't occupied with writing The History of the World.

Guy Fawkes, whose role in the Gunpowder Plot is still commemorated with bonfires and fireworks, was interrogated in the tower before being hung, drawn, and quartered at Westminster.

Lord Nithsdale earned "famous prisoner" status as the Tower's first and only cross-dressing escapee. On the eve of his scheduled execution, his wife and two servants brought him a disguise of women's clothing. (See our short piece on Lord Nithsdale's escape.)

The Tower continued to be used as a prison during two World Wars, and the presence of German soldiers and spies in the Tower may well have protected it from bombing.

The most famous German prisoner was Rudolf Hess, the Deputy FŁhrer of the Third Reich, who spent five days in Queen's House after flying from Germany to Scotland in May, 1941.


Contrary to popular belief, only a small number of executions have taken place within the Tower of London. Most condemned prisoners were taken to Tower Hill or other places in London for beheading or to be hung, drawn, and quartered.

Six beheadings have occurred on Tower Green. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was executed by a French swordsman in 1536; Catherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife, lay her head on the block in 1542. Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen for only nine days in 1553, died by the axe in 1554 for "usurping the throne of England."

Less famous victims were Margaret Plantagenet Pole, the 68-year-old Countess of Salisbury, who refused to go quietly and required several blows of the axe to die in 1541. The last prisoner to beheaded at the Tower was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was arrested after plotting against Queen Elizabeth I in 1601.

Josef Jakobs execution chair, Tower of LondonA somewhat larger number of prisoners have been executed by shooting: three Black Watch Mutineers in 1743, 11 German spies in World War I, and--on August 15, 1941--Josef Jakobs, a German who parachuted into England and later was shot while seated in a chair (see photo at right) because he'd injured his leg in the jump.

The World War I and II executions took place in the Tower's East Casemates Rifle Range.

Yeoman Warders ("Beefeaters"):

Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) at Tower of London

ABOVE: Yeoman Warders with John Keohane (who was Yeoman Gaoler when this photo was taken) and Tom Sharp, Mr. Keohane's predecessor as Chief Yeoman Warder. INSET BELOW: A Yeoman Warder gives directions to young visitors.

Beefeater with children, Tower of LondonThirty-six Yeoman Warders guard the Tower of London with the help of a British Army unit. They report to the Yeoman Gaoler and the Chief Yeoman Warder (the two gentlemen on the right side of the group photo above).

In addition to keeping an eye on the Tower, the Yeoman Warders lead free tours and answer questions for visitors.

Sample Q&A:

Tourist: "Where was Ann Boleyn beheaded?"
Yeoman Warder (touching finger to neck): "Right about here."

The Yeoman Warders also have ceremonial duties, including the nightly Ceremony of the Keys (see below) and attending such events as royal coronations and the Lord Mayor's Show in the City of London.

Natasha Woollard of the Tower's press office and John Keohane, the Yeoman Gaoler during my visit, were kind enough to supply a number of facts about the Yeoman Warders:

  • A so-called Beefeater's official title is: "Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary."

  • The erroneous nickname "Beefeater" probably dates back to the time when Yeoman Warders were given a daily ration of meat. (Records show, that in 1813, the daily ration for the 30 men on duty was a remarkable 24 pounds of beef, 18 pounds of mutton, and 16 pounds of veal.)

  • To apply for a position as a Yeoman Warder, you must have 19 years' of service with good conduct as a senior non-commissioned officer from the Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or Royal Navy. (Only a small number of applicants are accepted.)

  • New Yeoman Warders are sworn in on Tower Green, where they take an oath of allegiance that dates back to 1337. After the ceremony, the new recruits' health is toasted by the Chief Yeoman Warder from a ceremonial punchbowl. (The punchbowl was a gift from Yeoman Warder Wilkins, who was found to be earning a living as an innkeeper in Southwark when he should have been on duty.)

  • The Yeoman Warders and their families are required to live at the Tower. (You'll see their neatly tended rowhouses facing Tower Green.) In addition, they must own homes elsewhere in England so they'll have a place to go when they retire.

The Yeoman Warders have two uniforms:

  • The ceremonial uniform is worn for state occasions; e.g., when the monarch visits the Tower or for any state occasion that the Body attends. This uniform is predominantly red and goldwith red stockings, a white ruff, and black patent shoes.

  • For everyday wear, the Yeoman Warders wear a blue undress uniform that comes in summer and winter weights. (See photos above.)

Moira Cameron, first female Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) at Tower of LondonFinally, the first woman Yeoman Warder (a former Army accountant named Moira Cameron) began working in uniform at the Tower of London on September 3, 2007.

Sites and sights: 

Scaffold site, Tower of London

ABOVE: Two of Henry VIII's wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were beheaded on the scaffold site at the Tower of London. INSET BELOW: Traitors' Gate; prisoners' inscriptions at Beauchamp Tower.

The easiest way to get your bearings (along with an understanding of the Tower and its history) is to join a Yeoman Warder tour, which is certain to be both informative and entertaining.

After that, you can wander about the Tower's grounds on your own, allowing time for such attractions as:

  • The White Tower, which dates back to the time of William the Conqueror and is the oldest of the Tower's buildings. An ancient chapel is on the ground floor; head upstairs to see displays from the Royal Armouries and special exhibitions.

  • The Medieval Palace, which includes St. Thomas's Tower, the Wakefield Tower, and the Lanthorn Tower. The reconstructed interiors will give you a sense of what the palace was like in the 13th and 14th Centuries.

  • Traitor's Gate, Tower of LondonTraitors' Gate (photo at right), the Tower's water entrance from the 13th through the 18th Centuries. Many prisoners arrived here by boat from the Thames.

  • Tower  Green and the Scaffold Site (see photo at top of page), where seven famous prisoners--including three Queens of England--were executed by axe or sword.

  •  Chapel Royal of St. Peter et Vincula, which faces Tower Green, has Sunday services that are open to the public.

  • Bloody Tower, a former gatehouse that has been occupied by such famous prisoners as the Little Princes (Edward IV's sons) and Sir Walter Raleigh. The latter's apartment is furnished as it might have appeared during his 13-year stay.

  • Beauchamp Tower, Tower of LondonBeauchamp Tower, where you'll find prisoners' inscriptions (photo at right) and displays of archaeological discoveries at the Tower of London.

  • The Crown Jewels and the Tower Ravens, which are described elsewhere in this article. (See navigation table below.)

  • The Wall Walk, which runs along the Tower's eastern inner curtain wall that was built early in the 13th Century.

Crown Jewels:

Queen Victoria's Small Diamond Crown, Tower of London Crown Jewels exhibit

ABOVE: Queen Victoria's Small Diamond Crown measures 3.7 inches (9.9 cm) high and 3.4 inches (9 cm) in diameter. It was worn atop a widow's cap. The crown was made in 1870, using some 1,300 diamonds from a large necklace and other jewelry in the Queen's personal collection.

INSET BELOW: The Jewel House has been located in Waterloo Block since 1994.

Keith Hanson is Chief Exhibitor of the Crown Jewels, having been appointed to that post in 2000 after serving as a Yeoman Warder.

Hanson, who lives at the Tower with his wife Angela, is the latest in a long line of Englishman who have watched over the royal Regalia since the Crown Jewels were first displayed to the public at the Tower of London in 1661 (and possibly earlier).

Waterloo Block, Tower of LondonThe Jewel House is located in Waterloo Block. (See inset photo.) When you enter, you'll walk past displays of Royal maces, swords, and other ceremonial items until you reach the chamber where the Coronation Regalia are on display.

There, you'll step onto a moving walkway that slowly takes you past well-lit display cases that hold the Imperial State Crown, Queen Victoria's Small Diamond Crown (see photo above), the Imperial Crown of India, and other precious items. The jewels are dazzling (literally as well as figuratively) in the otherwise darkened room.

Once you've stepped off the moving walkway, you can return to the head of the display cases and repeat the process on the other side, or you can climb a few steps to a viewing platform that offers a different perspective on the collection.

Next, continue to the next room where you can see Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation Robe and other gear. (Film footage of the Queen's coronation ceremony on June 2, 1953 is shown continuously on high-definition TV screens.)

Some of the items to look for during your visit include:

  • The Cullinan I diamond, also known as the First Star of Africa, is the largest top-quality cut diamond in the world. It weighs slightly more than 530 carats and is mounted on the Sceptre. (The Cullinan I was one of nine large diamonds and 96 small brilliants cut over a period of eight months from the Cullinan diamond, which weighed 3,106 carats uncut.)

  • The Cullinan II, the world's second-largest top-quality cut diamond, weighs 317 carats and is on the front of the Imperial State Crown.

  • The Koh-I-Noor ("Mountain of Light")  diamond, weighs 105.6 carats and is mounted on the Queen Mother's Crown. Many legends are associated with the diamond, which was surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England when the British Empire annexed the Punjab in 1849.

Here are more facts about the Crown Jewels, compliments of the Tower's press office and the Chief Exhibitor:

  • The silver gilt spoon is the oldest piece in the collection. It was probably made for Henry II or Richard I and is the only piece of royal goldsmith's work to survive from the 12th Century.

  • William IV's coronation crown was so heavy, at 7 pounds, that the new king developed a tootache and needed to have the offending tooth removed.

  • So far, there has been only one attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, by Colonel Blood in 1671. He failed, and--if you're lucky--you'll see a re-enactment of his attempt, or a story by costumed interpreters, during your visit to the Tower.

  • The Crown Jewels are cleaned regularly by a master jeweler who works in a special room on the premises after visiting hours.

  • The Imperial State Crown, which was created in 1937 for the coronation of George VI, is set with 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 5 rubies, and 273 pearls.

  • When the Imperial State Crown is removed from its display case for a coronation or the yearly opening of Parliament, it is replaced by a small sign that simply reads "IN USE."

The Tower Ravens:

Raven Master and ravens, Tower of London

ABOVE: The Tower's former Raven Master, Derrick Coyle, with one of his charges. INSET: A bird poses for tourists.

Nobody knows when ravens first came to the Tower of London, but they've been associated with the Tower for centuries.

Legend dictates that, if the ravens ever leave, the Tower will fall and the Kingdom will fall, so Charles II decreed that there must always be at least six ravens at the Tower. That tradition has been honored for more than 300 years.

Raven, Tower of LondonIf you're an aficionado of raven trivia, take a moment to memorize these facts and figures about the Tower's avian mascots:

  • Seven ravens currently live at the Tower. Three are females; four are males. The two newest birds, Bran and Branwen, joined the team in August, 2003.

  • To keep the birds from flying away, the Raven Master clips their lifting feathers. The procedure doesn't hurt them in any way; it simply unbalances their flight so they won't stray from the Tower.

  • Ravens have escaped occasionally. Grog was last seen outside an East End pub called the Rose and Punchbowl in 198 after living at the tower for 21 years (seven years longer than Sir Walter Raleigh).

  • Occasionally, birds are dismissed for bad behavior. George was exiled to the Welsh Mountain Zoo in 1986 after developing an unhealthy taste for TV antennas, while two other ravens were banished in 1996 for "conduct unbecoming Tower residents."

  • Ravens are well fed: Each bird's daily ration includes 6 ounces of meat and bird-formula biscuits soaked in blood. Once a week the birds enjoy an egg, and they're occasionally given a rabbit (the fur is good for them). The ravens also enjoy scraps from the Tower's mess kitchen.

  • Ravens can live to a ripe old age. The oldest raven to live at the Tower was Jim Crow, who died at the age of 44. The oldest raven curently living at the Tower is Hardey, who is 26 years old.

  • Since 1987, the Tower has undertaken an ambitious and successful breeding program. Charlie and Rhys paired up and produced a total of 17 chicks.

(The information above was supplied by the Tower's press office, whose staff are on good terms with their feathered colleagues.)

Ceremony of the Keys:

Ceremony of the Keys, Tower of London 

ABOVE: Conclusion of the nightly ceremony. INSET BELOW: Chief Yeoman Warder in ceremonial uniform with Tudor-style hat.

For more 700 years, the Gentleman Porter or (in more recent times) the Chief Yeoman Warder has has locked the Tower's heavy wooden gates each night with a set of heavy keys.

Chief Yeoman Warder in ceremonial uniform, Tower of LondonOriginally, the Tower was locked from dusk till dawn. In 1826, when the Duke of Wellington became Constable of the Tower, he ordered the start time changed to 9:53 p.m. so the garrison could enjoy some time on the town. That time still stands, with the seven-minute ceremony being complete (and the wooden gates locked for the night) at 10:00 p.m.

The Yeoman Warders take great pride in the fact that the Ceremony of the Keys continued without interruption even when several German bombs fell on the Tower in World War II. (After a direct hit in September, 1941, the ceremony was delayed by half an hour but went ahead after the dust and smoke had settled.)

It's worth noting that the Ceremony of the Key isn't just for show: As the Tower's press office points out, "The importance of securing this fortress for the night is still very relevant, because although the monarch no longer resides at this royal Palace, her crown jewels do!"

How to observe the ceremony

Anyone can witness the Ceremony of the Keys, which normally is open to the public every night of the year. However, tickets--which are free--must be obtained in advance by booking online. (The ceremony is extremely popular, so we recommend booking months ahead.)

What you'll see

On the night of the ceremony, you'll be admitted to the Tower at 9:30 p.m. precisely and escorted to a spot near the Bloody Tower.

A Yeoman Warder will tell you how to behave (no talking, no photos), and at 9:53 p.m. the Chief Yeoman Warder will approach with the Keys of the Tower in one hand and a brass lantern in the other. He'll collect his escort from the military guards and proceed to the entrance to secure the main gates.

During the ceremony, the Yeoman Warder will reply to a guard's challenge, and the Ceremony of the Keys will later conclude with a bugle call (see photo at top of page). At 10:05 p.m, you and your fellow visitors will be escorted to the after-hours gate used by the Tower's Yeoman Warders and military guards.

  • Tip: If you're visiting the Tower on the same day that you attend the Ceremony of the Keys, you'll have several hours to kill between the Tower's closing time and the ceremony.

    You can easily head to another part of London for dinner from the Underground station at Tower Hill, but another option is to cross Tower Bridge and explore Butler's Wharf, which once was London's biggest warehouse complex and is now a trendy area of restaurants, art galleries, and shops.

Events and reenactments:

Gun salute by Honourable Artillery Company, Tower of London

ABOVE: Gun salute by the Honourable Artillery Company, the oldest armed body in Britain. INSET BELOW: Colonel Blood attempts to steal the Crown Jewels.

The Tower of London keeps visitors (and Londoners) coming back with seasonal events, historic reenactments, and special exhibitions.

  • Gun salutes are perennial crowd-pleasers; these take place at least half a dozen times a year on such occasions as the Queen's official birthday (62 guns) and the State Opening of Parliament (41 guns).

    If you're a fan of noise and smoke, try to visit the Tower in years when the Queen's official birthday coincides with the Duke of Edinburgh's actual birthday (June 10), which last happened in 1967. In those years, 124 shots are fired consecutively from the Honourable Artillery Company's 105mm light gun on Tower Wharf. (Blank rounds are used in respect for Thames river traffic.)

  • Colonel Thomas Blood re-enactment, Tower of LondonRe-enactments and narrations by costumed performers take place throughout the year. In the photo at right, for example, an actor portrays Colonel Thomas Blood, an Irish scoundrel who nearly got away with the Crown Jewels after cozying up to the Keeper's daughter in 1671.

  • State parades take place on Easter, Whitsun, and the Sunday before Christmas. Yeoman Warders escort the Governor from the Queen's House to a service in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula and back again. (Anyone can watch the parade, but if you'd like to attend the service, you'll need to phone the chaplain well in advance to obtain written permission.)

  • A ceremony named the Constable's Dues occurs whenever a large Royal Navy ship visits the port of London (normally about a year). The ship honors an ancient tradition by delivering a barrel of rum to the Tower's Constable.

  • On Ascension Day every three years, local children whack theTower's boundary markers with willow tands in a ceremony known as the Beating of the Bounds. (This is in honor of 14th Century boys who were thrashed whenever they encroached on the Tower's grounds.)

  • Special exhibitions and tours occur regularly at the Tower; these range from "ghost tours" to royal murder mysteries to medieval Christmas celebrations.

Visitor information:

Aerial view, Tower of London

ABOVE: An aerial view of the Tower and the Thames. INSET BELOW: John Keohane, the Chief Yeoman Warder at the time of my visit, enjoyed a cup of tea in the New Armouries restaurant.

Opening hours and tickets. The Tower of London is open year-round. Opening days and hours vary according to the season and government public-health guidelines.

See "Web information" below to check current times and ticket prices.

Transportation. The Tower of London is easy to reach by Underground, bus, or boat. The closest tube station is Tower Hill, which is served by the Circle and District lines.

Former Chief Yeoman Warder John Keohane, Tower of LondonFood and drink. The New Armouries restaurant serves drinks, sandwiches, pastries, and hot meals, including a traditional English cream tea in the afternoon. The Wharf Kiosk outside the tower has drinks, snacks, and ice cream.

Shops. Half a dozen shops offer everything from Yeoman Warder-themed souvenirs to armor replicas and Crown Jewels-inspired jewelry.

Web information. The Tower of London section of the Historic Royal Palaces Web site is your official guide to the Tower. Another useful resource is Camelot Village: The Tower of London.

More Historic Royal Palaces:
Hampton Court Palace
Kensington Palace

Most photos copyright © HRP. Used by permission.