Tower of London Palace in London, England.

Tower of London Palace in London, England.

“Send him to the tower!”

The Tower of London that is, a tower that has imprisoned kings and queens, saints and sinners, the guilty and the innocent…whoever stood in the way of ambition and power.

The day I visited, though, it seemed a peaceful, innocent place. Bathed in the golden glow of sunset, it was hard to imagine the violent millenium that had passed at the Tower of London Palace and the powerful who had walked its halls–some of whom, it’s believed, still haunt the towers where they were imprisoned.

I was in London, England, and had just left my hop-on-hop-off bus tour for a long-awaited visit to one of the world’s–and my–most popular places, the Tower of London. In fact, the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.

View of London Bridge and the palace grounds from an upper floor inside the palace at the Tower of London.

View of London Bridge over the River Thames,  and the palace grounds, from an upper floor inside the palace at the Tower of London.

 

Tower of London FAQ

  • The Tower of London was built at the end of 1066 by the Normans, during their conquest of England.
  • The Tower of London and its palace (sometimes also called its castle) are built on the banks of the River Thames.
  • William the Conqueror added the White Tower in 1078.
  • Various other sections were built over the years, with today’s layout being from around the 13th century.
  • The Tower of London was used as a prison since at least 1100.
  • Most of those imprisoned in the Tower of London were executed publicly on Tower Hill (112 people over 400 years).
  • Seven men and women were executive privately inside the palace walls on Tower Green starting with William Hastings (June 13, 1483), and ending with Robert Devereux (Feburary 25, 1601). Three Black Watch soldiers were also executed there in the 18th century.
  • Many famous people were imprisoned in the tower, with Elizabeth I, before she became queen, the most well-known.
  • The Tower of London was used as a prison again during World War I and II, and 12 men were executed for espionage.
  • Today the Palace is operated and cared for by the independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces.

I’ve always been drawn to the medieval time period in history with its castles and knights and kings and queens and jousts and… well, pretty much everything!

Broad Arrow Tower, Built 1240 in the Tower of London.

Broad Arrow Tower, Built 1240 in the Tower of London. Sir Everard Digby carved his name in the wall while he imprisoned in this tower in 1605 after the Gunpowder plot failed. He was eventually drawn and quartered for punishment.

The Tower of London stands out for me in British history, maybe because of the beheadings that happened here. After all, what other man than England’s Henry VIII ever imprisoned and beheaded two wives (Anne Boleyn–May 19, 1536, and Catherine Howard, February 13, 1542)? And how many queens have reigned any shorter than Lady Jane Grey, who was beheaded after being queen for just nine days?

At any rate, my afternoon at the Tower of London was amazing in more ways than one. The palace and its grounds twisted and turned through walkways, narrow stone stairwells, tiny private rooms and immense public ones, from tower to tower and building to building.

I was glad I wasn’t a lowly house servant in medieval times, or I’d likely have been beaten for my poor sense of direction!

I did, however, eventually get to all of the main parts of the medieval fortress. Gazing at the 23,578 gems that make up the Crown Jewels, I began to get an idea of how important those crowns had been centuries ago. I couldn’t imagine the weight of one on my head, or on my shoulders for that matter, ruling a country in a time of such political and religious upheaval.

Wandering through the palace rooms provided some insights into the life of those “lucky” enough to live at the Tower of London back when it was a royal residence. Names scratched into the rock in the prisoner’s display area gave me goosebumps, as I thought of the many torture devices used during the middle ages.

I did manage to see all of the top ten things on this list from Historic Palaces: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/planyourvisit/toptenthingstoseeanddo

The most significant though, was the actual execution site where the beheadings were done in the courtyard. I wished it had been dark or dusk at least, so I might have glimpsed the ghost of Anne Boleyn and the French swordsman who put her to death, or seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, refusing to convert to Catholicism even to save her neck.

There wasn’t a gallows though, nor any hint of the events that history had recorded. Instead, the poem by sculptor, Brian Catling, “May they rest in peace, while we walk the generations around their strife and courage, under these restless skies,” circled a small monument that named all who met their fate on these grounds.

Monument on the Execution site at the Tower of London.

Monument on the Execution site at the Tower of London. It was created by artist, Brian Catling.

 

So once again, a UNESCO World Heritage site has landed on my 2012 staycation list of favorite places I’ve visited in years past. This one was an easy pick, as I’ve loved British history since I studied the Tudors and the Stuarts back in seventh grade history. The site truly is amazing in how well it has been preserved and how a sense of history and timelessness exists even amidst the throng of tourists, who, like me, visit the Tower of London for a glimpse into the past.

This YouTube video, from Historic Royal Palaces, will give you a great tour of the Tower of London:

 

 

Information on visiting the Tower of London

You can take virtual tours of many parts of the Tower of London at this site, as well as buy tickets for your in-person visit to the Tower of London: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/

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