The History of the Tower of London

Library of Congress
The Tower of London. Library of Congress

If you watch a British entertainer on their home soil make a joke about the Royal Family, you'll probably see them follow it up with a quip like "oh, they’ll take me to the Tower!" They don't need to say which tower. Everyone growing up in the mainstreams of British culture hears about 'The Tower', a building as famous and central to the national myths of England as the White House is to the myths of the United States.

Built on the north bank of the River Thames in London and once a home of royalty, a jail for prisoners, a site for executions and a storehouse for an army, the Tower of London now contains the Crown Jewels, guardians nicknamed 'Beefeaters' (they aren't keen on the name) and legend securing ravens. Don't be confused by the name: the 'Tower of London' is actually a huge castle-complex formed by centuries of addition and alteration. Described simply, the nine hundred-year-old White Tower forms a core surrounded, in concentric squares, by two sets of powerful walls. Studded with towers and bastions, these walls enclose two inner areas called 'wards' that are full of smaller buildings.

This is the story of its origins, creation and the near continual development which has kept it at the center of an, albeit changing, national focus for nearly a millenia, a rich and bloody history that easily attracts over two million visitors every year.

Origins of the Tower of London

While the Tower of London as we know it was built in the eleventh century, the history of fortification on the site stretches back into Roman times, when stone and wooden structures were built and marshland reclaimed from the Thames. A massive wall was created for defence, and this anchored the later Tower. However, the Roman fortifications declined after the Romans left England. Many Roman structures had their stones robbed away for use in later buildings (finding these Roman remains in other structures is a good source of evidence and very rewarding), and what remained in London was likely foundations.

William’s Stronghold

When William I successfully conquered England in 1066 he ordered the construction of a castle in London, using the site of the old Roman fortifications as a base. In 1077 he added to this stronghold by ordering the construction of a huge tower, the Tower of London itself. William died before it was completed in 1100. William needed a large tower partly for protection: he was an invader attempting to take over a whole kingdom, one which needed pacification before it would accept him and his children. While London seems to have been made safe quite quickly, William had to engage in a campaign of destruction in the north, the 'Harrying', to secure that. However, the Tower was useful in a second way: the projection of royal power wasn't just about walls to hide in, it was about showing status, wealth and strength, and a large stone structure that dominated its surroundings did just that.

The Tower of London as Royal Castle

Over the next few centuries monarchs added ever more fortifications, including walls, halls and other towers, to an increasingly complex structure which became referred to as The Tower of London. The central tower became known as the ‘White Tower’ after it was whitewashed. On the one hand, every successive monarch needed to build here to demonstrate their own wealth and ambition. On the other hand, several monarchs had need to shelter behind these imposing walls due to conflicts with their rivals (sometimes their own siblings), so the castle remained nationally important and a military keystone in controlling England.

From Royalty to Artillery

During the Tudor period the use of the Tower began to change, with visits from the monarch declining, but with many important prisoners held there and an increase in the use of the complex as a storehouse for the nation’s artillery. The number of major modifications began to decline, although some were spurred on by fire and naval threats, until changes in warfare meant the Tower became less important as an artillery base. It wasn't that the Tower was any less formidable to the type of people it had been built to defend, but that gunpowder and artillery meant its walls were now vulnerable to new technology, and defences had to take markedly different forms. Most castles suffered a decline in military importance, and instead transformed into new uses. But monarchs were looking for different sorts of accommodation now, palaces, not cold, draughty castles, so visits fell. Prisoners, however, did not require luxury.

The Tower of London as National Treasure

As the military and government use of the Tower declined, parts were opened up to the general public, until the Tower evolved into the landmark it is today, welcoming over two million visitors annually. I've been myself, and it's a striking place to spend time and muse on the history its seen. It can get crowded though!

More on the Tower of London

  • The Tower of London Ravens: Ravens are kept at the Tower of London, in part to fulfill the demands of an old superstition… this article explains why.
  • The Beefeaters / Yeoman Warders: The Tower of London is guarded by people called Yeoman Warders, but they’re better known by a nickname: the Beefeaters. Visitors to the Tower should keep an eye out for, what by modern standards, are their unusual uniforms.
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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The History of the Tower of London." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, July 30). The History of the Tower of London. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The History of the Tower of London." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).