The Tower of London, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most visited historic building in London. A symbol of power and national pride, sited on the north bank of the Thames, it has served as a palace, armory, treasury, royal mint, menagerie and prison, and has been a visitor attraction since Elizabethan times.
The iconic White Tower, completed around 1100, served as occasional accommodation for the King, and a venue for government and ceremonial functions. Over the centuries, the Tower’s surrounding area was developed to include several buildings, two concentric defensive walls and a moat. In 1843, the moat was drained and filled in, and in 2014 became the site of a display of 888,246 ceramic poppies, marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1.
Top sights at the Tower of London
The Tower of London isn’t just an incredible building, it is home to some of London’s best exhibitions. Find out everything you need to know about the Tower of London below!
The Yeoman Wardens
Yeomen Warders, aka Beefeaters, still wear their traditional Tudor uniform, delightfully regaling visitors with the gory details of the Tower of London’s macabre history. They lead guided tours, serve as first aid administrators, and if your child gets lost, they are the most instantly recognisable go-to adults – now that’s multitasking!
Tours take around 60 minutes, and start from near the main entrance every 30 minutes.
The legend of the ravens still prevails – there must be always six in residence, or the kingdom will collapse ( a “spare” is kept, in case one goes AWOL!) Playing “spot the ravens” is good fun, but don’t try to feed them, they bite! The Raven Master feeds them every day on a diet of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood!
The Crown Jewels
See the powerful symbols of the British monarchy. The 23,587 precious stones and gems stored in the hear of the Tower of London include the priceless Great Star of Africa diamond and the Koh-i-Noor diamond which make up the Crown Jewels.
Some are still used today by Elizabeth II, like the Imperial State Crown she wears for the opening of Parliament (look for the “in use” sign). Up until 1815, the public could handle the Crown Jewels through the bars. Security was stepped up after a woman tried to make off with a crown, totally wrecking it in the process! Repairs were expensive, and she was carted off to the madhouse!
The Prisoners Exhibition
Here comes the light, to light you to bed – and here comes the chopper, to chop off your head!
Meet some of the unfortunate “guests” of the Tower of London who languished in their cells awaiting their fate – torture, execution, heads impaled on a stake – at his (or her) Majesty’s pleasure! The first recorded prisoner at the Tower of London was Ranulf Flambard, jailed for extortion in 1100 (he escaped!) and the last were the Kray twins in 1952 for failing to report for National Service.
Being sent to the tower was a punishment usually reserved for those accused of treason. Before she became queen, Elizabeth I was sent there by her sister Mary. Her mother, Anne Boleyn was beheaded within the walls of the tower and commoners were executed on Tower Hill. The Tower also housed prisoners of war during WW1 and WW11. The last person executed there was the German spy Josef Jakobs, in 1941, by firing squad.
The Royal Beasts Exhibition
In times past, visiting heads of state thought an exotic creature would make a really good present for the monarch who has everything! Over a period of 600 years, lions, tigers, elephants, kangaroos, ostriches, snakes and bears were kept in the tower for their entertainment value – wealthy people paid to see them, but the poor could also take a look provided they brought a dog or cat with them to feed the lions!
Nobody had any idea what these wild animals ate, or how to look after them – a zebra was given beer to drink! Most animals died young, some escaped, and Henry III’s polar bear was kept on a long chain so it could fish in the Thames! Survivors were moved to Regent’s Park Zoological Society between 1831 and 1832, and the menagerie was closed down 1835. Royal Beasts is an interactive exhibition, and kids can create their own images of beasts they think would make a top royal gift!
The White Tower
Built by William the Conqueror, the White Tower is the oldest building of the Tower of London complex. It is home to the world’s longest running national museum, The Royal Armoury, on the lower floor. The Line of Kings exhibition was first displayed in 1688 to promote the heroic ideal of kingship, and some of the original carved wooden horses can still be seen.
Beautiful in its simplicity, the 11th century Romanesque chapel of St. John the Evangelist is on the second floor, adjoining the King’s chambers. A block and axe, allegedly used for the last public execution, can be seen on the top floor, and the basement is believed to be site of torture and interrogation of prisoners like Guy Fawkes and the Jesuit priest John Gerard.
A Medieval Palace
St. Thomas’ Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower are where you will find the luxurious living spaces used by medieval Kings Henry III, his son Edward 1 and visiting monarchs. Edward’s bedchamber has been recreated using records of materials ordered at the time, and has a custom-built bed and an en-suite chantry (prayer room). No expense was spared on the decor as it is lavishly adorned with bright colours and elaborate designs.
Torture at the Tower Exhibition
At the bottom of the Wakefield Tower, replicas of the three most used instruments of torture are displayed; The Manacles – used to suspend prisoners by the wrist, The Rack – if they were there for a long stretch, and The Scavenger’s Daughter – a device to compress the body of the victim. Accounts of their ordeal by Anne Askew and John Gerard make chilling reading.
The Tower Walls and other outdoor bits
The are seven towers along the huge stone encirclement of the Tower of London, the Salt, Broad, Arrow, Constable, Royal Beasts, Bowyer and Flint, and all of them have unique tales to tell. Along the walk you will see life-sized metalwork sculptures of soldiers and their weapons. A memorial to those who were executed within the walls can be seen on Tower Green, where the scaffold once stood. You can also see two full sized replicas of siege weapons – The Springald, a giant crossbow, and The Perrier, a powerful slingshot apparatus.
Take a walk down Mint Street and discover what life was like for the engravers, craftsmen and officials who worked there, through outdoor installations and interactive displays at the Coins and Kings exhibition.
What you don’t want to see – the Ghosts!
The ghost of Anne Boleyn allegedly roams around the White Tower with her head tucked under her arm! Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole and The Princes in the Tower are also said to put in an appearance occasionally. During the reign of Edward I, locals reported seeing the ghost of St. Thomas Beckett demolish the Traitors Gate, brick-by-brick twice! After the king renamed it St. Thomas’ Gate, the ghostly vandal left it alone! In 1816 a sentry was so spooked by a phantom bear that he was reported to have died of fright! More recently, some of the Tower’s night staff have experienced ghostly goings on….
The Tower of London is open every day except 24-26 December and 1 January. The nearest underground station is Tower Hill, or you could use the hop on/off Thames Clipper riverboat service or the Original London Sightseeing bus tour.
If you have time, why not visit the nearby Tower Bridge exhibition, which now has glass floors along its walkways.
Have you been to the Tower of London? Tell us about your visit in the comments.