Layers of History at the Tower of London

Popular culture teems with the notion that all young girls love horses. It makes for a good book and/or movie, I suppose – but I didn’t quite fit into that demographic. Granted, I liked horses, but since my daily chores involved cleaning out stalls, and my learning to ride odyssey was overseen by my eldest sister, a somewhat strict perfectionist and superb equestrian…horses weren’t quite so enticing. Around the age of ten, I instead fixated on medieval buildings and the British royal family. Specifically – tragic figures from the Tudor period.


Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London

So when other 10 year old girls perhaps cast envious looks at me, free to ride like the wind whenever I pleased (or so they imagined), I was happily imagining Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn romantically languishing away at the Tower of London. (Don’t ask me why. I had a vivid imagination and all stone castle-like structures captivated me. And every girl who has to muck manure pretends they are the Queen of England, no?)

When I first visited the Tower, at age 14, the fancies of my slightly younger self were close enough to still be compelling. Even if I hadn’t been enthralled by the intrigues of English history, I still would have found the Tower spellbinding. Besides being home to countless prisoners (royal and otherwise), it is a complicated, layered site (a combination loved by both archaeologists and architectural historians). The official moniker is a mouthful, as befitting such a storied structure: Her Majesty’s Royal Palace And Fortress, The Tower of London.


Posing in our trench coats at the Tower of London

Ravens, crown jewels and beefeaters – these symbols of the Tower of London have been part of its story for centuries. I, of course, like to look at the different parts of the complex and how those individual pieces fit into the story of one of London’s best known tourist attractions. (And  the Tower has been drawing curiosity seekers and visitors since the 16th century.)

Tower of London with Annotations

The most distinctive part of the Tower, in my mind, is the White Tower (echoes of Middle Earth or Game of Thrones?). Construction started on the White Tower in the 1070s by that very real conqueror from Normandy, William. Built to bring the inhabitants of London “to heel,” the building was overseen by the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, with Norman masons overseeing the English laborers and utilizing a variety of stone (including some brought over from Normandy). Completed by 1100, the White Tower was a structure built to inspire loyalty, fear, and obedience.


The White Tower

While the Tower of London is eye-catching now on the bank of the Thames, it is somewhat dwarfed by the modern monuments of power and money. Visualize a London with mostly one and two-story buildings, timber frame (or half-timbered), perched haphazardly on a maze of winding passageways (not usually wide enough to be called streets). The White Tower stood 90 feet tall – a skyscraper on the historic skyline – and was 118 by 106 feet across. It was a simply massive structure hemmed in by stone walls, ditches and an earthwork crowned with a wooden palisade.


The Tower of London (and Tower Bridge) in the modern context

The Tower of London covers 18 acres and is now comprised of 21 towers and an assortment of walls and buildings. The Byward Tower, named for its location by the Warder’s Hall, dates from 1238-1272 and is the main entrance for visitors. It sits at the southwest corner of the Tower and is essentially a gatehouse. The central passage is flanked by two, two-story cylindrical towers with three-story rectangular turrets at the rear. The upper floors were rebuilt (and refaced with Portland stone) in 1719-1719.

byward  tower

Byward Tower

At the northwest corner of the Tower is Legge’s Mount. When I used to pour over drawings and photos of the Tower of London, I always particularly liked this semi-circular projection built between 1275 and 1285. It stands two stories high, with later gun posts added in the late 1600s. Legge Mount housed guards, and later was utilized by the Mint as part of their recoinage operations.


Legge’s Mount

Not all of the Tower of London consists of different types of stone. The Queen’s House, which dates to 1530, conveys more of a sense of “typical” London at that time (typical London if you were wealthy and entitled, of course). Construction of the half-timbered building was perhaps inspired by Anne Boleyn, who stayed there before her execution. It also housed Guy Fawkes and Lady Jane Gray, and is now the home of the Resident Governor of the Tower of London.

The Tower of London is one tourist attraction that has withstood the test of time (and the Victorian attempts to “restore” it) – and for the repeat visitor, continues to unveil different facets of personality and history.  The moat of the Tower is now playing host to an incredibly moving exhibit, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” which I’ve written about previously. If you are in London, please don’t miss seeing it. There is no guarantee that art will move us culturally enough to not engage in warfare – but even the act of stopping and considering the irrevocable actions that destroyed a generation is worth a great deal.


*On a side note, I am indebted to the ever-gracious and extraordinarily kind Adrian Hume-Sayer for venturing to the Tower for me and procuring even more photographs when I was unable to do so. I remain your faithful and dedicated servant.

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Categories: England, London, Royalty


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