The Tower of London is Now Home to The Crown Jewels:
Few prisons can claim to be as popular an attraction as the Tower of London – unpleasant for some for over 900 years. Its twenty towersare filled with an ancient tradition of royal blood, armour and jewels and the history to match.
The central structure began as a fort – used by the original builder William the Conqueror who completed the first tower around 1100 AD. At its completion it was the tallest building in London. Henry III had it whitewashed in the 13th century and the name, White Tower, has stuck.
Later it evolved into a prison, used by Henry VII (and many others). Still later – and continuing to this day – it has acted as a repository for the extensive collection of the Crown Jewels. Henry VII, nearly always short of money, had few jewels to store.
But the stone complex, near the Tower Bridge alongside the River Thames, has also been used at various times to house the Royal Mint, the Public Records, the Royal Menagerie (later to form the starting point of the London Zoo) and an observatory (built in 1675).
Since Henry VII appointed them in 1485, the Tower has been guarded by the Yeoman Warders – popularly known as ‘Beefeaters’, with their distinctive red costumes. The function is now performed by retired military personnel.
Inside the Tower
The spiral staircase running up the interior is the only path up and it leads to the Royal Armouries - Britain’s national museum of arms and armour, with 40,000 pieces on display. Beginning public display during the reign of Charles II, the armoury is Britain’s oldest public museum.
Other buildings were added through the centuries, including the Middle Tower, the Byward Tower, Garden (Bloody) Tower, and Traitor’s Gate across the moat. The moat, fortunately, was drained around the time of the last tower built (in 1843).
Famous Royal Tenants
Through the centuries the prison has had several famous – usually royal – tenants, including Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife), the famed ‘little princes’ (alleged victims of Richard III), and Sir Walter Raleigh. All that murderous history can be seen in the racks and other torture devices still on display, not to mention the still bloody stones here and there.
Another lot of famous tenants are some ravens, which have become popular sights. Legend says that the Kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six ravens ever leave the Tower.
The Crown Jewels
The centrepiece of interest for most visitors is, without question, the Crown Jewels (made up of 23,578 gems) housed in the Jewel House, Waterloo Block. In this area are dozens of crowns, jewelled scabbards, and an array of emerald and ruby studded collars, necklaces and the like.
There are several famous large stones housed here including the Cullinan II, set in the Imperial State Crown used for Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. Not to be outshone, there’s also the equally famous Kohinoor (“Mountain of Light”), over 200 carats.
But, the centerpiece of the jewels collection is the 530-carat Star of Africa. This egg-sized diamond was cut down from the much larger Cullinan, originally over 3,000 carats, extracted from a South African mine at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Ceremony of the Keys
For those with the time and who plan ahead, there’s one attraction here that’s held after closing: The Ceremony of the Keys. Held nightly between 21:30 and 22:00 the ritual has been performed without interruption for 700 years. Now that’s tradition!
Tickets for The Ceremony of the Keys are issued free of charge, but, as the Ceremony is very popular you should apply for the tickets well in advance of your visit. See here for how to apply.
Tower of London
London EC3N 4AB