The Tower of London is a must-see attraction when you visit London, but do you know what to see there? This is a big building complex, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the masses of people, long history, and extensive layout. But don’t despair, we’re here to help! Here are the top things to see at the Tower of London written by a historian.
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11 Things You Shouldn’t Miss at the Tower of London
The Tower of London is an iconic site of the city and a UNESCO heritage site. Moreover, the Tower has always been a symbol of the state, royal power, and military prowess. The tower was commissioned by King William the Conqueror commissioned in 1078 to serve as a castle and royal residence of the Kind of England.
Many kings after him incorporated their own additions. For example, there used to be a Royal Mint to produce the wealth of England, as well as a royal menagerie (a kind of zoo or animal collection). However, in Tudor times, the role of the tower changed. In the 15th century, it served as a fort to host the armories and prisons.
Most of the original constructions dating from the Middle Ages were destroyed or repurposed by the 19th century. However, in the 20th century, the Tower of London was renovated to turn it into a museum.
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11. The White Tower
Fortress | William the Conqueror | Romanesque
This is all that remains of the medieval fortress commissioned by William the Conqueror. Furthermore, it is one of the largest remaining castle keeps in Europe. It received its name because the walls were covered in white plaster and whitewashed. It was built in the Romanesque style.
From the architectural plans and the layout of the building, historian Lise Hull states that it was not intended just to keep royal apartments. It was essentially the king’s house and office from which he could guard the river Thames and look out for any potential attacks. When you visit this building, don’t forget to stop at the crypt of St. John’s Chapel.
10. The Chapel of St. John the Evangelist
Norman Chapel | Henry III | Archive
The chapel dates from the 12th century and is one of the greatest examples in the UK of Norman religious architecture. It has been renovated a few times throughout history, though. According to Stephen Porter, Henry III ordered three new stained-glass windows for the chapel. He also commissioned it to be painted.
The historical record shows that this chapel was more often used as an archive of records than a place of worship. This was already documented by the 19th century. One of the earliest modern histories of the Tower of London written by William Ainsworth reinforces the fact that, despite the chapel holding records, these were not open to the public.
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9. The Ravens
Yeoman Warders | Charles II | Legend
Don’t miss a chance to see the famous ravens! This is one of the coolest and most peculiar things you can do here (particularly if you have children). These beautiful birds are known as the guardians of the tower.
According to Chris Skaife, chief Ravenmaster and Yeoman at the Tower, legend has it that if the ravens were to leave the site, both the tower and the kingdom of England would fall! So, these ravens have been protected since the reign of Charles II.
All the care of these birds is done by the Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters, to keep these guests comfortable in their homes at the Tower of London. The Beefeaters are also the custodians of the tower, so don’t be shy, ask them questions and take a photo with them in their rather awesome outfits.
8. The Guards
Typical London | Military | Ceremonial
You are bound to see the guards in their spectacular uniform across different sites in London. However, the Tower of London is the best place to see them up close. Remember to be respectful, however, as these people are working and performing military service.
You can see the guard post by the Jewel and Queen’s House, but for a more spectacular display be sure to check out the three daily ceremonies where the guards perform their duties. If you take a tour here, you’ll probably learn about their quarters and which one is supposedly haunted too.
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7. The Tower Green
Executions | Anne Boleyn | Lady Jane Grey
You can find Tower Green immediately to the west of the White Tower. This area was reserved for the executions of the upper class. The type of execution often depended on the person and the type of crime they committed according to Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly.
The historical records show that a total of 10 people were executed on Tower Green that we know of. Three were former queens of England: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard after Henry VIII divorced them and accused them of adultery. The last one was Lady Jane Grey, whose tragedy inspired countless works of art and literature.
6. The Bloody Tower
Garden Tower | Prison | Sir Walter Raleigh
Previously known as the Garden Tower due to its location, this building’s main purpose was to act as a prison. The Princes in the Tower were kept here, alongside many other famous and infamous enemies of the state.
But perhaps the most famous resident of this building was Sir Walter Raleigh, according to Nigel Jones. Best known for his explorations in America that led to the legend of El Dorado, he was charged with treason against King James I and locked up in the tower for 13 years.
Haunted | Supernatural London | Princes in the Tower
The historical record suggests that at least 8,000 people were incarcerated at the Tower of London throughout its use. So, it’s no wonder that ghost stories are a popular aspect of this site. In fact, it’s supposed to be the most haunted castle in England!
If you’re into spooky stories or are visiting when it’s dark, you may want to wander over to the Salt Tower. This building is famous for its haunting noises, to the point of making guard dogs and warders uneasy according to Daniel Farson.
Another building haunted for centuries is the Bloody Tower. The ghosts of the young princes allegedly haunt this place since they died there in their imprisonment in the 15th century according to Alison Weir.
Their skeletons were allegedly found on-site during the reign of Charles II in a chest. He then buried them at Westminster Abbey. Nevertheless, the most famous ghost at the tower is Anne Boleyn, but more on that a few lines down!
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4 . Tower Bridge
Iconic View | 19th Century | Sir Horace Jones
One of the nicest views you can get from the ramparts of the Tower of London is the iconic Tower Bridge. The bridge, unlike the tower, dates from the late 19th century. According to Brian Cookson, the bridge was designed as a way to connect both sides of London across the river Thames to improve traffic without disrupting the traffic from the river.
There was a public competition to come up with the design of the bridge, and Sir Horace Jones won it. He gave us the design you see today, which is constructed in the Neogothic style.
3. Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula
Parish Church | 16th Century | Eminent Burials
This chapel used to be the parish church for the Tower of London. It’s located facing Tower Green, and the current building dates from the 16th century. However, the history of this church is relatively unknown, because the chapel itself has been built, demolished, and moved several times throughout its history.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting place to visit because it’s the burial site of several prominent people in British history, including the executed queens and Sir Thomas Moore. According to Daniel Farson, this is also the place that’s supposedly most haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn and where you may find her soul roaming at night.
2. Line of Kings
Armoury | First Museum | 17th Century
Do you love military history, weapons, and armor? Then you need to see this exhibition. It’s housed inside the White Tower on the entrance floor and contains one of the largest armories in the country, with pieces dating back to the 15th century. Also, it’s the oldest museum exhibit at the Tower of London. It’s been used for the display of these amazing items since the 17th century.
1. Crown Jewels
Royal Regalia | Oliver Cromwell | Koh-i-Nûr
Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! The crown jewels have been kept in the Tower of London for over 600 years. These are not the original jewels of the kings and queens of England. However, this is the collection kept to date since the restoration of the monarchy in the 17th century.
Leslie Field explains the original pieces were actually destroyed, sold, or melted during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. This was an attempt to erase all traces of the monarchy. Nonetheless, when Charles II became king after the death of Cromwell, he commissioned the new royal ceremonial regalia of the kings and queens of England.
My favorite piece in this collection is one of the most coveted jewels in the world and it represents the might of the old British Empire. The Koh-i-Nûr, meaning “Mountain of Light” in Persian, was discovered in the Indian subcontinent in the middle ages.
According to William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, a dark legend tainted its fate: the diamond is supposed to be bad luck for men. Therefore, it has only been worn by women such as Queen Alexandra in the 19th century or the Queen Mother.
Bonus: The Gift Shop
Gifts | Public Donations | Worldwide Delivery
What is a trip without buying souvenirs and gifts for your loved ones? Sure, London has a plethora of shops where you could buy all sorts of trinkets for cheap. But the range of stuff at the Tower of London is sincerely impressive. They have unique items you won’t be able to find elsewhere.
In addition, as they are a self-funded organisation, all the sales from the shop contribute to their upkeep, so you’d be helping to preserve history. If you happen to miss the gift shop, their online shop offers worldwide delivery.
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