Since 1066 AD, the year of the momentous Norman invasion, the Tower of London has stood as a sign of the strength of England and a fearsome reminder to anyone who challenges the security of the realm or the authority of the king.
When the Norman Duke William the Conqueror took control of England he went about establishing his authority across his new kingdom. He immediately began building castles throughout the country, bringing the impressive fort-building skills of Normandy with him, the likes of which England had never seen. These huge stone structures represented the might of the Norman lords and their armies, and struck fear and awe into the conquered English.
The most important of these castles was the Tower of London. Around 1078 the Conqueror added what has come to be known as the White Tower, which is also where the castle gets its name. Located on the north bank of the River Thames, surrounded by a moat and high stone walls, it was in an ideal location to defend from attack, and, at least for the first century or two, also reminded rebellious Londoners who their new overlords were.
Princes, wives and twins
For over 800 years the Tower was also England’s most dreaded prison, and in its time has held some of the most high-profile names in European history. During the Wars of the Roses, the Tower was the site of the mystery of ‘The Princes in the Tower.’ When King Edward IV died his 12-year-old son became Edward V. However, young Edward’s uncle and guardian went to Parliament, had Edward and his younger brother legally declared illegitimate, and took the crown for himself, becoming Richard III. The young princes still had many powerful supporters, so in order to prevent them becoming a figurehead of rebellion Richard had the boys locked in the Tower. Shortly after they were imprisoned it was reported that the boys had mysteriously disappeared. They were never to be seen again.
To this day historians still argue over the fate of the Princes in the Tower. Was Richard III the murderous hunchback of Shakespeare or did the conspiracy go even deeper? The Tower is also where Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were notoriously executed along with their alleged lovers. In 1952, East End gangsters the Kray twins were among the last prisoners to be held here.
Ravens, jewels and poppies
Despite its often grim history, the castle has always been primarily a royal palace. During the Middle Ages it was tradition that before the coronation ceremony of a new monarch the next king or queen would spend the night in the Tower of London in preparation for the big day. It was also probably the first zoo in England, housing the royal menagerie, which visitors can see today. The menagerie has been empty since 1835, but there are still seven ravens - cared for by the resident Raven Master - to be found living next to Wakefield tower. Legend has it that if the birds leave, the Tower will fall.
Visitors may also see the magnificent Crown Jewels of England, which have been on public display since 1960. From November 2014 the Tower has been the site of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, a deeply moving installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies in commemoration of the lives lost in WW1. The castle, host to compelling historical mystery and brimming with stories of kingship, romance, and murder, remains a vibrant and fascinating destination.