This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The Tower: the oldest occupied fortress in the world

Posted in Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Royalty on Sunday, 30 October 2011

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the Tower of London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 851 published on 6 May 1978.

Tower of London, picture, image, illustration

The White Tower, part of the present Tower of London, during its construction, by Harry Green

It was during the early days of World War Two that Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer, arrived in London under a heavy escort. At the time his presence in the heart of enemy territory was something of a mystery, for he had flown to Scotland of his own free will.

He had to be guarded with total security, and so he was taken to a great, square, ancient building beside the River Thames. Men who still wore the centuries-old Beefeater uniform met the German and led him away. The massive gates crashed shut behind him, and the escort breathed a sign of relief.

For nearly a thousand years the Tower of London had provided safe lodgings for England’s enemies, and it was highly unlikely that it would start losing them now.

“They have put him in the Tower,” people said, and it was astonishing how doom-laden that phrase could still be. Down through the centuries the history of that pale fortress has abounded with tales of men and women who had sought power unwisely, played the traitor, or made an enemy of king or queen.

The Tower was the ultimate symbol of authority, and although it had often enough been used as a kind of royal hotel, its grim reputation was that of a place to which prisoners made a one-way journey; once its gates closed on their victim there was no coming back.

Grim the Tower may be, but it is fascinating, too, as may be judged from the fact that it is London’s top tourist attraction. People flock from all over the world for a guided tour, and it is not just stories of beheadings on Tower Hill that bring them.

The Tower is as much a marvel of construction today as it was when William the Conquerer ordered it to be built within weeks of his seizure of the British throne. And with what genius his masons worked can be judged from the fact that it has survived virtually untouched by the passage of the centuries. It is also a unique building, the oldest occupied fortress in the world.

It is hardly surprising that William of Normandy lost no time in planning his stronghold. True, he had won the battle of Hastings, but his new lands were far from settled and the Danes were more than likely to support any Saxon uprising. With this in mind the new ruler chose an easily defended site that had already been used successfully by the Romans, beside the river and close to the city walls. The task of planning and supervising the building of his fortress William gave to a Norman named Gundulf, a monk from the Abbey of Bec.

Strictly speaking, Gundulf was neither architect nor master mason but probably something midway between the two, for, while many of his fellow monks specialised in medicine and law, he had concentrated on building. Already responsible for several magnificent cathedrals and castles in his own country, he knew exactly the kind of fortress the king required and how best to tackle such an immense job.

Fortunately for him, there was no shortage of masons in England, skilled men who had already raised such buildings as Westminster Abbey. There was also plenty of stone, although King William ordered that the marble-like white limestone of Caen should be used extensively. Eventually the 30-metre-high, 5-metre-thick walls of the Tower were made of a combination of Norman limestone, Kentish rag-stone and local mudstone dredged up from the Thames. Wood for the floors, doors and furniture was less of a problem, for there was ample in the great forest that lay where Hampstead is today. Just how many men were used to build the great White Tower we have no means of knowing, but it must have needed an enormous work force.

The White Tower was built with four floors, each divided into three rooms. The ground floor, part of which is actually below ground level, had no windows and was used for both dungeons and food stores. The first floor contained a chapel and accommodation for soldiers, while the upper rooms were reserved as royal apartments. The original, single entrance was set about five metres above the ground and could only be reached by steps that could be drawn up in case of attack.

King William’s massive, virtually indestructable four-towered keep was to remain almost unchanged, but succeeding monarchs improved its strength and usefulness by adding outer walls until the “Tower” consisted of no less than twenty towers and two bastions, two outer walls and a moat. The open space between the outer walls grew into a small, self-sufficient little military town, with barracks, armouries, a parade ground and even a hospital. The Tower also housed the Royal Mint until 1811, and from the 13th century there was even a zoo, which was a great local attraction until it was moved to Regent’s Park in 1834.

Today, the great attraction of the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels, on show in a specially designed underground chamber that displays the priceless collection to best advantage and is as near burglar-proof as modern electronics can make it. But this was not always the case. During the time they were kept in the Martin Tower a one-time officer of Cromwell’s army, Colonel Blood, nearly succeeded in stealing the jewels.

Disguised as a country parson, Blood became friendly with the eighty-year-old caretaker, and was in due course invited to dinner. Having persuaded the old man to show him the royal treasures, Blood and his accomplices knocked him unconscious with a mallet and made off with the crown, orb and sceptre. The chase that followed must have been wildly funny for anyone not in the line of fire of the bullets that were flying about, the climax occurring when the robber carrying the sceptre was swept from his saddle by a barber’s pole he had not noticed.

Overpowered at last, Blood seemed a certain candidate for an elaborately grisly end. However, much to everyone’s surprise he treated the whole escapade as a joke and said that he would only confess to the king in person.

Charles II laughed heartily at the prisoner’s account of his crime, pardoned him and awarded him a pension of £500 into the bargain. But why? To this day nobody has ever found out, although it has been suggested that possibly the king, permanently pressed for ready money, may have himself commissioned Blood to carry out the robbery in exchange for a share of the loot.

Two million visitors a year photograph the Tower’s magnificently uniformed Yeomen Warders, or Beefeaters, so called not because they live exclusively on beef but because they were once the guardians of the king’s buffet, or “Boufitiers.” The batteries of cameras also record with equal enthusiasm the six ravens who strut about Tower Hill in the confident knowledge that it is said that the Tower will only stand for as long as they remain. Photogenic the Beefeaters and ravens may be, but it is the Tower itself that grips the attention of visitors above everything else. Standing four square where King William’s builders set it 900 years ago, it looks, if anything, better than new.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.