he Tower of London is often the main feature of a trip to London, with its 1000 year history, its gruesome and bloody past, the Crown Jewels, the Ravens and the Yeomen Warders in their smart red uniforms - it is the most visited tourist attraction in the UK for a reason. There is so much to see here across 12 acres and 21 towers, more than many people can manage in a single visit, so here we highlight the best parts which you really should not miss.
The Tower of London is in central London right next to Tower Bridge on the River Thames, another one of the most iconic sights in the capital. Although called The Tower of London, it is actually 21 towers all around the keep, known as the White Tower, in the centre. Built by William the Conqueror, who wanted to show his strength and power to the newly conquered English, it was a fort intended to provide full defence against possible reprisals by the subjugated Anglo-Saxons. It served as a Royal residence for many centuries, as well as a prison, armoury, treasury and more besides.
With walls 6 foot deep and surrounded by two defensive walls and a moat, it has never been breached in its 1000 year history, although rioters were accidentally admitted in 1381, with tragic consequences. Although the Tower is renowned for its prisoners and executions, most of them were not executed within the Tower but on nearby Tower Hill instead. Traitor's Gate and imprisonment in the Tower live on in public memory however, and its gruesome past is part of its attraction.
A single ticket gives you entry to all of the towers and exhibitions, including the Crown Jewels. There are some areas which are off limits, mainly the private homes of the soldiers who guard the Tower and who live there with their families. Everywhere else is open to the public though and you can wander where you wish, spending as much time as you want at the parts that interest you the most.
Here we list some of the highlights of a visit to the Tower, but do your research before you go as there may be others that interest you more. Allow a good three hours to go round and bear in mind that your feet are likely to tire quickly, so prioritise what you want rather than trying to see everything.
The White Tower
The central keep of the tower of London was built in the 1080s and is the most heavily defended part of the castle. This is where the Kings lived until about the early 14th century, and where several were imprisoned.
The wooden staircase outside is to allow visitors to enter the building the way it would have originally been used - in times of warfare the wooden staircase was removed to make it harder for the attackers to enter the building.
The White Tower should be on any visitor's list as it is the focal point of a visit here and has some amazing history within its walls.
The White Tower - The Line of Kings
The Line of Kings was one of the earliest museum exhibits, created in the 17th century by Charles II to promote the newly restored monarchy and to validate his succession to the throne. The display of wooden figures wearing previous Kings' armour and sitting astride armoured wooden horses has changed a little over the years, but it still has the same draw it did for visitors 350 years ago.
The suits of armour on display once belonged to royalty such as Henry VIII, Charles I and George II. It is quite an astonishing and impressive display, against a backdrop of scores of shining armoured chest plates and seemed to draw gasps of astonishment from visitors as we rounded the corner and saw them all for the first time.
The White Tower - The Chapel of St. John
This was one of my favourite parts of the visit, as I found the chapel to be so simple and yet so awe inspiring. It is early Norman, being built for William the Conqueror who died before it was completed and it remains unembellished and unadorned, making it even more striking.
Royalty have worshipped in here for 900 years, some have been married here, others have lain in state after death. It was also in here that four dignitaries from the reign of Richard II hid during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 - they were found behind the altar and dragged to Tower Hill, where they were executed and their heads put on display.
It is a beautiful place of simplicity, peace and sunlight and is something very special indeed.
The White Tower - The Armoury
The Royal Armoury began life as the arsenal where weaponry was made and stored for the defence of the realm. It has been open to visitors for centuries, with the earliest recorded visit back in 1498; by 1660 people were paying to get in to see the marvels of the power and might of the monarchy.
There are several rooms in the armoury section with some fascinating displays. One display has highly ornamented guns, with a jewelled pistol covered in 1,517 diamonds, a gold Tiffany revolver and a jewelled .357 magnum covered in red gold, red enamel and diamonds. There is also a gold plated sub-machine gun with a smart leather case. None of these were made for the Royal Family, but have been made by craftsmen, or handed in during gun amnesty schemes, their original owners and purposes unknown.
There is a room dedicated to hands on kids activities where they can have a go at using some of the equipment, with cannons you can fire and bow and arrows to use (all very safe).
The room was packed with kids all trying their hand at something and was clearly very popular - my son and I enjoyed firing a cannon and creating a huge (simulated) explosion.
The Armoury also contains some of the tools of the executioner. A block and axe used for beheadings is on display - an oak block with carved cut outs for the neck and head and a heavy axe, both last used in 1747. A metal Executioners' Mask also on display must have been a terrifying last sight for many. There is a fragment from the scaffold on Tower Hill, last used in 1780 for the execution of three people who took part in the Gordon Riots, and the chair where the last person executed in the Tower was shot.
Josef Jakobs was a German spy who hurt his ankle when he parachuted into England and was found and arrested. Found guilty of espionage by a court martial, he was shot by a firing squad in the grounds of the Tower of London, sitting in the simple brown Windsor chair you see on display.
The White Tower - The Princes in the Tower
Nearly everyone knows the story about the Princes in the Tower - the two sons of King Edward IV, aged 12 and 9, who were put into the tower after his death for 'safekeeping' until the eldest could be crowned king.
They were declared illegitimate, their uncle was crowned Richard III and they were never seen again. It is widely believed that he had them killed.
Some 200 years later, workmen discovered the skeletal remains of two boys in a wooden box underneath the staircase of the chapel in the White Tower, and although there is no concrete evidence that it was them, it is still a possibility.
You can walk past the place where the box was found, with a plaque saying that it is the tradition of the tower to say that it was they who were found here.
Only the Queen can authorise DNA testing of the remains, which are now in Westminster Abbey; something she has declined to do.
The Crown Jewels
These are very much a highlight of a visit to the Tower and really shouldn't be missed.
Queues can get quite lengthy, unless you go at the end of the day after 4pm, when they will be greatly reduced. Even if the queue is long, it tends to move quickly, as people only spend about 10 -15 minutes in there.
You walk through some incredibly thick vault doors and then get on to a slow moving walkway, which takes you past the crowns and jewels. The walkway is a great idea, as it means everyone gets a chance to see them close up without other people getting in your way, and if you want to see them again, you can take a moving walkway back past them, and then back again. Photography is not allowed in the vault, so you don't have to put up with people shoving their phones in front of your face either.
Thanks to clever lighting, the crowns and jewels glisten in a way you can only imagine. You can see every cut of the diamonds, every facet of every jewel and the colours are remarkable.
After the jewels you can see other extravagant displays of items which are used for coronations, such as the golden punch bowl which holds 144 bottles of wine and is the biggest ever made. The golden tableware is really quite astonishing.
The Chapel of St. Peter
The Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (Peter in Chains) is the parish church for all who reside within the Tower of London, although it is under the jurisdiction of the monarchy.
Built in 1520, although there had been a church on the site for centuries before that, it is the final resting place of some major historical figures in English history, many of them executed at the Tower: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Thomas Cromwell and countless Dukes, Earls and Lords. Not everyone recorded here was executed - there are Colonels and officers who worked here as well as memorials to the fallen. It is a bright and airy chapel, with some impressive monuments.
The Grounds of the Tower of London
The Tower of London covers roughly 12 acres and there is a fair amount of space to just wander around in, or find a peaceful bench to sit on and rest your weary feet. You can walk around some of the battlements too and enjoy the incredible views over Tower Bridge and the Thames. There are plenty of things to look at in the grounds, with cannons and weaponry on display, as well as a couple of sculptures of archers firing at the peasantry below.
The Ravens of the Tower
The ravens are a particular draw for visitors and I do recommend going out of your way to look for them. Legend has it that there must always be at least 6 ravens in the tower, otherwise the White Tower and monarchy will fall.
They have cages in a corner of the courtyard, but seem to fly free as much as they want - their wings are slightly clipped so they don't stray too far.
During our visit we managed to see them all, just hanging out on an ancient wall or back of a bench. They are enormous birds, smooth and sleek, with highly intelligent eyes and a tilt of the head that makes you feel as if they are judging you and finding you wanting.
Apparently one of them likes to lie on her back and play dead if she doesn't get enough attention. My son loved them and was looking out for them everywhere we went.
Medieval monarchs used to exchange gifts of exotic wild animals, and the Tower of London ended up with quite a menagerie.
It started with Henry III who was presented with a pair of lions in 1235, which inspired him to start a zoo. The collection grew to include an elephant, polar bear, eagles, pumas, leopards and more. People would flock to the Tower to see these strange creatures.
Lions were kept at the Tower for 600 years; these days there are no wild animals, but wire replicas of them are dotted around the site.
The Roman City Wall
When the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD, they built the city of Londinium on the banks of the river Thames and surrounded it with stone walls to keep the angry Britons out. Remnants of the wall remain across the city, one of which is in the Tower of London.
When William the Conqueror built his castle to show his strength and to also keep out angry Britons, he built part of it on top of the existing Roman walls. Very little remains, but there is this small section standing near the White Tower. Just over the road on Tower Hill you can find the tallest section of Roman wall still standing, right next to a kids playpark.
Only the privileged few were executed inside the Tower, and spared the humiliation of a public execution.
These included Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII in 1536, Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII in 1542, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford in 1542, Lady Jane Grey in 1554 and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex in 1601.
A memorial now stands on the spot where they were executed, made of glass with what looks like a glass pillow on top, and the following words around it:
'Gentle visitor pause awhile: where you stand death cut away the light of many days: here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life: may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage : under there restless skies.'
The infamous Traitors Gate is actually the water entrance to the Tower from the Thames, but has become synonymous with the people who were transported into the Tower for imprisonment and execution, the watery passage meant that they could see the heads of other traitors on display on pikes.
Many famous political prisoners entered through this gate such as the Duke of Buckingham, Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Seymour, Duke of Somerset, the future Elizabeth I, the Earl of Essex and the Duke of Monmouth, the errant son of Charles II.
The Bloody Tower
As you would expect from its nickname (it was originally called The Garden Tower), the Bloody Tower has seen its fair share of murder and death. Most famously, it was here that Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years. He had two rooms and a small medicinal garden where he grew tobacco and plants he had found on his travels to South America. It was here that he wrote The History of the World, four years before he was executed.
Other prisoners included Archbishop Cranmer, Bishops Ridley and Latimer, Protestant martyrs who were later burned at the stake. The two Princes in the Tower are believed to have been killed here, and some say they have seen their ghosts - two small figures gliding down the stairs wearing the white nightshirts they had on the night they disappeared. They stand silently, hand in hand, before fading back into the stones of the Bloody Tower.
The Wakefield Tower - The Medieval Palace
The Medieval Palace is the part of the Tower built by Henry III and Edward I, with the top floor made into royal lodgings. The huge fireplace which kept them warm is still there, covered in soot and with remnants of the original 13th century windows still there. One room shows the original construction method with the wattle and daub on display.
Edwards I's bedchamber has been recreated, it looks quite stark to modern eyes but was very cosy for the time, and has a wonderful tiny chapel leading off it with a brightly coloured tiled floor and stained glass windows. Henry III's part of the palace has replicas based on originals of his throne and his small chapel - again with bright colours and beautiful stained glass windows.
The Wakefield Tower - The Torture Exhibition
On the bottom floor of the Wakefield Tower is an exhibition of torture devices used on prisoners held in the Tower.
The rack is the most infamous of these, used to pull apart the joints and bones by stretching a person.
There is a 'Scavenger's Daughter' which folded up the body into three parts and crushed them together, as well as manacles from which people would hang for hours at a time. They all look very grisly and unpleasant and were used mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries, a time of great political turmoil.
The Salt Tower
Many prisoners were held in The Salt Tower, and their graffiti can still be seen. One incredible carving was made by Hew Draper of Bristol, accused of practising sorcery and imprisoned in the tower in 1560. He carved an intricate astronomical clock surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac. He was very ill at the time, having already been in the Tower for 14 months, and the carving is at ground level as he probably couldn't stand.
There are symbols from the many Jesuit priests who were kept in there, pierced hearts, hands and feet which symbolise the death of Jesus. The letter 'E' surrounded by a giant heart was carved by John Baptist, Italian tutor to Elizabeth I and imprisoned by her sister for taking letters to her.
Henry Walpole was also held here in 1594, a Catholic priest who was tortured and hung by manacles, then hung, drawn and quartered, as he refused to give the names of other priests. He has left three inscriptions in the room. The graffiti is a stark reminder of the humanity behind the stories; these were not just gruesome historical events to the people living them.
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There is so much more to see in the Tower which I haven't included here, such as the Fusiliers Museum and a World War I exhibition. You really could spend a whole day here to see it all.
You leave the Tower by the Thames, directly opposite Tower Bridge, which is also open to visitors if you have the stamina for it after the Tower. There is a huge gift shop near the entrance and several cafes and food stalls in the area. If you have kids and they need to let off steam, there is a good playpark opposite at Tower Hill, less than a 5 minute walk away. There is also the Tower Hill Memorial next to it, itself a peaceful place to spend some time.