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What is the Tower of London?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Tower of London is a historic castle complex located on the banks of the Thames River in London, England. It has served a number of functions historically, ranging from a prison for high profile prisoners, including Elizabeth I, to a permanent home for the Crown Jewels of England. The Tower complex is open to visitors, and there are a number of displays of historic interest on the site. Many visitors to London enjoy making the complex a stop on their visit.

The formal name of the Tower is Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, although this name is a bit of a misnomer, since there are actually a number of towers on the complex. Perhaps the most famous is the White Tower, which was constructed in the middle of the site by William the Conqueror in 1078. Fortifications were added by both Richard the Lionheart and Henry III, creating the complex of walls, tower, and moating that visitors can see today. Henry III also turned part of the structure into a Royal Residence, although it is no longer used for this purpose.

The Tower of London is perhaps one of the most famous fortifications in London because of its long and complex history. It is probably best known for its function as a prison and execution site for prisoners of high rank. Many of these prisoners were brought to the Tower through Traitor's Gate, an entrance at water level of the Thames which allows people to be discreetly brought in without attracting public attention. Many prisoners spent extended periods of time in the Tower, and a number of their writings and drawings from these periods can be seen on display there.

Hangings were carried out on Tower Hill, an elevated site to the Northwest of the site. Some executions were carried out within the Tower complex; Anne Boleyn, for example, was executed on Tower Green. Undoubtedly, the walls were at one point used to display the heads of executed criminals, a common practice in the Middle Ages.

In the 1300s, the Tower of London also became the official holding place for the Crown Jewels. It also briefly served as a menagerie, a mint, and an armory. Money and gold bullion were also stored there, presumably because it is extremely secure.

Two features of the Tower often stand out to guests. One is the traditional guard, the Beefeaters, who are responsible for guarding the complex and providing assistance to visitors. The Beefeaters often lead tours for guests. Another distinctive feature is the ravens found on the site. The birds are said to be a symbol of the British Monarchy; allegedly, the Monarchy will fall if the ravens fly away.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Diwiyana — On May 15, 2009

If I recall correctly, you can see a lot of famous sets of armor there in the museum at the Tower, including increasingly large suits made for Henry VIII, an eensy weensy suit for a dwarf, and one suit for someone who had to be at least 6 feet tall whose name I've forgotten. You can also go along Sir Walter Raleigh's Walk, an upraised walkway where this famous prisoner once took the air before losing his head. Loads of fun, but not nearly as hilarious as the miniature death masks in fluorescent colors that we saw in Bury St. Edmunds recalling the infamous Red Barn Murder.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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