London Sights to See - Tower of London
Few prisons on Earth can claim to be as popular as the Tower of London,
an attraction - unpleasant for some - for over 900 years covering 18
acres of English soil. Its twenty brooding towers are filled
with ancient traditions and tales of royal blood, armor and
and the history to match.
The central structure of the Tower of London actually began as a fort -
used by the original builder William
the Conqueror who completed the first tower around 1100
AD. Upon completion, it was the tallest building in London. Henry III had it
whitewashed in the 13th century and the name, White Tower, has stuck.
In time, it evolved into a prison, used by Henry VII
(and many others). Still later - and continuing to this day - it has
acted as a repository for the extensive collection of crown jewels.
Henry VII, nearly always short of money, had few jewels to store.
Among other things, the stone complex, near the Tower Bridge
alongside the River
Thames, has also been used at various times to house the Royal Mint, the Public Records, the Royal Menagerie
(later to form the starting point of the London Zoo) and an
observatory (built in 1675).
Since Henry VII appointed them in 1485, the Tower has been guarded by
the Yeoman Warders
- popularly known as "Beefeaters",
with their distinctive red costumes. The function is now actually
performed by retired military personnel.
The spiral staircase which runs up the interior of the tower is the
only path up and it leads to the Royal
Armouries - Britain's national museum of arms and armor,
with 40,000 pieces on display. Beginning public display during the
reign of Charles II,
the armory is Britain's oldest public museum.
Other buildings have been added through the centuries, including the Middle Tower, the Byward Tower, Garden (Bloody) Tower,
and Traitor's Gate
across the moat. The moat, fortunately, was drained around the time of
the last tower was built back in 1843.
Through the centuries the prison has harbored several famous, and
usually royal, tenants, including Anne
Boleyn (Henry VIII's second wife), the famed "little princes" (Edward V and his
younger brother Richard,
Duke of York, alleged victims of Richard III), and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Evidence of that painful and murderous history can be seen in the racks
and other torture devices still on display, not to mention the still
bloody stones which can also be seen here and there.
The centerpiece of interest for most visitors, however, has to be,
without question, the Crown
Jewels housed in the Jewel
Here, the visitor to London can view dozens of crowns, jeweled
scabbards, and an array of emerald and ruby studded collars, necklaces
and the like.
There are several famous large stones housed here including the Cullinan II, set in
the Imperial State Crown
used for the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838. Not to be outshone,
there's also the equally famous Kohinoor
("Mountain of Light"),
which weighs in at over 200 carats.
The centerpiece of the jewel collection has to be the 530-carat Star of Africa. This
egg-sized diamond was actually cut down from the much larger Cullinan, originally
over 3,000 carats, extracted from a South African mine at the beginning of the 20th century.
For those with the time, and who plan ahead, there's one attraction
here that's only held after closing: The Ceremony of the Keys.
Held nightly between 9:30 and 10:00 the ritual has been performed without interruption for
700 years. That's what I call tradition.
More Sights to See in London