Few prisons can claim to be as popular as the Tower of London, an attraction – unpleasant for some – for over 900 years. Its twenty towers are filled with an ancient tradition of royal blood, armor and jewels and the history to match. The central structure began as a fort – used by the original builder William the Conqueror who completed the first tower around 1100 AD. At its completion it was the tallest building in London. Henry III had it whitewashed in the 13th century and the name, White Tower, has stuck.
Later 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.
But 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 performed by retired military personnel.
The spiral staircase running up the interior 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 were 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 built (in 1843).
Through the centuries the prison has had several famous – usually royal – tenants, including Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife), the famed ‘little princes’ (alleged victims of Richard III), and Sir Walter Raleigh. All that murderous history can be seen in the racks and other torture devices still on display, not to mention the still bloody stones here and there.
The centerpiece of interest for most visitors is, without question, the Crown Jewels housed in the Jewel House, Waterloo Block. Here are 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 Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. Not to be outshone, there’s also the equally famous Kohinoor (“Mountain of Light”), over 200 carats.
But, the centerpiece of the jewels collection is the 530-carat Star of Africa. This egg-sized diamond was 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, who plan ahead, there’s one attraction here that’s 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. Now that’s tradition.