Updated: Oct 23, 2020
It's no secret that I am obsessed with the macabre. The dark side of life and human behavior has been an a fascination of mine since a child and it all really boils down to one man, Henry VIII. Now, if you follow my Instagram, know me personally or have ever met me, chances are you know of my deep, DEEP well....love, for this awful, somewhat brilliant man.
I started reading everything I could on him as a child and of course this led me to the Tower of London; the imposing medieval fortress aside the river Thames. After a lifetime of reading and researching everything I could about the prisoners kept at the Tower, the torture performed there, the secret life of the Yeoman who live behind the gates......it was almost as close to a dream come true as you can get when I finally got to visit. Yes, I teared up and yes, it was even better than I could have imagined so please, read on to find out all my favorite things about visiting the Tower. WARNING - there is content in here that is disturbing to read so be warned, also, I get very excited when I talk about it so, be gentle with me haha!
1070 AD - First fortifications are made by William the Conquerer because there was trouble a-brewin (as per tradition) with the people of the city, they didn't like him blah blah he was Norman, basically he didn't want to get murdered. This fortification was what we now call the White Tower, the innermost building in the castle that was called White Tower wheeeen (see below)
13th Century AD- King Henry III white washed the stone! Throughout the 13th century, both King Henry III and King Edward I expanded on the fortress, adding HUGE defensive walls called "Curtains" (there's two layers of them) with fancy little corner towers AND expanded the moat.
14th Century AD - The first woman prisoner is held at the tower! Margaret de Clare, Baroness Badlesmere got this honor when she refused Queen Isabella (my ancestor, no joke) admittance to Leeds Castle which resulted in the slaying of 6 of Isabella's guards. She didn't lose her head but she was forced into a nunnery so, a death of sorts.
SHIT IS ABOUT TO GET COMPLICATED, the 1300s were a WILD time for the Tower so let me just try and bullet point it-
- Roger Mortimer, one of the most famous escapee's of the Tower was imprisoned for leading a rebellion against King Edward II whom he was later accused of having had murdered but not before some tom foolery happened and he was de facto ruler of England for two years while Edward III was too young but SURPRISE, King Edward III eventually had Mortimer executed (not at the Tower) for KILLING HIS FATHER and probably treachery and other shenanigans.
After he had him hanged, Edward III realized the Tower had fallen into disrepair during his daddies reign so he spruced it up so the nobility that came to stay there both the imprisoned and not imprisoned could do things like hunt and live in luxury! Yay rich people!
Next up we have Richard II. Now let me say we don't think of the English as a revolting people, thats reserved for the French and us American's BUT THAT WASN'T ALWAYS TRUE. There were lots of rebellions back in the day, probably because people didn't have proper toilets (just spitballing here) but in all seriousness, in 1381 there is brave rebel lad named Wat Tyler who leads a rebellion that besieges the Tower, ends up with the beheading of Simon Sudbury the Archbishop of Canterbury, the raiding of the jewel house and properly scaring the shit out of Richard II who, to the surprise of no one, eventually ABDICATED THE THRONE to King Henry IV.
15th Century AD - This is an intense time for England and France and an especially bloody time for the Tower. The Hundred Years war is happening, the War of Roses is going to happen, Henry VI is going to be King of England TWO SEPARATE TIMES, he is also going to be King of France for a minute and because of all these wars, tons of important people are imprisoned at the Tower for ransom, for bargaining and for power plays INCLUDING future King of Scotland, James I. Henry VI will eventually be overthrown by Edward IV, imprisoned at the Tower and murdered there.
It also during this time the castle is fortified to withstand gun fire and loopholes are installed for canons! ( I love a good boom)
Most infamously, this is also when the two princes are murdered. SO, its 1483, King Edward IV has just died, 12 yr old Prince Edward V and his younger brother Richard are confined to the Tower for "protection" by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester who was named Lord Protector because Edward was too young to rule. Well...the boys went missing, definitely murdered, definitely by their uncle who became King Richard III and two sets of bones where found in a box in a staircase in the 17th century which were re-examined in the 20th century and found to be the skeletons of a 12 yr old boy and 10 year old boy. King Charles II had the bodies buried in Westminster Abbey.
The late 15th century is the beginning of the Tudor reign when King Henry VII overthrew Richard III.
16th Century AD - Everyone welcome the Yeoman Warders aka "Beefeaters!' These badass guards have been protecting the Tower since the reign of King Henry VII when they were his personal guards that he referred to as Beefeaters because they were allowed to eat as much beef as they liked (seriously.)
Henry VIII (yay!) renovated the palace within the White Tower to make it more suitable for his NEW wife Anne Boleyn (oooh boy we know where this is headed) but this is also when the decline of using the White Tower or anywhere within the fortress as a Royal residence began. The castle wasn't in great shape and even though Henry VIII renovated portions of it, he never LIVED there like other monarchs.
This is also the last century where the only prisoners kept at the Tower were of importance. Notably Queen Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's 2nd wife was famously beheaded right outside of the White Tower as well as his fifth wife Catherine Howard.
17th Century AD - The castle now houses more prisoners of the common sort and monarchs only ever visit including Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I before their coronations.
LAST THINGS TO KNOW - In total, only seven prisoners were executed within the Tower Green and 112 were executed up on Tower Hill and in 400 years, only 48 cases of torture were reported which included use of the Rack and the Scavengers Daughter.
The Yeoman Warders still live on premises, they are essentially locked in at night and they have a curfew if they do leave and the Tower still houses the crown jewels. *DEEP BREATH* are y'all still with me? Ok awesome, let's tour the Tower now.
Unmissable thing #1 - TAKE THE FREE YEOMAN WARDER TOUR!
If you are a fan of the brilliant dry wit of English humor you can NOT miss the free (with admission) guided tour at the Tower. Here's the thing; you're going to get there and you will be OVERWHELMED, this is a castle, a fortress, a medieval dream come true and there is a LOT to see but you will have a way better handle on it after taking the hour long walking tour led by one of the Tower's own Yeoman. Yes, you're going to feel ridiculous scuffling around in the giant tour group but keep pushing your way to the front because hearing the Yeoman's tales and their recreation of the announcement made after holding up the freshly decapitated head of a traitor....is totally worth it.
Unmissable thing #2 - Traitors Gate
If you decide to make the poor choice and not take the Yeoman tour, you will very likely miss this very iconic, important gate at the Tower. Traitors Gate is the infamous gate in which Henry VIII had all his soon to be dead wives and thought to be traitors brought through on their way to imprisonment and eventual death. This entrance provided some privacy for the corpse time bombs and trust me when I say it was used A LOT, Henry was a very, very paranoid man. So, if you fancy taking a moment to gaze upon the entrance to death many prisoners took, take a moment of peace here.
Unmissable thing #3 - Anne Boleyn's Execution Site
Anne Boleyn is no doubt the most famous of all of Henry's six wives but it's her execution that I think really shows their special connection the best. When Anne was sentenced to death for things like adultery, incest, SORCERY and plotting against the King, she was able to receive a little kindness from the King. See, Anne was terrified of the chopping block, so she pleaded to have her decapitation performed by sword. Being the gracious King he was (just kidding) Henry gave the Ok for a French Swordsman to be brought to the Tower to perform the execution.
Crazy part?! The executioner knew Anne as a child which is how he was able to plan this crazy swift operation. Let me set the scene - there is a pile of sawdust laid out just to the left of the White Tower, Anne is led there, executioner not in sight yet, she is on her knees kneeling with her head bowed praying, JUST as the executioner knew she would be. Executioner approaches, he yells for his sword KNOWING this would make Anne look up in fear AND WITHOUT HESITATION HE SWIFTLY SLICES OFF HER HEAD SO FAST HER EYES WERE STILL MOVING AROUND 20 SECONDS AFTERWARDS. Smarty pants executioner had hidden the sword in the sawdust so when he was calling for his sword, he already had it, he just needed her neck exposed. CRAZY.
You can visit the exact spot of her execution like I did. If you are facing the White Tower with the crown jewels to your back, it is just to the left of the building right in front of the green , there will probably be an ice cream cart right next to it...no joke. There is no plaque there but there is a proper memorial for all 7 people executed at the Tower Green in the most used spot just in front of the Church of St Peter ad Vincula.
Unmissable thing #4 - The Galleries in the White Tower
Before you visit the Tower of London, mentally prepare yourself for the amount of things you are going to see because you have access to basically every single building within the fortress minus the Yeoman's personal quarters, the royal residence and the Yeoman's doctors offices. You will be there ALL DAY and you will be OVERWHELMED maybe no place more so than the White Tower where you can get up close and personal with Henry VIII's very large codpiece, more armor than you were ready for, cannons, guns, medieval version's of machine guns, wax sculptures made of monarch's heads actually commissioned in the time of their life so it's probably the most accurate portrayal you'll ever get and oh yea, THE FUCKING CHOPPING BLOCK AND EXECUTIONERS AXE.
So, I faced a moral dilemma when I saw the chopping block because I REALLY wanted a picture with it but then I realized that is pretty fucked up, I would get A LOT of strange stares (not like I wasn't already) but ultimately decided it would be in bad taste. However, I stood there looking at it for a solid 5 minutes with my mouth open gazing at the curvature of the blade, all the many chops in the block from missed blows or, the end of a successful one and I tried my hardest to take in the HISTORY I was staring at it because my mind couldn't quite wrap itself around it. Then, on the backside of the block exhibit there is a display of the final execution performed at the Tower.
The year is 1941 and a German spy named Josef Jacobs has been arrested and sentenced to death for espionage. He was too tall for the men at the firing range so they had to sit him in a chair, that chair is now on display and it is a HAUNTING thing to look at. Also, Josef's story is pretty interesting and it's worth a read.
Unmissable thing #5 - The Tower Ravens
I'm not kidding, these Ravens are huge and they give zero shits about personal space. They have the STRANGEST walk but are so fun to watch. Unfortunately I didn't get to see the Raven Master fead them their blood soaked biscuits (I shit you not) but they were a total highlight for me nonetheless.
The Tower used to be home to the Royal Menagerie which included tons of exotic animals like lions, bears, elephants but now all we have is the Ravens.
Unmissable thing #6 - Church of St Peter ad Vincula
Ok so this place was a surprise to me because I did not think I would have access to what I believed to be the private church at the Tower, needless to say I was elated when I found out I could roam freely in the small church that houses the remains of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey (we all know how much a I fancy a full circle exploration in someones life.)
There has been a church on this site basically since the Norman conquest but this particular structure was rebuilt for Henry VIII making it a very typical somewhat simple, Tudor design. There are absolutely beautiful effigies here as well as plaques commemorating the burial pit of executed people as well as a list of the nobles buried there.
*Please keep in mind this is a place of worship and although you CAN take photos, be respectful. Also, both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard are buried up by the altar where you can not access, but you can get close.
Unmissable thing #7 - Medieval Prisoner's Graffiti
Have you ever seen graffiti from the 1500s before? Yea, I hadn't either until touring the two most commonly used areas for imprisonments at the Tower. These prison suites in two of the towers on the Thames side of the fortress housed tons of important nobles, scientists and philosophers during the centuries it was used but the piece that is most infamously carved into the wall is by a freaking Innkeeper of all people.
Very little is known of Hew Draper, the Innkeeper who meticulously carved this astrological sphere into the wall in the 16oos. We don't even know how he died, all we know was he was accused of sorcery and honestly, his doodles definitely suggest he was at least somewhat familiar with the occult.
Many of the more intricate pieces like this one, are covered in plexiglass for protection from people like myself who couldn't help but let my fingers run across the words and names carved into the wall by people some 500 years ago. I felt desperate to feel even a tiny bit of their energy but it was all so overwhelming that I was in sensory overload. It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to have been imprisoned there, sometimes for years not knowing what your fate was, always looking down to the river Thames below knowing that your freedom was mere feet away.
In conclusion after the world's longest blog post EVER, the Tower of London was so much more than I could have ever expected. Please note that there is so much more to see than what I've listed here, so much more than even one visit can cover but I did my best and I urge all of you to visit if you get the chance. It is worth the lines, it is worth the price and it is absolutely worth the crowds. Visiting the Tower truly is an immersive experience unlike any other I experienced in London. 11/10 recommend!!
For a complete list of all the deaths at the Tower, please check out this link http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/tower.html
Been to the Tower? What was your favorite part? Tell me in the comments below!