by Katie Calvert
Royal residence, royal prison, royal execution site—the Tower of London has held each of these designations and more (mint, vault, armory, zoo, museum, the list goes on). One of London's best-known landmarks and home of the British crown jewels, the Tower of London is a must-see attraction.
If you plan to visit the Tower of London you should allow two to three hours to see the buildings and their historical artifacts.
The Tower is one of London's most-visited sites. From the sublime treasures of the Jewel House, where you can gaze at crowns and scepters encrusted with some of the world's largest and most beautiful diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, to the gruesome tales of execution at the scaffold site on Tower Green, where three English queens were beheaded, the Tower offers something of interest to almost everyone.
The Tower's 900 years of history surround you as you walk along the castle's cobblestone paths.
That history is best told by the Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, who give free one-hour tours of the Tower throughout the day.
Well-practiced in their anecdotes, these distinctively costumed soldiers will entertain and educate you as they lead you through the fortress. These tours include entrance to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains), which is closed to non-tour visitors.
Your Beefeater guide may hearken back to the site's ancient history as a possible pre-Roman settlement and allude to the use of the old Roman city walls in the original fortifications.
More likely, he (or she), will date the fortress from 1078, the year that William the Conqueror ordered the construction of what would come to be called the White Tower.
William wanted an imposing structure (built with stone imported from his native France) that would signify his strength and power over the still-rebellious English that he had defeated in the Battle of Hastings (1066).
His heirs and successors would continue enlarging, adding, and remodeling the Tower—a moat here, a library there, a new tower over there—for centuries.
Even the future Elizabeth I "served time," imprisoned for three months by her half-sister Queen Mary I. Release for many came only through the executioner's stroke. A visit to the Bloody Tower, originally known as The Garden Tower and once home to two princes who were last seen alive at the Tower of London, allows you to see what living conditions were like for some imprisoned here.
A legend that goes back to the time of Charles II's reign in the 17th Century says that England will suffer a terrible evil should the Tower of London lose its ravens. King Charles didn't take any chances with such a curse and decreed that at least six ravens should always be kept at the Tower.
One Yeoman, the Raven Master, is charged with caring for the Tower's flock (and keeping their wings clipped so that they remain in the castle grounds). The Crown wants to ensure that England and its Tower will be around for the next 900 years.
The Crown Jewels in the Jewel House, Waterloo Block are kept under tight security since they are so priceless that they are not insured. You do get a very close view—enhanced by special lighting—but are separated from the gems by bulletproof glass. The Royal Sceptre containing the world's largest cut diamond, the 530-carat Star of Africa, and the Imperial State Crown which was made for Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838 and is worn by Queen Elizabeth II for the annual State Opening of Parliament are just two of the fabulous exhibits.
Ceremony of the Keys
If your visit to London affords you the time, you can come back in the late evening (the Tower at night can be quite magical) to witness the Ceremony of the Keys. This 700-year-old tradition, in which the Tower's gates are locked for the night, has continued without regard to plague, fire, or German aircraft bombardment.
The ceremony begins exactly at 21:53 and finishes before the clock strikes the hour. It is a short ritual, but one performed with appropriate British precision and pomp.
Tickets are free, but must be reserved six to eight weeks in advance.
To apply for tickets, write to:
The Ceremony of the Keys
HM Tower of London
London, England EC3N 4AB
Your request must include the names of all attendees.
Enclose a self-addressed envelope with the appropriate return postage (British postage stamps if in the UK; international reply coupons if outside the UK).
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2013 Lee W. Nelson