“Here lands as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs.” — The future Elizabeth I (on arriving at the Tower under arrest in 1554)
The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror towards the end of 1066. He built the White Tower in 1078. Over the centuries the Tower of London has been used as a royal residence, an armoury, a treasury, a zoo, the Royal Mint, a records office and to house the Crown Jewels. It is run by the Constable of the Tower, who is chosen from the leading nobility and courtiers. On four occasions the Constable has also been Archbishop of Canterbury.
The job came with decent perks: the Constables could collect tolls on ships coming into London, they owned flotsam and jetsam on the Thames and had legal authority in the area around the Tower. And the prisoners had to pay the Constable a fee for their maintenance.
The Tower wasn’t built as a prison but it was convenient to keep state prisoners there, as it was near the courts in Westminster and was a Royal Stronghold. Bishop Flambard, a former Constable of the Tower, was the first prisoner, and the first escapee, in 1100.
Many prisoners have carved their names into the walls of the Tower. One was Hew Draper, a 16th-century Bristol innkeeper sent to the Tower for sorcery. He carved a large and detailed astrological sphere with Zodiacal signs, numbers and lines and wrote: “Hew Draper of Brystow made this sphere the 30 day of Maye anno 1561.” Nobody knows whether he died at the Tower, escaped or was let off, as there is no record of him beyond his intricate graffiti.
Only 22 executions have ever taken place inside the Tower of London. Most happened on the nearby Tower Hill. The last man to be beheaded there was the Jacobite octogenarian Lord Lovat on April 9 1747.
A scaffold built for the spectators collapsed, killing 20 people. The last execution in the Tower of London took place on August 14 1941, when Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was shot by a firing squad.
The Royal Mint was set up at the Tower of London in 1278. At the time, many of the coins in circulation were minted locally around the country.
Henry VIII changed the system so that only the Royal Mint could produce coins. This earned him the nickname Old Copper Nose because the gold and silver soon rubbed off his new coins, exposing the copper beneath, particularly on the nose of Henry’s portrait. He used the gold and silver he saved to cut the debts accrued by fighting foreign wars and building beautiful palaces.
For over 600 years there was a royal menagerie in the Tower of London. It was founded by King John in the early 1200s and was filled with exotic animals given as royal gifts for the entertainment and curiosity of the court.
The first animals to arrive were lions, an elephant and a polar bear which would hunt for fish in the Thames on a lead. Later came tigers, kangaroos and ostriches.
Remains found in the tower have confirmed that the medieval big cats were male Barbary lions, a now extinct subspecies from North Africa.
The menagerie was closed by the Duke of Wellington in 1835 and the animals became the basis for London Zoo in Regent’s Park.
The Tower has been home to precious jewels since William the Conqueror began storing treasure there.
Today there are 23,578 jewels, and the most impressive single piece is the Imperial State Crown, which contains 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and five rubies.
“If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…” is the old superstition. But the earliest reference to a raven in the Tower only dates back to 1885 (a picture in Pictorial World newspaper).
Today seven ravens (including Baldrick and Marley) are kept at the Tower, and they each have a wing clipped to ensure they can’t fly far (although one – Grog – made it as far as a pub in the East End in 1981). All but one of the Tower ravens died from stress during the Blitz.