For almost a millennium, the Tower of London has overlooked the River Thames. It’s still an imposing sight, but not nearly as intimidating as it was in the days when prisoners were brought here to languish in cells or be put to death. The Tower’s history, though, is overwhelming, especially if you’re an American like me, who is used to the concept of “history” only going back a couple hundred years.
It’s great to get a look at the Tower of London around sunset, when it’s beautifully lit and reflecting in the river. But any visitor to London should also reserve half a day to step inside its once-impenetrable walls. The amazing treasures inside include:
The Crown Jewels
King Henry VIII’s famous suit of armor, complete with oversized codpiece
The Traitor’s Gate
St. John’s Chapel
The White Tower – the oldest in the complex, dating back to around 1078
Arrive at the Tower of London from the Tower Hill Underground station, which is just across the street from the complex. A series of walkways takes you under the road, then down a hill, to this entrance on the southwest side. This is the Middle Tower, which looks about the same as it did in 1717, when George I refurbished it and added his coat of arms over the passageway.
Pass through Middle Tower, then Byward Tower (you can see the back of Byward Tower here). Somewhere in this area, there’s a good chance that you will see a tour group taking shape, led by a Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater. I started out with one group, but eventually wandered away on my own, mostly because I needed to get some lunch (there is a cafeteria inside the complex, which gives a discount to London Pass holders).
Walking along Water Lane, one of the first sights you encounter is also one of the most famous at the Tower of London. Traitors’ Gate is located beneath St. Thomas’s Tower. It was used to deliver prisoners into the Tower of London, directly from the River Thames.
The Beefeater’s tour continued in front of Wakefield Tower and Bloody Tower. As the name suggests, the Bloody Tower has a bloody history — legend suggests that the sons of Edward IV were held here after their father’s death, and later killed here. It was also the home of Sir Walter Ralegh during his 13 year imprisonment.
Pass underneath the Bloody Tower, and you’ve entered the Inner Ward of the Tower of London complex. The crumbling ruins in this photo are what’s left of the wall that surrounded the Innermost Ward, which was likely the site of royal residences in the 1200’s.
After breaking away from the group and eating lunch, I headed to the central attraction at the Tower of London — the White Tower. A wooden staircase leads up to the entrance.
On the ground floor, suits of armor dating back to the days of the Tudors are on display — and one of them really stands out. Henry VIII’s most famous metal outfit presents you with quite a quandary: do you stare at it, or pretend not to notice the king’s… er… um… bulge? I mean, Henry VIII was a larger-than-life figure, but did that also apply to his… er… um… royal scepter? You know, the crown jewels? Clearly he was ready for a jousting match. Rimshot, please! I’ve got a million of ’em.
A split second before I started to zoom in on Henry VIII’s super-sized codpiece, I realized that it wouldn’t be quite properly British of me to do so. Instead, I opted for the full-body shot, which still illustrates the absurd size of the king’s junk.
While Henry’s suit of armor might draw the most attention, there are plenty more metal outfits on display here…
… including some from the children’s department. This suit belonged to Edward VI, the long-awaited son of Henry VIII. He became king at 9 years old, and died when he was 15, in 1553.
From the young prince’s toy store, there’s this miniature cannon. 8-year-old Prince of Wales Prince Charles had a set of ten of them, made between 1638 and 1639.
In the neighboring room, the Line of Kings is on display, with more examples of armor, alongside all the kings’ horses.
… for a look at a medieval toilet. The White Tower had six of these, which are known as Norman Garderobes. All of them were located on the north and northeast side of the tower, the sides that face away from the river — which was a good idea. Since the waste simply dropped to the ground outside, it was wise not to have “stuff’ piling up on the more presentable front-side of the building.
The main attraction on the first floor (in America, we would consider this to be the second floor) is the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist. It has a simple design, but may have been more elaborately decorated before Henry III had it whitewashed, sometime in the 1200’s.
The first floor also houses more displays of armor, including these from the Elizabethan era, and the Stuarts.
Climb another flight of steps, and you arrive on the second floor (again, Americans would consider this to be the third floor). This level feels more like a children’s museum, complete with a metal dragon named keeper…
… and touchable displays of ancient coinage. Some of the buildings at the Tower of London were home to the Royal Mint, starting in 1279. The photo above shows a silver penny depicting William I holding a scepter, and was obviously drawn by a 3-year-old.
Heading down from the top floor, you will take the Great Stairs — a spiral staircase that runs from the basement to the roof. Originally, this was the only staircase in the White Tower.
The twisting staircase ends in the White Tower’s basement, where quite a bit of firepower is on display, including numerous cannons.
The Waterloo Barracks, on the north side of the Inner Ward, were built in the 1800’s to provide accommodation for nearly 1,000 soldiers. Nowadays, the neo-gothic building serves as a giant jewelry box. The Crown Jewels are on display here — a collection which includes various scepters, orbs, dishes, and of greatest interest, the crowns worn by kings and queens over the past 350 years. Most of the collection dates back as 1660, when the monarchy was restored in England, following 11 years as a commonwealth.
To view the crown jewels, you step aboard a moving walkway, and slowly scroll past a giant glass case that’s filled with priceless treasures. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I tried to snap a couple, just so you would know what to expect.
My photo of the collection of royal scepters turned out pretty well…
… but the crowns and orbs did not. It’s a dimly lit room, on a moving platform, and I was trying to hide the camera while taking a decent picture. You would probably be better off to buy a postcard.
Back outside, I noticed the time. I was hoping to get to the Tower Bridge Exhibition before it closed for the day, so I stepped up my pace. There was plenty left to do, and I began to realize that I was going to miss some of the Tower of London’s worthwhile attractions. But, one thing I didn’t want to miss…
… was the chance to take the Wall Walk. The elevated walkway circles the Tower of London complex, and provides great views of everything…
… including the nearby Tower Bridge…
… as well as some of the City’s more modern buildings…
… and skyscrapers. As you circle the T of L grounds on the walkway, you will pass through numerous towers, including:
The Salt Tower: Built in 1240, it held prisoners during Tudor times, including English Jesuit priest Henry Walpole…
… who left some graffiti on the walls.
The Broad Arrow Tower: Also built in 1240, used to store the wardrobe, and later, to hold prisoners, including Protestants during Queen Mary I’s reign.
The Constable Tower: Rebuilt in the 19th century, it holds a model of the 14th century Tower of London
The Martin Tower: Built in 1240, and once held the Crown Jewels
The Brick Tower: connects to the Martin Tower, and during my visit in 2011, contained an exhibit on the Royal Beasts: exotic animals including a polar bear, monkeys, an ostrich, and lion cubs, which were kept on display at the Tower of London for more than 600 years. The beasts were moved to the newly-created London Zoo in 1832.
As I prepared to leave the Tower of London…
… I noticed this excavated area, which reveals a wall that dates back further than anything else I had seen. It was built by Romans in the 4th century, as a reinforcement to a wall they had built in the previous century. The Romans left England shortly thereafter.
Upon exiting the Tower of London grounds, I realized I had just enough time to make one of the final tours of the Tower Bridge, before it shut down for the day. So I moved very quickly in that direction.