History, royalty, bloodshed, intrigue and ghostly hauntings; if you want a trip back into England’s fascinating and gruesome history, then the Tower of London is a must-see experience.
Over the centuries, the most famous VIP prison in history has also served as a zoo, armoury, treasury and royal residence.
The complex, consisting of 21 towers and set on 12 acres, sits on the bank of the River Thames in the heart of London. The imposing buildings and grounds are still guarded by Beefeaters: royal guards of the tower and the Crown Jewels.
Take a walk in the footsteps of medieval traitors. You can even visit the Tower at night if you dare!
If you want to see where royal heads were lost without losing yours, here’s a definitive guide to everything you need to know about visiting the Tower of London.
History of the Tower of London
Originally built over 950 years ago, the Tower of London is the oldest palace, fortress and prison in Europe. It takes its name from the White Tower, originally known as the Great Tower, which was built in 1078 for William the Conqueror to keep the unruly Londoners in line and show off the new king’s power and greatness.
The Tower sits on the same site where the Roman emperor, Claudius, built a fort more than one thousand years before. Traces of the Roman walls can still be seen in the grounds today.
The Tower is most famously known as a prison and a place of execution and torture. It also housed the Royal Mint up until the late half of the 19th century.
It was used as a prison during the First and Second World Wars when 12 men were executed for espionage. Damaged during the Blitz of 1940, the Tower was repaired and opened to the public after WWII.
Today, the Tower is home to the Crown Jewels, it attracts thousands of visitors from across the globe, and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex is made up of a total of 21 towers. Here are some of the most famous…
The White Tower
The original Great Tower dominates the complex and was the castle’s strongest military point. Built in 1078, it was later ordered to be whitewashed by Henry II in 1240. It was then that it became known as the famous White Tower that we see today.
The White Tower was a multi-purpose building that included accommodation for the royal family and a chapel. Up until the 14th century, it was mainly used as a royal residence. The chapel remains unchanged from the days when the royal family worshipped there and the Knights of the Order of Bath kept vigil on the night before a king or queen was crowned.
In 1100, it was first used as a prison for Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, who was imprisoned by Henry I because he was an active supporter of Henry’s predecessor, William Rufus. Flambard eventually managed to escape from the Tower and went into exile in Normandy.
When Henry III resided at the Tower, he entertained many esteemed guests who would bring him exotic animals as gifts. The animals were kept in Lion Tower, positioned near the drawbridge at the main entrance so that guests who arrived could be greeted by the impressive, roaring beasts.
Lions, tigers, elephants, even a polar bear were housed in Lion Tower as symbols of power used to entertain the court.
The most famous and intriguing tower was built in the mid 13th century during the reign of Henry III. Its original purpose was to defend the main river entrance.
Originally named the ‘Garden Tower’, it was given its gruesome nickname after Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland, committed suicide there in 1585. It’s also believed that Henry VI met his very gruesome death there.
But most famous of all, the Bloody Tower is thought to be the murder site of the two little princes, Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, in 1483.
The Princes in the Tower
12-year-old Edward and his younger brother, 10-year-old Richard, were originally taken to the royal apartments after the death of their father to prepare for Edward’s coronation to be held on 22 June 1843.
Edward never got to be crowned. Accusations were made that their father was bigamous and the boys, therefore, illegitimate. The boys were removed from the sumptuous apartments to the Bloody Tower, and their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, declared himself king.
The two princes were never seen again.
In 1674, two skeletons were discovered hidden under the stairs near the chapel in the White Tower. Believing them to be the remains of the two tragic princes, Charles II had them removed and buried in Westminster Abbey.
The most famous wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn was imprisoned in the Tower of London in May 1536.
Failure to produce a male heir and the subject of jealousies and plotting meant Anne needed to be disposed of. She was tried for adultery, treason and even incest, found guilty and sentenced to death.
Anne was beheaded with a double-bladed axe (for a sharp, swift death) by a French swordsman on Tower Green within the castle grounds. Her body was buried in an unmarked grave beneath the pavement of the Chapel Royal of St Peter and Vincula at the Tower on 19th May 1536.
Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was also beheaded here in 1542.
Lady Jane Grey
Used as a political pawn, teenager Jane was installed as queen in 1553, after her cousin Edward VI died choosing her as successor to ensure Protestant rule. Her reign only lasted 9 days. Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Mary, declared herself rightful queen and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower.
Initially pardoned by the new queen due to her father’s involvement in a Protestant rebellion, poor Jane was sentenced once again to death and beheaded on Tower Green 12th February 1554.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Once hailed as a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, explorer Raleigh was imprisoned in the Bloody Tower in 1603 after being accused of plotting against King James I. One of the longest-serving prisoners, Raleigh spent 13 years here before being released in 1616.
Imprisoned in the Tower for his involvement in the infamous gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, militant revolutionary and the world’s first official terrorist, Guy Fawkes was confined to a tiny cell where it was impossible to stand up or lie down.
After interrogation and torture on the rack, Fawkes was condemned to death.
The Kray Twins
Infamous London gangsters, Ronnie and Reggie Kray were among the last prisoners held at the Tower for a few days in 1952 for refusing to report for National Service.
Ghosts at the Tower
With its gruesome history, it should come as no surprise that there are various reports of ghostly sightings over the centuries. Here are just a few that you may see wandering the grounds after dusk:
- Henry VI, imprisoned by the House of York during the Wars of the Roses, was butchered to death as he knelt in prayer in Wakefield Tower. On the anniversary of his death, May 21, his ghost is said to appear pacing the murder spot before disappearing on the stroke of midnight.
- The ghosts of the two princes in the tower are reported to have been seen in the Bloody Tower dressed in nightshirts. Many visitors have reported hearing children’s laughter within the grounds.
- The headless figure of Anne Boleyn has been reported wandering near the Queen’s House and in the chapel where her body lies.
- The ghost of Dudley Guilford, husband of Lady Jane Grey, also executed here, has been reported sitting and weeping in the Beauchamp Tower. Many believe he etched the name ‘Jane’ into the stonewalls, which can still be seen today.
Visiting the Tower
The best way to make the most of your visit is to book a guided tour conducted by the expert Beefeater Yeoman Warders who’ll regale you with fascinating insights and stories.
As well as the famous towers and the spine-tingling Tower Green, the Tower of London hosts a whole range of unmissable attractions. Make sure you don’t miss out on the following:
- The Royal Armoury in the White Tower has an amazing display of weaponry dating from medieval times to the end of the 19th century, including armour worn by Henry VIII, Charles I and James II.
- Tower Torture in the bottom of the Wakefield Tower holds a grisly exhibition of torture used at the Tower. See replicas of torture instruments such as manacles, racks and the Scavenger’s Daughter, a nutcracker for humans.
- Jewel House is home to the Crown Jewels including St Edward’s Crown made from pure gold and used at coronations, and the Imperial State Crown made for the coronation of Queen Victoria and set with over 2,800 diamonds.
- The Medieval Palace, constructed by Henry III, now displays a recreation of the sumptuous royal apartments.
- Many prisoners entered the Tower through Traitor’s Gate, rather than the streets of London. They were brought by barge along the River Thames. As they passed through the imposing arch, heads of recently beheaded prisoners stuck on pikes would greet them so they could see what fate awaited them.
- The six Ravens, housed at Wakefield Tower, have been protected at the Tower of London since the times of Charles II who believed the superstition: ‘if they are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall’. Today, their wings are clipped, just in case, and they are lovingly cared for by a Ravenmaster Yeoman Warder.
- Mainly dating from the 1530s to the 1670s, the prisoner’s graffiti, painstakingly etched into the thick stone walls of the towers range from simple names to intricate carvings, each one a testament of time spent in the Tower.
- Parts of the Tower are closed to the public when ceremonies and special events are held, so find out in advance before making your booking.
- Queues can be long, especially during school holidays, so it’s best to get there early in the morning during these times.
- Many areas of the Tower are uneven and cobbled, so ensure you wear comfortable shoes.
- Yeoman Warder tours last approximately one hour and are available daily, every 30 minutes. The last tour is 2.30 pm (winter) and 3.30 pm (summer). Multi-lingual audio guides are also available. You should allow approximately 3 hours to see everything.
- Snack and dining facilities are available at the Tower including a restaurant overlooking the River Thames.
- There are 6 onsite souvenir and gift shops.
Tickets and Opening Times (as of June 2017)
Adult (16 years old +): £21.50
Child (5 – 15 years old): £9.70
Under 5s: Free
Online, Group and Family discounts also available.
Summer: Tuesday to Saturday, 9am – 5.30pm. Sunday to Monday, 10am – 5.30pm
Winter: Tuesday to Saturday, 9am – 4.30pm. Sunday to Monday, 10am – 4pm
Tower Hill Tube Station is a 5-minute walk away. It’s served by both the District and Circle lines.
Tower Gateway Station, served by Docklands Light Railway is located next to Tower Hill Tube Station, a 5-minute walk from the Tower.
Other nearby stations are London Bridge and Fenchurch Street Station.
Routes 15, 42, 78, 100 and RV1 all stop at the Tower.
It’s possible to arrive at the Tower by water transport, getting off at Tower Pier. Riverboats depart from Charing Cross, Greenwich and Westminster.
There is strictly no parking at the Tower. The nearest car park is on Lower Thames Street, a 2-minute walk from the Tower. However, parking is within the Congestion Charging Zone, so it’s advisable to use public transport when travelling into the centre of London.
Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off buses also stop at the Tower.
For a truly unforgettable adventure, book your visit to the Tower of London with Premium Tours. Contact us today for more information.