Tower of London (Historic Royal Palaces)


HM Tower of London, EC3N 4AB


0844 482 7777



Opening times:

Mar–Oct Tues–Sat 9:00–17:30, Sun–Mon 10:00–17:30; Nov–Feb Tues–Sat 9:00–16:30, Sun–Mon 10:00–16:00

How to get there:

Tube: Tower Hill

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Cafés and shops

The Tower of London, the most important and complete secular medieval edifice to survive in the city, is a place intimately and continuously involved in British history since the Norman Conquest. As the foremost royal fortress, palace, prison and place of execution, it played a central role in the defence of crown and state until the mid-19th century. In the Victorian period the Tower became the tourist attraction that it remains to this day, grimly associated with the use, abuse, or pursuit of royal power, as well as with the notable people who have suffered death or imprisonment within its walls. Remarkably well-preserved, it contains not only the Crown Jewels, but also part of the Royal Armouries, a series of reconstructed medieval rooms and restored medieval towers, a Norman keep and chapel, a Tudor church, the Regimental Museum of the Royal Fusiliers, several ancient ravens and an army garrison. Quite distinct from the latter are the famous Yeoman Warders, a body of about 40 men chosen from retired warrant and non-commissioned officers of the army. They live in the Tower of London, wear uniforms said to date from the time of Henry VII or Edward VI, and are better known as ‘Beefeaters’, probably because of the rations that they once received. Guided tours led by Yeoman Warders leave the Lanthorn Tower at regular intervals and remain the best possible introduction to the castle.


History of the Tower

The White Tower is the oldest part of the fortress that takes its name. It was constructed on the orders of William the Conqueror in the late 11th century as the most important of a series of keeps designed to secure London for the crown and protect the new capital from Danish invasion. A Roman wall, part of which can still be seen outside Tower Hill underground station, protected the eastern boundary of the tower’s precincts. Not until the reign of Henry III (1216–72) was the White Tower fully fortified, with the addition of the Wakefield and Lanthorn towers on the waterfront, a new wall protecting the western approach, and finally, at enormous expense and more than doubling the acreage of the castle, a curtain wall complete with nine new towers and a moat. Around this time the Tower began to be used as a prison: the Welsh Prince Gruffydd died in an escape attempt here in 1244. Many of Henry III’s new towers, Constable, Martin, Brick, Bowyer, Flint and Devereux, still survive much as built. Edward I (1272–1307) continued his father’s work, building the Beauchamp Tower and then enclosing the whole castle on all sides with another great curtain wall and moat, providing a landward entry from the west through the Middle and Byward towers and a river entry through St Thomas’s Tower, later known as Traitors’ Gate, the shape substantially assumed by the Tower today. The Scottish rebel Sir William Wallace was executed here in 1305, while David II of Scotland (1346–57) and John of France (1356–60) were both held prisoner in the Tower, as was James I of Scotland for part of his long imprisonment in England from 1406–26. Until the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) the Tower was also used by monarchs as a safe haven in times of civil unrest, notably by the 14-year-old Richard II (1377–99) who took refuge here for two days during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Over the course of the next century, and especially during the Wars of the Roses, other royal residents were less safe: Henry VI (1422–61, 1470–71) was secretly murdered here, as later were Edward IV’s brother, George Duke of Clarence, ‘drowned in a butt of a malmsey’ in 1478, and the young Edward V and his brother, ‘the Princes in the Tower’, dispatched here five years later.

Official executions characterise the continuation under the Tudors of the Tower’s gloomy history, beginning with the beheading of Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher in 1535, canonized as Catholic martyrs for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. Henry had married Katherine of Aragon here, and also Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded on Tower Green in 1536. Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, suffered the same fate in 1542. Among the many prisoners of Henry’s daughter ‘Bloody’ Mary (1553–58) were Lady Jane Grey, proclaimed Queen on the death of Edward VI (1553), and beheaded nine days later, along with her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley. Mary’s half-sister, daughter of Anne Boleyn, the future Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) was held in close confinement here for two months. Thomas Cranmer and Sir Thomas Wyatt, by whose followers the Tower had been attacked, for the last time in its history, were imprisoned here and beheaded in 1554.

During Elizabeth’s reign, the Duke of Norfolk was executed here for intriguing in favour of Mary Queen of Scots. The Earl of Essex, Elizabeth’s favourite, was beheaded on Tower Green in 1601. Sir Walter Raleigh was confined here three times. The monarch that signed the order for his execution, James I (1603–25), was the last to use the Tower as a residence. In 1605–06 Guy Fawkes was tortured here. During the Civil War (1642–49), the castle was seized by the Parliamentarians and garrisoned with regular troops by Oliver Cromwell, later Lord Protector. Charles II (1660–85), the last King to sleep at the Tower, passed the night here before his Coronation in 1661. Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, was one of the many noble prisoners brought here after the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, and was the last person beheaded in England, on Tower Hill in 1747. Later prisoners in the Tower included John Wilkes (1763) and the Cato Street conspirators (1820). During the Second World War, Rudolph Hess and several U-boat crews were held here, and spies were executed by firing squad within its walls.


Traitors’ Gate and the Royal Palace

The main entrance to the Tower is near the southwest corner of the castle, through Edward I’s Middle Tower, rebuilt in the 18th century, over the dry moat and through the Byward Tower (1280). This main gatehouse to the Outer Ward and entrance through the outer circuit of walls is usually closed to the public, but it is well worth asking a Warder to see inside. Along with the Tower’s original portcullis, now the symbol of Her Majesty’s Government, one room reveals a remarkable painted chimney breast dating from around 1400. On the left, the figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist can be clearly seen, while on the right stand St John the Evangelist and the Angel of Judgement. The wall painting once had a background pattern of fleur-de-lis, lions, and birds on a green and gold ground, which can still be seen decorating the main beam of the room. The central figure of Christ was destroyed during rebuilding of the chimney piece in the early 1600s and the other figures, which formed part of a continuous composition around the walls, were covered in limewash. The Byward Tower was once the home of the First Gentleman Porter, known as John of London, and much later the prison of the Jacobite rebel Lord Lovat.

Opposite the Byward Tower is the Bell Tower (1190; closed to the public), the prison of Fisher, More, Princess Elizabeth and Monmouth, where curfew continues to be rung at twilight. Running north between the two towers is Mint Street, named after the Royal Mint established here in the late 13th century, lined with casemates constructed against the walls in the early 18th century. Isaac Newton lived in the first of them while Master of the Mint, and they currently house the 34 Yeoman Warders. Water Lane runs east from here, parallel to the river, beneath the windows of the Queen’s House (home to the Governor of the Tower and closed to the public), where Guy Fawkes was interrogated in the Council Chamber. Beneath St Thomas’s Tower is Traitors’ Gate , its great stone arch constructed between 1275 and 1279. Many illustrious prisoners hardly deserving the name of traitor have passed beneath it, among them Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Catherine Howard, Essex and Monmouth.

St Thomas’s Tower is now the entrance to the reconstructed Medieval Palace . A small turret off the first room contains an oratory, originally overlooking the river and dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. The Wakefield Tower, traditionally the site of Henry VI’s murder, was built in the 1220s as Henry III’s bedchamber and later became Edward’s audience chamber. It was restored in 1993 to something like its appearance at that time, featuring a reproduction of an 11th-century candelabra or corona. Lastly on the tour of the Medieval Palace is the Lanthorn Tower, built for the queen around the same time as the Wakefield Tower, but demolished in 1776 and only rebuilt in 1883. It contains a small exhibition on daily life in the palace of Edward I.

The White Tower and Royal Armouries

Leaving the Lanthorn Tower, visitors are standing close to the line of the Roman city wall, with a good view of the White Tower . Probably built by Bishop Gundulf, also the builder of Rochester Cathedral, with walls up to 15ft thick and rising to a height of 90ft, it was whitewashed in the reign of Henry III. The exterior has been much restored since then, notably by Wren, who altered all the windows but four on the south side. The tower is entered via an external staircase to the first floor, where in many ways the most evocative room comes first: the Chapel of St John the Evangelist (1087). It rises through the height of two floors, the massive round columns and arches of the nave supporting an unusual continuous tribune gallery above, daylight filtering through heavy round-arched windows. It is the earliest piece of Norman ecclesiastical architecture in London and also one of the most important in England. The squared stonework, austere and bare, was quarried at Caen in Normandy, but was probably once brightly decorated with colourful paintings. In 1399 Henry IV created 46 knights in the chapel, which remains closely connected with the Order of the Bath; Henry VI lay in state here after being murdered; Lady Jane Grey used it during her nine days reign in 1553, and a year later it saw Mary I betrothed by proxy to Philip of Spain. In the rooms beyond, new exhibitions recount the building of the White Tower, and take visitors past a Norman garderobe or lavatory.

Exhibitions from the Royal Armouries occupy the rest of the rooms, recently redesigned to explore the idea of the Tower as the first museum in England. One highlight is the armour of the Tudor and Stuart kings and princes: King Henry VIII’s armour comes first, a suit from 1515 with a skirt highly ornamented with the gilt brass initials H and K (for his first wife Katherine of Aragon), entwined with true lovers’ knots. It was probably made for the Greenwich tournament in 1516. Some of the king’s fearsome horse armour (Flanders, c. 1514) can also be seen here. Another suit of armour, engraved with designs by Hans Holbein, was made for Henry when he was forty-nine and had become seriously overweight. By contrast, the Presentation Armour of King James I shows him to have been a slight man, as does the short armour (1612) of Charles I, probably first made for his elder brother Henry, Prince of Wales, and superbly decorated in gold leaf. The ‘Line of Kings’ claims to be one of the earliest museum displays in Britain, dating from around 1690. Following the restoration of Charles II, the general public was allowed to visit the armouries here for the first time. The ‘Line of Kings’, a rank of mounted armoured figures representing English monarchs since William the Conqueror, was one of the most popular attractions. The wooden horses and heads of the kings were carved by, among others, Grinling Gibbons (third from the left), and John Nost (fifth from left). Nearby, also side by side, are the suits of armour of John of Gaunt (6ft 9in) and Richard, Duke of York (3ft 1.5in), one of the princes supposedly murdered in the Bloody Tower. Equally popular in the 17th century was the Spanish Armoury, also recreated here, which once claimed to display booty captured from the Spanish Armada: among the harnesses, thumbscrews, bilbos and shackles, a pollaxe can be seen, along with the execution block of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat.


The Crown Jewels

Facing the White Tower from the north are the Waterloo Barracks (1845) , built on the orders of the Duke of Wellington, then Constable of the Tower. Once home to almost 1,000 soldiers, they now contain the strong-room where the Crown Jewels have been kept since 1994. Crowds are channelled slowly through a procession of rooms where videos of royal ceremonies are shown, notably the live televisation of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, the last time the regalia were used. The ancient regalia were dispersed or destroyed during the Commonwealth. Only three swords and the silver gilt Coronation Spoon, probably made for Henry II or Richard I some time in the 12th century, survive from before that time. Some of the items, most prominently the Orb and Sceptre, have been used at every coronation since that of Charles II, by whom they were commissioned. St Edward’s Crown (1661), used for the actual crowning of the sovereign, may have been made from the gold of the Saxon diadem. The Ampulla and Spoon, the oldest items on display, are used at the most solemn moment of the ceremony, when oil is poured from the Ampulla eagle’s beak into the Spoon, for the Archbishop to anoint the sovereign’s head, breast and palms. The Ampulla was redecorated in the 17th century but may in essence be the golden eagle used at the coronation of Henry IV (1399). As well as their historical and symbolic interest, the regalia incorporate some spectacular gemstones. The Sceptre contains the largest top-quality cut diamond in the world, Cullinan I or the ‘Star of Africa’. The Koh-i-Noor diamond, or ‘Mountain of Light’, which sits in the platinum crown made for the Queen Mother at the coronation of George VI (1937), was given to Queen Victoria by the Maharajah of Lahore as part of the treaty annexing the Punjab in 1849. Queen Victoria’s Small Diamond Crown is the lightest and smallest in the collection, only 3.7 inches in height, designed to be worn on her widow’s cap. The Imperial State Crown (1937), carried by the monarch after the coronation and subsequently for the state openings of Parliament, contains sapphires associated with Edward the Confessor and Alexander II of Scotland, pearls once in the possession of Catherine de’ Medici and Mary Queen of Scots, a ruby possibly worn by Henry V at Agincourt, and the second largest top-quality cut diamond in the world, Cullinan II or the ‘Second Star of Africa’.

Close to the Jewel House shop is the Regimental Museum of the Royal Fusiliers, the City of London regiment once stationed at the Tower. It contains relics relating to the history of the regiment from 1685 to the present day. Among a variety of special displays is one on the terrible Battle of Albuera in 1811. Though nominally a victory, only some 1,500 men survived out of a total of 4,000.


Tower Green and the Bloody Tower

Described by Macaulay as the ‘most melancholy spot on earth’, Tower Green is the site of the scaffold reserved for politically sensitive executions where the following were beheaded: Queen Anne Boleyn, accused of adultery (1536); Margaret Plantagenet Pole, Countess of Salisbury, with some difficulty, having been implicated in ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’ (1541); Queen Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, accused of adultery, along with her lady-in-waiting Jane, Viscountess Rochford (1542); the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine days queen’ (1554); and the Earl of Essex (1601). All are buried nearby within the altar rails of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, consecrated in the early 12th century, rebuilt at the end of the 13th, burnt and then rebuilt in 1512. Finally fully restored in 1971, the church also contains the tombs of Fisher, More and the Jacobite lords executed in 1746–47, along with more recent memorials to distinguished soldiers. In the north aisle is the impressive monument to the Duke of Exeter (1447), formerly in St Katherine’s, Regent’s Park.

Across Tower Green is the semicircular Beauchamp Tower (1280). The walls of the upper chamber are covered with inscriptions and carvings made for or by former prisoners down the ages, including Lady Jane Grey and the Dudley family. On the way back onto Water Lane is the Bloody Tower (1225) , traditionally the site of the murder of the Princes in the Tower. It was the prison of Cranmer, Raleigh, Laud and Judge Jeffreys, who died here in 1689. One room has been furnished as it might have been during Raleigh’s imprisonment. Sir Walter Raleigh was first imprisoned in 1591 for secretly marrying Elizabeth Throckmorton, Elizabeth I’s Maid of Honour, but released after five weeks. In 1603, King James I placed him in the Tower for conspiring to crown Lady Arabella Stuart. Condemned to life imprisonment, he resided here, conducting experiments in the hen house, growing tobacco and writing his History of the World. ‘Only my father,’ remarked Henry, Prince of Wales, ‘would keep such a bird in such a cage.’ In 1616 Raleigh was released to search for El Dorado. His expedition failed and involved the sacking of the Spanish settlement of Santo Tomé. To placate the outraged Spanish, Raleigh was beheaded in Old Palace Yard, Westminster in 1618.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.


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Wimbledon Windmill Museum
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
2 Willow Road (National Trust)
William Morris Gallery
Whitechapel Gallery
Westminster Abbey Museum
Wesley's Chapel
Wellington Arch (English Heritage)
Wallace Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Tower of London (Historic Royal Palaces)
Tate Modern
Tate Britain
Sutton House (National Trust)
Spencer House
Southside House
South London Art Gallery
The Courtauld Institute of Art (Somerset House)
Sir John Soane's Museum
Shakespeare’s Globe
Serpentine Gallery
Science Museum
St Bride’s Crypt Museum
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum
Saatchi Gallery
Royal Society of Arts
The Royal Mews
Royal London Hospital Museum
The Faraday Museum
Royal Hospital Chelsea
RCM Museum of Music
Royal Academy of Music Museum
Royal Academy of Arts
Red House (National Trust)
Ranger’s House (English Heritage)
Ragged School Museum
The Queen’s Gallery
Prince Henry’s Room
The Photographers’ Gallery
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Osterley Park (National Trust)
Orleans House Gallery
Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
Natural History Museum
National Portrait Gallery
National Gallery
National Army Museum
Musical Museum
World Rugby Museum
Museum of the Order of St John
Museum No. 1 (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Museum of London
Garden Museum
Museum in Docklands (Museum of London)
The Royal Observatory
The Queen's House
Old Royal Naval College
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Marble Hill House (English Heritage)
Mall Galleries
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London Transport Museum
London Fire Brigade Museum
London Canal Museum
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Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Leighton House
Kingston Museum
Kew Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
London Museum of Water & Steam
Kenwood House (English Heritage)
Kensington Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Keats House
Jewish Museum
Jewel Tower (English Heritage)
Jerwood Space
Imperial War Museum
ICA Institute of Contemporary Arts
Hunterian Museum
Horniman Museum
HMS Belfast (Imperial War Museum)
Hayward Gallery
Handel House Museum
Hampton Court Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Ham House (National Trust)
Guildhall Art Gallery
Guards Museum
Grant Museum of Zoology & Comparative Anatomy
Geffrye Museum of the Home
Fulham Palace
Freud Museum
Foundling Museum
Forty Hall & Estate
Florence Nightingale Museum
Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum
Fenton House (National Trust)
Fashion and Textile Museum
Fan Museum
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
Eltham Palace (English Heritage)
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Dr Johnson’s House
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Cutty Sark
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