Did you know… The Tower of London is one of London’s four World Heritage sites, along with Kew Gardens, Greenwich and Westminster Abbey.
Did you know… Archaeologists believe that two ancient British Kings are buried under the White Tower – Brutus (1100 BC) and Molmutius (500 BC).
Did you know… The last beheading to take place at the Tower was that of Lord Lovat, in 1747. The last execution by firing squad was that of German spy, Josef Jakobs, in 1941.The Byward TowerThe Middle TowerCannons at the TowerTraitor’s Gate, Tower of London
You can watch all of our London videos and subscribe at our YouTube channel
The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest. It survived the next 900 years as a palace, prison, royal mint and execution yard, before finally becoming London’s top tourist attraction.
William built the tower to protect him against the power of The City. Its position on the bank afforded excellent defence of the Thames, but after the introduction of artillery centuries later its role as a fortress faded. Its defences, however, made it the perfect prison for the nation’s traitors.
There are two walls surrounding the central tower – the inner wall has 13 turrets, and the outer wall has five. A moat was added in the 13th-century, and completed by Henry III. He also built a palace to the south and took up royal residence. King Stephen then made it the monarch’s official home in 1140.
Henry VIII added various timber buildings, but eventually left for Hampton Court. By the time of James I in 1603, Whitehall Palace had taken over as the prime residence of the King.
The White Tower  is the oldest part of the site, begun by William and completed by Henry III. Its name comes not from the pale stone used in construction – but from the whitewash it got in 1241.
It has had many varied uses throughout its history – including an astronomical observatory. John Flamsteed erected his watch glasses at the top of the turret, until a better building was provided at Greenwich.
Be sure to see the St. John’s Chapel – one of the earliest church interiors in England, and an interesting collection of armour – including one worn Henry VIII.
Traitor’s Gate  is dry today, but back in the Middle Ages the boats would sidle up the Thames and deposit their scum at the wall. They would then be transferred to the most feared prison in the Kingdom – the Bloody Tower.
The Bloody Tower  prison has held many famous names – the first being the Bishop of Durham in 1101. Guy Fawkes was interrogated here after the Gunpowder Plot, and Sir Walter Raleigh was held for twelve years before being released to search for gold. Henry VI was almost certainly murdered in the Wakefield Tower , and Sir Thomas More was held for years for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as the head of the church.
The most famous prisoners of all were the so-called Princes in the Tower. When King Edward IV died in 1483, his sons were locked inside Tower for safe-keeping. They mysteriously vanished a short time later and their uncle Richard III usurped the throne. Their skeletal remains were found hidden in the building two centuries later, and exhumed in 1933.
Incarcerations continued right up until the 20th-century, when German spies were rounded up and shot. The last political prisoner of all was Rudolf Hess in 1941, after his crazy flight to Scotland.
Despite its fearful reputation, the building was never designed to be a prison – the criminals were simply locked into whichever room was available. As such, escapes were surprisingly common. Sir John Oldcastle – William Shakespeare’s Falstaff – was the most famous fool to flee – running away after 365 days, but was quickly caught and hung.
A short distance from the Tower is Tower Green . Despite its grisly history, only seven people have ever been beheaded here – prisoners of a lower social standing were hung on Tower Hill.
The most famous people to lose their head were Henry’s two unfortunate wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. You can still see the executioner’s axe and chopping block in the White Tower museum. Their bodies are said to lay under the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
The queues for the Jewel House  can sometimes be daunting, but the wait is well worth it. A television plays news reels of the Coronation whilst you wait in line, and once inside you can view the British Crown Jewels.
The pieces mainly date from 1660, as everything prior to that was melted down by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War. The only pieces to survive were three swords and a spoon.
The most important piece is the Imperial State Crown – worn by Her Majesty at the State Opening of Parliament. It is encrusted with 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies, and is said to be worth £27.5 million. Another impressive piece is the Sovereign’s Sceptre. This contains the world’s largest cut diamond – the 530-carat First Star of Africa called Cullinan I.
The Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters) lead hour-long Tower of London tours, so be sure to note the starting times. There are around 35 in number, and they all perform ceremonial duties. One, for example, is called the Ravenmaster – whose job is to make sure the birds don’t fly away.
In 1688 King Charles II was warned that if anything happened to the Tower of London’s ravens then England would fall to foreign invasion, so a small family has been kept captive ever since. Their wings are clipped so escape is impossible. Their names at the time of writing are Hardey, Thor, Odin, Gwyllum, Cedric, Hugin and Munin.
The ravens are not the only animals to live at the Tower of London, because for 600 years it even had its own zoo. It began when Frederick II gave Henry III three leopards as a wedding present. Louis XI of France then supplied it with an elephant, and in 1252 they bagged themselves a polar bear from the King of Norway. (It was kept on a long chain, and caught fish in the Thames!)
The zoo was opened to the public in the reign Elizabeth I, but within 200 years the creatures had dwindled to a few birds and a bear. So when London Zoo was built in Regent’s Park they were slowly shipped across.
The Chief Yeoman is also responsible for the Ceremony of the Keys. The ceremony is quite a spectacle, and has taken place every night for five hundred years.
First of all he collects the keys from Byward Tower , and carries a lantern to Traitor’s Gate. There he picks up a guard of four men, and continues to the Middle Tower. When that is shut they march back to the Byward and a sentry at the tower shouts
Halt, who goes there? to which they reply,
Whose keys? he says.
Queen Elizabeth’s keys; God preserve Queen Elizabeth!
Tower of London's "Ceremony of the Keys" – from 1st Jan 2013
Tower of London tour, with a Yeoman Warder (aka "Beefeater") – from 1st Jan 2013
Outdoor ice rink, at the Tower of London – from 16th Nov 2013
Drummerboy’s London blog includes all the attractions, events, shows and hotelsDrummerboy’s London blog