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The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest to protect him against the power of The City. Its position on the riverbank provided an excellent defence of the Thames, but after the introduction of artillery its role as a fortress faded. Its high walls, however, made it the perfect prison for the nation’s traitors.
The White Tower is the oldest part of the site, begun by William and completed by Henry III. Its name comes not from the stone used in construction, but from the whitewash it received in 1241.
The White Tower has had many uses throughout its history – at one point it was even used as an astronomical observatory until they built the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
There are two walls surrounding the White Tower. The inner wall has thirteen turrets, and the outer wall has five. A moat was added in the 13th-century and completed by Henry III. Henry VIII added various timber buildings to the grounds, but eventually left for Hampton Court Palace. By the time of James I in 1603, Whitehall Palace had taken over as the primary residence of the king.
Traitor’s Gate used to be the arch through which prisoners were ferried in from the Thames. The moat is dry today, but back in the Middle Ages they would stop at the base of the stone steps, and the prisoners would be marched through the portcullis underneath the Bloody Tower.
The Bloody Tower  has held many famous prisoners including Guy Fawkes, who was interrogated here after the Gunpowder Plot, and Sir Walter Raleigh, who was held here for twelve years.
The most famous prisoners of all were the Princes in the Tower. When King Edward IV died in 1483 his brother locked his sons inside the Tower of London and usurped the throne as Richard III. Their skeletal remains were found hidden in underneath a stone staircase two centuries later, and buried in Westminster Abbey.
A short distance from the White Tower is Tower Green. Despite its grisly history, only seven people have actually been killed here – prisoners of a lower social standing were either hung or beheaded on Tower Hill.
The most famous Queens to lose their heads here were Henry’s two unfortunate wives: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Their bodies were then laid to rest underneath the altar in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
The Tower of London Crown Jewels are kept inside the Jewel House in Waterloo Barracks , and the queues can sometimes be quite daunting (but the wait is definitely worth it).
The current Royal Family jewels mainly date from 1660, as everything prior to that was melted down by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War. The most important piece is the Imperial State Crown, which is 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 over £27.5 million.
Another impressive piece is the Sovereign’s Sceptre. This contains the world’s largest cut diamond: the 530-carat Cullinan I.
The Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters) lead hour-long tours throughout the day, which are included with your Tower of London tickets, so be sure to note the starting times at the entrance gate. They’ll take you around the buildings (exteriors only) and tell you about a few Tower of London ghosts.
There are around thirty-five Beefeaters in total, and they all perform ceremonial duties and take tourists on Tower of London tours. The Chief Yeoman is also responsible for performing the Ceremony of the Keys, which has taken place every night for five hundred years.
In 1688 Charles II was warned that if anything happened to the Tower of London ravens then England would fall to a foreign invasion, so a small family has been kept captive ever since. Their wings are carefully clipped to make sure that escape is impossible.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I was actually dreading going to the Tower of London because I know the place is huge and my knees are shot, and I didn’t fancy the walking (I’m getting old). But it actually wasn’t too bad. Sure, there are a load of steep windy stairs and narrow passageways that even a midget has to duck in, but there’s also a lot of standing about and sitting whilst you listen to the guide. You can even go on a tour with a Yeoman Warden if you want – those big blokes with booming voices and hairy faces – but I plumped for the audio guide instead. I wouldn’t do that again though – it’s okay but it’s not very detailed. My advice is to go on one of the hourly Yeoman tours, which are free. The only downside to that idea is that fifty thousand tourists are bound to have the same idea and you’ll end up in a group of ten million people.
The place is massive. It is like a little city inside the walls, complete with rows of little houses where the staff all live. You can walk around wherever you want, whichever way you want, so you definitely need to get hold of a map because the entrances to all the different towers and walkways are quite well hidden. It’s also a bit of a maze – you will often spy some people on top of a walkway, or coming out of a tower, and see no visible means to follow them. With the walkways especially, you’ll find that you have to enter them at a certain place and then follow them all around the curtain wall, taking in the towers as you go. It probably took me the best part of four hours to see the whole lot.
Traitor’s Gate is one of the first things you see when you enter, and it’s quite evocative peering down into the gloomy water where the doomed set foot. You can see the stairs where they walked up too, and the big military machines on the wall above. The towers above the gate are pretty rubbish though (St. Stephen’s Tower). They were the State Rooms of Edward I and have been done up to look like it was in his time, complete with a big bed and throne room. But it just doesn’t look very old – it looks like they got the bed and furnishings out of MFI.
The famous Bloody Tower comes next. I always thought that the big White Tower in the middle was the Bloody Tower, so I was surprised to find that it’s actually quite a modest little thing. Inside is a display of all the torture equipment that they used on the “guests”. They’ve got a rack and manicles, but I reckon the worst one was the ’Scavenger’s Daughter’, which was a couple of iron bars clamped around your torso and legs to bend you down into an uncomfortable crouch – forever. That might sound easy, but they’ve got pictures on the wall of how tight the crouch was. It’s tight! Tight enough to pop the bones out of your skin.
The Wakefield Tower is worth a visit too, because that’s the place where Henry VI met his maker. They’ve got a plaque on the floor of the chapel where he was supposed to be praying when they did it. That’s actually one of the things that I liked the most about the whole thing – every tower seems to have a spot on the floor where someone met a grisly end. There was one bloke who got rammed into a barrel of wine, and two little princes who got buried under the stairs. You can see hundreds of little graffitis on the wall too, where the prisoners have spent their final days carving their name into the stone. They must have busted their nails doing that.
Walter Raleigh’s cell was actually quite plush. They’ve still got all his stuff in there to show how nice it was (better than an Ibis hotel). They’ve got his desk and books, a roaring fireplace, and piles of tobacco lying on the table.
Tower Green is probably the prettiest piece of the whole site, because there’s a load of little Tudor houses round the outside where the Yeomen Warders live. They’ve got a good view out of their bedroom window to the spot where they chopped off the people’s heads. There’s no chopping block anymore, just a modern glass sculpture where it once stood. There were a few big black ravens squawking about the place too, scaring the life out of the Japanese tourists. They can’t actually fly because they’ve had their wings clipped, but they are pretty big birds – about as big as a little pig. You can go and have a look at the cages where they keep them too.
After that comes the Waterloo Barracks where they keep the Crown Jewels. There are supposed to be queues around the block for this but I waltzed straight in and there were only a few people looking. They are all housed inside a glass box which has a conveyor belt running up the front and round the back, to stop people lingering too long.
There’s a surprising amount of stuff in there, there’s about ten crowns and a load of golden plates and spoons and sceptres. They had a punch bowl which was the biggest bit of gold I have ever seen in my life, and plates as big as wagon wheels. The diamonds in the last two crowns must have been the size of eyeballs. They didn’t just have the Queen’s stuff either, but crowns for the other monarchs too, dating back a few centuries.
The best bit of the tour is obviously the bit in the middle – the White Tower. At the moment it is filled with a big display of armour, guns, cannons and swords. As soon as you walk in the door you are confronted with a life-size horse and Henry VIII’s armour sitting pretty on top. It’s probably about ten feet tall from tip to toe. And a bit further down they’ve got another one of him standing up. That’s probably the best suit of armour in the whole building because it is massive. I swear to god his codpiece sticks out six inches from his stomach, and his girth is big enough to fit me inside (twice), plus you, too.
Other suits on display included a little one for his kid Edward VI, and a golden one for glamour boy Charles I. They had Oliver Cromwell’s sword too, and bits and pieces going all the way up to George I.
> Read Craig’s latest review of the Tower of London “They used to shut the gates when hordes of Londoners stormed the Byward Tower. They used to fire arrows at them and hurls rocks from the ballistas. Now they charge them twenty-five quid and give them a pair of headphones and a map. It’s a lot easier to storm the Tower of London these days because they’ve bricked up Traitor’s Gate and drained the moat. They can’t fire arrows at us anymore because of health and safety. The only thing that remains the same is the horde of ugly peasants bundling up outside the gates. The queues are a few families deep all the way down… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Yeoman Warder Tour “I’ve already visited the Tower of London about fifty million times (at least), but I trudged my way back today to have a go on the Yeoman Warder tour. It was Bank Holiday Monday too, so I had visions of bazillions of people all crammed into the place like sardines, sweating in the sun beating down on our heads, but it was actually alright – I suppose everyone must have had the same thought and decided to go and see their in-laws instead. It was still pretty busy, though… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the Ceremony of the Keys “One of the best things about going to the Ceremony of the Keys is that you get to see a little bit of London at night. It starts at half-past nine, but if you take the tube to Tower Hill five minutes beforehand then you really are missing out on a treat. So take a tip from me: go for a bit of a walk along the river beforehand. Get the tube to London Bridge and then walk along the south-side of the river. You’ll get a great view of Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and City Hall, and the White Tower across the water. You can then walk across Tower Bridge with it all lit-up and have a sitdown before it starts… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Sunday service at the Chapel Royal “It’s amazing how many places you can get into for free by pretending to be religious: St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey… and now the Chapel Royal at Tower of London. If I knew London sightseeing was so cheap for christians I would have converted ages ago. It must be one of the perks: not only do you get entry into heaven, but you get free entry into a load of tourist attractions too. Praise be to Jesus! All you’ve got to do is walk up to the Beefeater by the main gate and say you’re there for the mass, and he’ll let you straight through – past all the people who paid for their ticket… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Twilight Tour “I’m sitting outside the Tower of London waiting for the Twilight Tour to start. This part of London is always empty at this time of night, just the occasional worker walking through to Tower Bridge. It’s a scary place to sit if your heart is made of paper. You can linger along the waterfront and not see a soul for five minutes. It’s quite pretty though, sitting on this wet bench with the office lights glowing over the other side of the river. That is where all the life is. People are still working over there, doing things. City Hall is all lit up and The Shard is pointing up and up and disappears into the bottom of the rain clouds… continued.”
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There are plenty more things to see at the Tower of London than just Traitor’s Gate and the White Tower. How about having a guided tour with a Yeoman Warder? Or attending a church service in the Chapel Royal? You can also visit the Tower of London at night and see the 900-year old Ceremony of the Keys. Check out our complete list of events at the Tower of London below.
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Sunday service at the Tower of London From Tower of LondonLondonYou can attend a Sunday service at the Chapel Royal in the Tower of London -- one of the most historic churches in the City.
Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London From Tower of LondonLondonThe Ceremony of the Keys is over 700 years old, and represents the traditional locking up of the Tower of London at night.
Yeoman Warder tour, at the Tower of London From Tower of LondonLondonOne of the best ways of seeing the Tower of London is alongside a Yeoman Warder (better known as the "Beefeaters").
62-gun salute to mark the Queen's Coronation Tower of LondonLondonThe HAC will be firing a 62-gun salute by the Tower of London, to mark the anniversary of the Queen's Coronation in 1953.
62-gun salute, to mark Prince Philip's birthday Tower of LondonLondonThe HAC will be firing off a 62-gun salute by Gun Wharf at the Tower of London, to honour Prince Philip's 96th birthday.
62-gun salute for Prince Charles' birthday Tower of LondonLondonThe HAC will be firing off a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London, to make sure everyone knows it's Prince Charles' birthday.
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