One of Britain’s main tourist attractions, the Tower of London overlooks the river at the eastern boundary of the old city walls. Despite all the hype, it remains one of London’s most remarkable buildings, site of some of the goriest events in the nation’s history, and somewhere all visitors and Londoners should explore at least once. Chiefly famous as a place of imprisonment and death, it has variously been used as a royal residence, armoury, mint, menagerie, observatory and – a function it still serves – a safe-deposit box for the Crown Jewels.
The lively free guided tours given by the Tower’s Beefeaters (officially known as Yeoman Warders) are useful for getting your bearings. Visitors today enter the Tower along Water Lane, but in times gone by most prisoners were delivered through Traitors’ Gate, on the waterfront. Immediately, they would have come to the Bloody Tower, which forms the main entrance to the Inner Ward, and which is where the 12-year-old Edward V and his 10-year-old brother were accommodated “for their own safety” in 1483 by their uncle, the future Richard III, and later murdered. It’s also where Walter Raleigh was imprisoned on three separate occasions, including a thirteen-year stretch.
At the centre of the Inner Ward is Tower Green, where ten highly placed but unlucky individuals were beheaded, among them Anne Boleyn and her cousin Catherine Howard (Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives). The White Tower, which overlooks the Green, is the original “Tower”, begun in 1076, and now home to displays from the Royal Armouries. Even if you’ve no interest in military paraphernalia, you should at least pay a visit to the Chapel of St John, a beautiful Norman structure on the second floor that was completed in 1080 – making it the oldest intact church building in London.
The Waterloo Barracks, to the north of the White Tower, hold the Crown Jewels; queues can be painfully long, however, and you only get to view the rocks from moving walkways. The vast majority of exhibits post-date the Commonwealth (1649–60), when many of the royal riches were melted down for coinage or sold off. Among the jewels are the three largest cut diamonds in the world, including the legendary Koh-i-Noor, which was set into the Queen Mother’s Crown in 1937.