Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Building of the Week: The Tower of London

Founded in 1066, The Tower of London has changed
over the past nine and a half centuries.

Technically, the Tower of London isn’t a “building,” it’s several buildings. While commonly called “The Tower of London,” its proper name is “Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress.” A series of fortified buildings, the Tower has grown and changed since its founding in 1066. The nickname, “The Tower” comes from a specific tower within the castle’s fortified grounds—the “White Tower” which was built in 1078 by William the Conquerer. For centuries, the “White Tower” was considered a symbol of oppression and torture.

The White Tower as seen behind the curtain wall in an
early photograph.
To recount the entire fascinating history of this intimidating structure on the North bank of the Thames would, we would well exceed the limits of a comfortable blog post. So, we’ll focus on the highlights. When the castle was initially built, the White Tower was the dominant building—in fact it dominated Central London and stood as a symbol of the power of the monarchy. Within the castle’s walls (and behind a moat which has been moved many times), a complicated complex of buildings was erected which served multiple purposes. Though the Tower always acted as a prison, for centuries, it wasn’t a prison for common people, it was a prison for nobility wherein they were contained, but could have parties and some relative freedom. What most people don’t realize is that The Tower of London—in its earliest form—was actually a palace and served as a Royal residence for centuries until the Tudor Period in the Sixteenth Century. The Tudors found the location to be uncomfortable and although it had been renovated and expanded countless times at exorbitant costs, it was thereafter used primarily as a prison, an armory and treasury.


The White Tower

Prisoners were held at the Tower well into World War II. By the Tudor period, it wasn’t just nobility that were kept at the Tower. Though accounts of murder and torture within the walls of the Tower complex have been greatly exaggerated over the years, it has been the scene of some gruesome deaths as well as the temporary prison of some very famous names, including Queen Elizabeth I before she ascended to the throne.
One of the key uses of the Tower has been to house the Crown Jewels of Britain. They remain there today though in a different location than their original home. The original Jewel House was pulled down in 1669 and the jewels were moved to Martin Tower where they could be viewes—from a distance—by the public.
The Crown Jewels

The Norman Chapel
After eight centuries, the Tower really began to fall apart despite its numerous restorations. Prince Albert ordered that the complex be restored to its original medieval design. The orders were taken a little too seriously. Most of the palatial buildings were demolished and many of the additional structures from centuries past were destroyed. What remains is as close an approximation of the original structure and design as possible.
The Middle Tower
Now a popular tourist attraction, the Tower is known for its history, its grandeur, its jewels and its ghosts (including Anne Boleyn who lost her head there and is said to walk the courtyards, carrying her head under her arm). It’s also known as the home of some lovely animals. While the Tower was once the Royal Menagerie, it is now the home to the Royal ravens and an adorable herd of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. To learn more about this fascinating series of structures, visit the official Web site of The Tower of London.

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