An infamous Norman castle that’s nearly 1,000 years old, the Tower of London practically defines the term “history.”Associated with such historical figures as William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart, it has served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, a mint, a military storehouse, a treasury, a home to the Crown Jewels, an armory, a public records office, a royal observatory and a royal zoo.It is an unimposing complex of well-preserved medieval towers, walls, castles and grassy moats next to the River Thames in central London. It lies within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. It is filled with steep stairs and narrow passageways.The little-changed tower held many famous prisoners, especially during the reign of Henry VIII. It has a bloody history and image, as about 100 people were executed, mostly outside the castle. You can see graffiti scratched into the walls of the Beauchamp Tower 500 years ago and learn of two princes presumable murdered in the Bloody Tower.Its use as a prison from 1100 to 1952 peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some say ghosts prowl the 18-acre grounds. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1988, it gets more than 2.4 million visitors a year. Along with Westminster Abbey, it’s arguably one of the most historic sites in London. Perhaps its most impressive structure is the 90-foot-high White Tower that was built in the 11th century.Officially known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, this historic structure has played a prominent role in English history. It was besieged several times and has been the center of political intrigue and imprisonment. Controlling it has long been linked to controlling England.The two-story castle entails a basement and towers that were built as part of the Norman conquest of England and became a symbol of oppression inflicted on London by the new rulers. Started by William the Conqueror and completed by William II and Henry I, it was expanded in the 12th and 13th centuries by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I.Today the White Tower is filled with very impressive Tudor and Stuart armor and weapons from the Royal Armouries, including Henry VIII’s silvered armor from 1515 that celebrates his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The armor has their intertwined initials, Tudor roses and Spanish pomegranates. There are two other Henry VIII armors, plus one belonging to his horse.Also on display is stunning gilt armor belonging to Charles I that dates to about 1612 and is decorated with gold leaf and engraved foliage.The Bloody Tower got its name in the 16th century. It is believed to be where two princes were killed in 1483.Edward IV’s brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), was declared Lord Protector because 12-year-old Edward V was too young to rule. Accounts say that Edward and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, were held prisoners by their uncle in the tower. The young brothers mysteriously disappeared, and the uncle was declared king. Bones thought to belong to the brothers were found in the tower in 1674 when a building was demolished.Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned there for 13 years. Among those who were killed were three queens of England beheaded on the Tower Green: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey. Boleyn and Howard were among Henry VIII’s wives. They are buried in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula on the grounds.Thomas More and John Fisher were both executed on Tower Hill. Both are now Catholic saints.In 1554, Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned briefly for plotting a rebellion against her sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of England. She later became queen.One must-see Tower of London attraction is the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. They are housed in the Waterloo Barracks. The stunning and priceless collection of crowns, coronation regalia and jewels used by England’s royalty includes 23,578 gems, one of which is the largest diamond ever found.Most of the gold- and silver-encrusted pieces are used at coronations and are known collectively as the Coronation Regalia. That includes swords of state and ceremonial maces carried in procession, as well as orbs, scepters, trumpets, chalices, tankards, flagons, tunics and a silver-gilded punch bowl and tunics.The collection is exhibited in glass displays and, yes, they are the real Crown Jewels. That is the most-asked question of visitors, who are whisked along on a moving walkway.St. Edward’s Crown weighs 4.9 pounds and contains sapphires, tourmalines, topazes, amethysts and citrines. The smaller Imperial State Crown contains 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and five rubies. You can admire the 530-carat First Star of Africa diamond in Charles II’s scepter. The Imperial Crown of India with 6,000 diamonds was worn by George V in 1911. The collection was nearly all destroyed in the 17th century. In 1660, Charles II ordered a new set of jewels. Three tons of silver was needed to restock the Jewel House.
If you go
Have a plan, get there early and expect big crowds and long lines. Multiple tours are offered, led by the Yeoman Warders or the Beefeaters, who have been doing it since 1485. Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity that manages the tower, suggests that visitors allow two to three hours at a minimum. Audio tours are available.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday from March 1 through Oct. 31; 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28.
Admission: 22 pounds (about $37) for adults.
Info: 0844 482 7777; www.hrp.org.uk
The Tower of London was also home to a royal menagerie for 600 years.
As far back as the 13th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gave Henry III of England three lions. They were joined by a polar bear from Norway, and later came elephants, wolves, eagles, hyenas, ostriches, monkeys, grizzly bears, ocelots and baboons.
The animals were removed in 1830 because of the expense and the danger to visitors. Today the tower is filled with animal sculptures by artist Kendra Haste.
Legend says Charles II believed that if the ravens were ever to leave the Tower of London, the fortress and the kingdom would fall. He insisted that at least six ravens must always be in residence.
Today the tower is home to seven well-cared-for captive ravens. Their wings have been clipped to prevent their escape.