Photograph by Rene Mattes, Hemis/Corbis

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Work on the Tower of London began in the 1080s at the behest of William the Conqueror.

Photograph by Rene Mattes, Hemis/Corbis

Tower of London

Site: Tower of London

Location: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Year Designated: 1988

Category: Cultural

Criteria: (ii)(iv)

Reason for Designation: A first-class example of Norman military architecture, the Tower has also played a leading role in the saga of British history.

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Fortress, palace, prison, and even place of execution—the Tower of London has filled all these roles and more during nearly a thousand years on the banks of the River Thames in the heart of Great Britain.

William the Conqueror began work on a White Tower to center his London fortress in the 1080s, soon after he invaded the British Isles (1066) and became the first Norman king of England.

The Tower of London, not a single tower but a large complex, was built as a formidable keep at a strategic spot to guard London and assert Norman control of the capital. It remains an example of cutting-edge military architecture circa the 11th and later the 13th-14th centuries. But during the reigns of Henry III (1216-72) and Edward (1272-1307) an evolving palace complex was added to the site.

Prisoners had long been kept in parts of the tower but during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47) the site fell into disuse as a royal residence and took on an expanded and extended role as a jail where religious and political prisoners, traitors, rogues, and even royalty were confined.

In the 16th century alone three English queens (including “Nine Days Queen” Lady Jane Grey) were executed on Tower Green. Though it’s hard to find the bright side to a death sentence, execution at the tower was in fact a form of favor extended to those of noble birth or high rank. The Tower Green was, at least, a private spot to die away from the riotous crowds that attended other executions in the city.

The last execution at the tower took place during World War II, when German spy Josef Jakobs met a firing squad there.

During the English Civil War (1642-49) Charles I’s loss of the tower to the Parliamentarians was a key to the loss of London itself and a serious factor in the king’s defeat and subsequent execution.

The tower’s history is dotted with other famous names in British history. In 1389 a clerk of works named Geoffrey Chaucer—author of The Canterbury Tales—oversaw construction of the Tower Wharf.

In 1605 Guy Fawkes was tortured here after his Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament failed. In 1671 a Colonel Blood attempted to steal the crown jewels in a grab-and-run effort after overpowering the elderly Jewel House keeper. (Blood was caught but later pardoned.) Today the jewels remain in the tower under armed guard, as they have since Blood’s day.

For six centuries this famed fortress was also home to a shifting menagerie of exotic animals from elephants and big cats to polar bears, in residence for the amusement of monarchs and later the public. The menagerie was closed in 1835 and its animal inhabitants moved to new digs at the London Zoo.

Today visitors can walk the fortress walls and visit guard towers, see the fabulous crown jewels, and gawk at Henry VIII’s armor. Yeoman warders, popularly known as beefeaters, not only guard the tower but also give amusing tours that are among the highlights of any visit.

How to Get There

The tower’s London location is extremely convenient. The site is a five-minute walk from the Tower Hill underground station. Trains and the Dockland Light Railway also stop near the tower. Bus routes 15, 42, 78, 100, and RV1 reach the tower, and riverboats stop at Tower Pier. Taxis, bicycles, and footpower are also good ways to reach the tower. Driving is a less attractive option due to the site’s location in the Congestion Charging Zone and limited (expensive) parking.

When to Go

The tower is open year round, excepting the Christmas holiday (December 24 to 26) and January 1. School holidays and summertime are the busiest times.

How to Visit

As expected at a site that has witnessed so much history, there is enough of interest at the Tower of London to keep visitors busy for days. Stop at the Welcome Center for visitor information on everything from the crown jewels and resident ravens to the prisoner exhibition and family fun activities.