The Most Important Castle in the Country, but…

It is probably the most famous castle in Britain and it is also the oldest. Located at the exact same location as the Tower of London, the Roman Emperor Claudius built his own fort. This massive fortress was established immediately after the Norman conquest to show the Londoners who their new boss was.

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Today, the Tower really loses its primary effect. When you see it for the first time, it is almost dwarfed by the massive skyscrapers of the city that lurk behind it. To really understand its powerful authority, you have to think back to 11th century London and its population. The White Tower, which wasn’t white until 1240, stood 90 feet high and it was made of stone with 15 feet thick walls. This was an entirely new sight for the local Anglo Saxons who lived in small hovels and the effect was evident.

What many people don’t know is that at the same time, William was busy building another castle, and a much bigger one. It’s name  was Colchester Castle and the man who was in charge of the build was the Bishop of Rochester, a man called Gundulf. The keep in Colchester was 1.5 times the size of the Tower of London and it was the largest castle in Britain. There are suggestions that J.R.R Tolkien based the name of his second novel in the Lord of the Rings series,”The Two Towers”, on the two main castles of William the Conqueror and the character of Gandalf the Grey was based on the historic Bishop Gundulf.

The original Tower of London was probably a much simpler structure. It started to hold prisoners in 1100, making it the oldest prison in Europe that is still standing. There is a common belief that the last prisoner in the Tower was the Nazi senior Rudolph Hess in 1941, but in reality, the Tower held prisoners eleven years after, and in 1952, the identical Kray twin brothers were the last inmates to be imprisoned in it for trying to avoid army service.

The significant changes to the Tower began during the reign of King Henry III who decided in 1240 to make this place into his primary residence, turning the tower into a massive complex. He also whitewashed it, hence the name “The White Tower”. During his reign, the tower also began to serve as the royal zoo. Henry’s son, Edward, loved building castles, so he actually spent twice as much as his father on enlarging the Tower and bringing it to the layout we see today.

The Tower of London played a major role in numerous events in the history of the country, too many to mention, infact. The most famous- or infamous- are the imprisonment and later the assassination of King Henry VI in Wakefield Tower and the terrible case of the Princes in the Tower. They were the sons of King Edward IV and the elder was already recognised as King Edward V, whilst his younger brother was Richard the Duke of York. The two were imprisoned by their loving uncle who became King Richard III. They stayed in what used to be called the Garden Tower, but after they disappeared, the name was changed to the Bloody Tower.

The Tudors also enjoyed using the Tower, mainly as a prison. Henry VIII most famously used it to execute two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the only two queens in history who were executed. Many others joined them when Henry executed many of his nobles, ministers and, of course, his bishops, priests and nuns, turning the phrase, “Sent to the Tower”, into an ominous one. Although it is important to mention that most of the executions took place in Tower Hill nearby and “only” seven people were ever executed in the actual tower before the 20th century: William Hastings 1st Baron, Anne Boleyn and her sister in law Jane, Catherine Howard, Margaret Pole (Countess of Salisbury), Lady Jane Grey (the nine days Queen) and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The last six to be executed in the Tower are all buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter and Vincula. Twelve more people were executed in the Tower for espionage in the 20th century.

During the Hanoverian times, the Tower lost most of its importance, and in the 19th century, the royal mint was also moved out. This created an opportunity to restore the Tower and bring it back to its former glory. The architect to achieve this was Anthony Salvin who specialised in restoring old medieval castles and he was responsible for restoration works on castles such as Caernarfon in Wales, Carisbrooke in the Isle of Wight and Alnwick in Northumberland. After the restoration works of the 19th century, the Tower of London was open to the public as a tourist attraction. Today it is the most popular tourist attraction in the country with more than 2 million visitors each year.

The Tower of London is managed by the Historic Royal Palaces organization. For more information: The Tower Of London official website

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When Too Many People Visit the Same Place at the Same Time

Chasing Castles Review

We have visited the Tower of London three times, but only one of them since we started to officially “Chase Castles”. Unfortunately, it seems that each time we visited, the place became busier.

The thing is, The Tower of London is by far the best castle to explore in England. It has more heritage, more stories, and more attractions to investigate than any other place. The Tower is also home to the best tour guides in the world, the Beefeaters. By this point, I have enjoyed four tours with them, all of them extremely entertaining and informative, with tour taking two hours, it was so funny.  There are also you the most interesting exhibitions, but… Although the Tower is the best place to explore, it was difficult to truly enjoy it on our last visit. Each beefeater had to entertain almost a hundred visitors each and they ended up rounding us up in the church rather than doing a tour around the grounds.

The Tower is a hectic place and it means that you end up spending time in queues rather than enjoying the exhibitions. I learned that there are few after-hours tours of the Tower in certain months of the year and they cost the same as a regular admission.  Perhaps this is the only way a real history buff could enjoy this place, but I assume not everything would be available. Alternatively, the best time to visit the Tower would probably be in the low season of tourism doing the winter.

To sum things up, The Tower is the best there is, but to really enjoy it you need to have a few thousand fewer people per day visiting it. It is currently the most popular tourist attraction in London with more than two million visitors per year, and to be honest, it is just too busy to really have a fun visit and appreciate it properly.

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