This week we’re starting a new series in honour of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in which we look back at the London of 1215. First up we take a look at the Tower of London which was a smaller version of the complex of buildings which today exists on the site.

By 1215, the Tower of London – the fortress first constructed on the orders of William the Conqueror – had already existed for more than 100 years, nestled into a corner of the city’s walls which had existed since Roman times.

Then, as now, the White Tower – initially itself known as the Tower of London, it was later dubbed the White Tower thanks to the whitewash used to cover the Kentish limestone to protect it from the weather (and for its visual impact) – stood at the heart of the complex. Unlike today’s building, it lacked the large windows which date from the early 18th century, and while the towers were believed to be capped with cones, the present cupolas date from the reign of King Henry VIII.

White-Tower

While it had long been surrounded by a palisade and ditch, in 1189, King Richard I’s chancellor William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely, had begun to extend the castle’s defences while the king was on crusade (in fact, the first siege of the Tower took place in 1191 when the then Prince John did so in opposition to Longchamp’s  regime – it only lasted three days before Longchamp surrendered).

This extension, which was completed by King John following his accession to the throne in 1199, saw the size of the bailey around the White Tower doubled and a new curtain wall and towers – including the Bell Tower – built around its outer perimeter with a ditch below (the ruins of the Wardrobe Tower, just to the east of the White Tower show where the original Roman-era wall ran).

But it wasn’t until the reign of King John’s son, King Henry III, that the royal palace which now stands on the river side of the White Tower was constructed. Until that point – and at the time of the signing of the Magna Carta – the royal apartments remained within the White Tower itself, located on the upper floor.

Like those of the garrison commander known as the constable (located on the entrance level), the king’s apartments would have consisted of a hall and a large chamber, which may have been divided into smaller chambers with wooden partitions as well as a chapel (on the upper level this was the still existing Chapel of St John the Evangelist, although it would have then been more more richly decorated). Unlike the lower levels, the king’s level was of double height with a gallery (this level now has its own full floor).

The royal apartments had a variety of uses – as well as a residence and refuge for the king, they were also at times a place to keep high profile prisoners such as the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard, who was imprisoned on the orders of King Henry I (and who escaped from an upper window on a rope which had been smuggled in to him and fled to Normandy).

It is also worth noting that while King John apparently kept exotic animals at the Tower, it is his son, King Henry III who is usually credited with founding the Royal Menagerie there.

And it was his son, King Edward I, who expanded the Tower to its current size of  about 18 acres by rebuilding the western section of the inner ward and adding the outer ward.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest Tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Sunday to Monday; COST: £24.50 adults; £11 children under 15; £18.70 concessions; £60.70 for a family (discounts for online purchases/memberships); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.  

It’s one of London’s most famous landmarks and, having just undergone a three year, £2 million restoration, we thought it was time to take a look at the origins of the White Tower.

Now the keep of the Tower of London, the White Tower was first built by the Norman King William the Conqueror following his defeat of Saxon King Harold Godwinson and the cream of the Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Following his coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, King William then withdrew to Barking Abbey while his men built several temporary strongholds in the city to ensure it wouldn’t cause any trouble – this included an earth and timber keep standing on an artificial mound in the south-east corner of the city’s Roman-era walls.

The White Tower, a permanent structure, replaced this and although the exact date its construction started is unknown, building – under the watchful eye of Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester, was well underway by the mid-1070s. While the labourers were English, the masons in charge of the building were Norman and then even used some Caen stone imported from William’s homeland (along with Kentish ragstone). By 1097 the tower was complete.

Primarily built as a fortress rather than for comfort, the size of the Tower was intimidating and, at 27.5 metres tall, it would have dominated the skyline for miles. Initial defences surrounding the White Tower included the Roman walls and two ditches although in later years outer walls were added to create the massive fortifications and series of towers one encounters at the site today.

The tower earned its moniker, the White Tower, from the whitewash used on its walls during the reign of King Henry II. The caps on the four turrets which stand at each corner of the tower were originally conical but were replaced with the current onion-shaped domes in the 1500s (the round tower was once home to the Royal Observatory before it moved out to Greenwich). The White Tower’s large external windows are also more modern innovations, these were added in the 1600s by Sir Christopher Wren.

The original entrance to the White Tower was on the first floor, reached by a wooden staircase (that could be removed if necessary), much as it is today while, for security reasons, the internal stone spiral staircase was placed as far from this entry as possible in the north-east turret. A stone forebuilding was later added during the reign of King Henry II but was later demolished.

Inside, accommodation for the king was provided on the second floor – it originally had a gallery above but an extra floor – still there today – was later added. Accommodation for the Tower’s constable was probably on the first floor. Both floors were divided in two – with a large hall on one side and smaller apartments on the other. These rooms now house displays on the Tower’s history – at the present these include the Royal Armouries’ exhibition ‘Power House’.

The White Tower is also home to the Chapel of St John the Evangelist which, made from Caen stone, still looks much the same as it did in Norman times. It was used by the royal family when in residence at the tower but by the reign of King Charles II had become a store for state records. These were removed in 1857. Among some of the events which took place here was the lying in state of Queen Elizabeth of York, wife to King Henry VII, after her death in 1503, and the betrothal of Queen Mary I to Philip of Spain in 1554 (by proxy, Philip was not present). Prince Charles received communion here on his 21st birthday.

Other historic events associated with the White Tower include the apparent murder in 1483 of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ – King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York – while legend says they were killed in the Bloody Tower, the discovery of two skeletons under stairs leading to the chapel during building works in 1674 has led some to believe that they may have been buried here.

It was also in the White Tower that King Richard II was forced to sign away his throne to King Henry IV in 1399 and it was from the White Tower that Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr, the illegitimate son of  Welsh Prince Llywelyn the Great, apparently fell to his death while attempting to escape captivity in 1244.

There are tours of the White Tower daily at 10.45am, 12.45pm, and 2.15pm.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Sunday to Monday (until 31st October); COST: Included in Tower of London admission – £19.80 adults; £10.45 children under 15; £17.05 concessions; £55 for a family (prices include a voluntary donation); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.

The oldest intact building in London is generally believed to be the White Tower, which stands in the heart of the Tower of London.

Construction on the White Tower (which stands to the right in the picture) was started on the orders of William the Conqueror some time prior to 1070 and was completed by 1100. The newly appointed Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, was placed in charge of the project which used stone imported from Normandy (much of this was replaced in later centuries).

Built as a towering stronghold and fortress for the English kings, the walls of the tower at 15 feet (4.5 metres) thick and 90 feet (27 metres) high. It was later enclosed by a curtain wall and moat, taking the shape of the Tower of London as we now know it by about 1350.

The White Tower, also known as the Great Tower, has been the scene of many dramatic events in British history – from the deposition of Richard II in 1399 to the disappearance (and possible murder) or the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, around 1483 (two skeletons, which some believed to be theirs, were unearthed here in 1674).

The White Tower, which is now part of a World Heritage Site, contains the splendid 11th century Chapel of St John the Evangelist. While three of the turrets at the corners of the tower are square, the fourth – the north-east turret, is round and once contained the first royal observatory.

The onion-shaped domes and weathervanes on the turrets were added in the 1520s.

These days the tower contains an exhibition of royal armour – including that worn by King Henry VIII – as well as exhibits on the tower’s history.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest tube station is Tower Hill); WHEN: Tuesday to Saturday 9am to 4.30pm; Sunday to Monday 10pm to 4.30pm (closing times are 5.30pm between March and October); COST £18.70 an adult/£15.95 concessions/£10.45 a child (children under five free)/£51.70 for a family of two adults and up to six children; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/

PICTURE: Stephen Pond/Historic Royal Palaces