“Behold, the head of a traitor!” The Yeoman Warder holds his arm up to display the head, but there’s nothing there but air because this is the 21st century, not the 1500’s. We’re standing in what used to be the moat of the infamous Tower of London receiving a lesson in the palace’s history from an actual Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater as they’re commonly known. He is shouting so loudly to be heard by the group at the back that I, standing directly in the front, camera in hand, have to take a few steps back to avoid being spit on.
Yeoman Warders have a history at the Tower of London dating back to 1485 when King Henry VII appointed them to guard the royal palace. Today, they still live on the premises and guard the Tower of London, but their primary purpose is as tour guides for the two million people that come to explore the fortress every year. Still, the qualifications required for appointment are quite impressive – 22 years of service in the Armed Forces as non-commissioned officers and a Long Service and Good Conduct medal are just two of them.
Our guide begins to go into such a grisly account of what a beheading at the Tower of London was like that for a few minutes I have to tune out and simply take in my surroundings. The moat where we stand is now filled with lush green grass. (Possibly this bright shade of green comes from the years of “fertilization” the moat received when the Tower’s waste was dumped into the water, but that’s a stomach-turning bit of history I prefer not to think about.) We’re facing the Middle Tower, circa 1280, where we entered the fortress a few minutes earlier. At our backs is the Byward Tower, set into the outer ring of protective walls, through which we’ll be walking under soon to infiltrate the royal palace.
When most people think of the Tower of London, they recall its use as a prison and the site of the beheading of such famous folks as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, but this was not its primary purpose when it was built in the 11th century. After the Norman Conquest of England, the castle was built on this site as a royal residence and was protected as such. The White Tower, which is where the castle gets its name, was built in 1078 and over the following two centuries the palace was expanded to include two protective rings of walls and towers around the White Tower, and a moat surrounding the entire fortress. Such a structure must have seemed massive at the time – almost 1,000 years later, it’s still quite a sight to see.
We follow our guide through the gate of the outer circle and enter what looks like a medieval town, minus the period clothing and knights on horseback. While the towers and walls within the castle have since been restored, everything still looks and feels very authentic. Our guide makes sure to point out the pieces of the palace that are original so we can all ooh and aah over them, like the spiked gate on the Bloody Tower. We weave our way through crowds of people, stopping along the way at important sites, like Traitor’s Gate. Were we criminals or suspected criminals, instead of just tourists, this is how we would have entered the Tower of London. Those ordered to be imprisoned or executed in the 16th century were brought in by boat through this gate and taken down a gloomy passage – how appropriately ominous.
Once inside the inner ring of walls, we arrive at our destination next to the White Tower. To the side of it stands one of the only remaining original walls in the whole castle, built by Henry III before the inner and outer rings were added. Behind its crumbling ruins are bird cages holding two ravens. This is where a bit of old-fashioned superstition comes in – Charles II believed the Tower of London and his kingdom would fall unless six ravens were kept on the premises at all times, so he had six ravens kept and protected here by a Raven Master. Seven are kept here today – six to uphold the superstition and one for back-up, just in case. They are let free throughout the day to “protect” their territories within the fortress.
The White Tower at the heart of the fortress is one of the oldest and most famous towers on the premises. It was meant to strike fear and submission into the hearts of the 11th century Londoners and deter foreign invaders when they saw it. The basement of the White Tower is also thought to be where Guy Fawkes was interrogated and tortured. Remember, remember the 5th of November…
If you go inside now you’ll find the royal armor worn and used by Henry VIII, Charles I, and James II, as well as the beautiful Chapel of St John. Most of the towers within the castle (there are 20 of them) are open to the public, but our tour with the Yeoman Warder did not take us inside them. However, we did go in a few of them on our own afterwards.
Probably the most disturbing spot we visited on our tour was Tower Green on which used to stand the wooden scaffolding where seven people were beheaded, five of them women, in front of an audience. Now a glass monument rests where the scaffolding once was in remembrance of those who died here. Even though I found the memorial structure a bit odd (what’s the pillow meant to symbolize?), I was still struck by the significance of the spot and the brave souls who marched to their death and accepted their fate with dignity, unfair as it may have been.
This was where I was surprised to find out that only 22 people have been executed within the Tower of London. Considering its bloody history, I would have expected more. The majority of executions actually took place on Tower Hill outside of the royal palace. Only people of great respect were allowed a semi-private execution away from the general public – in other words, you had to be royalty to have the honor of dying within the palace.
The only place we entered with our guide during the tour was the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula (translation: St Peter in chains). This is the final resting place for many of the royals executed just a few feet away on the Green, including Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey. A few unfortunate souls only have their bodies buried here, as their heads were paraded around town before being displayed on spikes on London Bridge. (I told you some of these stories are grotesque!) It is here that our tour came to a close. I believe the only way to see inside this chapel during the day is to take one of the Yeoman Warder tours. Just another reason to join one – they’re free with your admission ticket.
After the conclusion of our hour-long tour, we made our way around the whole complex stopping in for a bit at the towers that looked the most interesting. There is so much more to see than what we saw, but with only an afternoon to spend, we had to pick and choose what we thought would be most entertaining. (If you want to visit each tower and take part in everything offered at the Tower of London, I’d recommend setting aside a whole day. Otherwise, 3-4 hours should do it!) Besides the White Tower, we made sure to visit Beauchamp Tower to see the graffiti etched into the walls by the prisoners held there, Bloody Tower to hear the story of the Little Princes who are believed to have been murdered there, Wakefield Tower to learn about the types of torture used at the Tower of London (caution: not for young children), St Thomas’s Tower for a recreation of what the Medieval Palace rooms would have looked like in the 13th century, Martin Tower to see alternate pieces of the Crown Jewels, and of course, Waterloo Block to see the real Crown Jewels protected inside the vault.
The Crown Jewels are, by far, the most popular attraction within the Tower of London. That’s very clear from the ever-present line stretching on and on outside the door. The good news is, it moves pretty fast. We only waited about twenty minutes before we made it inside, plus I happened to be in a prime position to catch the Changing of the Guard outside the doors, too – that was pretty cool to see!
The jewels exhibition, while the most popular, was not my favorite. I mean, it’s neat to see the Coronation Spoon and the crown that the Queen wears in public, but it’s all over so quickly that it’s almost not worth the wait. After making it inside, it still took us another twenty minutes just to reach the vault where the jewels are held. Once we were inside the vault, we stood on a people-mover that carried us along the wall where the crowns are housed in glass cases and we had all of five seconds to look at each piece. It explains how the line moves so quickly, but since I like to take my time and really inspect things, I didn’t feel I had a proper amount of time to really see them. Maybe that’s the point. The longer you’re in there, the longer you have to plot how you’re going to steal them…
If I had to choose my favorite part of the Tower of London, it would absolutely be the tour with the Yeoman Warder. To hear stories and learn from someone who looks like they belong in the 16th century is pretty cool. Plus, our guy had a great sense of humor – he really made our experience something special!
So, is this a good place to bring children? Yes, and no. (That’s helpful, isn’t it?) I believe there are certainly other, more kid-friendly places you could take them. But if you do bring the kids with you to the Tower of London, it can be a kid-friendly experience if you keep it age appropriate. If you’ve got children under 10, I’d avoid the torture exhibition completely. There are things depicted in there that even I don’t like to think about, but it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for little ones. Parts of the exhibition about the murder of the young princes could also be a little frightening. Even some of the stories told on our tour would have been scary for younger ones, so exercise caution there as well. Otherwise, I’d say you’re safe as long as you are nearby to explain some of the things they might see and answer questions.
The top things to see with kids at the Tower would be the Medieval Palace, the ravens, and the Royal Beasts exhibition. We didn’t get to see that one, but it’s all about the exotic animals that were given as gifts to the royal family and held captive on the Tower premises. Thirteen galvanized wire animal sculptures depicting the animals that lived here are spread throughout the complex, so keep an eye out for those! Also, entertaining historical re-enactments are performed in the moat throughout the day where kids can learn what it takes to be a soldier or a knight. (I was surprised by how funny those actually were!) If you’re picking up an audio guide for your visit, they provide special ones for children so make sure you grab one of those. With the right preparation, a day at the Tower of London can be enjoyable for everyone, no matter your age!
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