Royal Armouries

Tower through Time

AD 40: Before the Romans

A prehistoric body gives clues about the earliest human settlement on the site of the future Tower of London.

The discovery of a late Iron Age skeleton indicates the earliest human settlement on the site of the future Tower of London. The remains are of a young male aged 13 – 16. His home was probably an isolated farmstead on the gentle slope of the hill leading down to the Thames.

Before the Romans invaded in AD 43, the area of modern-day London was occupied by Belgic tribes such as the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni.

AD 200: The Roman city fortified

The thriving Roman city of Londinium spreads across the site, and is surrounded by a great defensive wall.

The early settlement became a trading port. The Roman historian Tacitus described the city as ‘packed with traders.’ In AD 60 Londinium was sacked by Boudicca and the Iceni tribe, after which it took years to fully recover.

However, by the end of the first century the Roman city of Londinium had expanded rapidly, becoming a thriving city with a great bridge over the Thames (near the present London Bridge), a forum (market place), a vast basilica (town hall), an amphitheatre, public baths and walled fort.

AD 400: Twighlight of the Roman city

The threat of Saxon sea-borne raids sees a strengthening of the city’s riverside defences.

During the second half of the 3rd century the defences of Londinium were strengthened by the addition of a defensive river wall, against the threat of Saxon raiders sailing up the Thames. These new defences probably made use of stones from derelict buildings and old monuments.

They are to date the latest Roman military structure to be found in Britain. This was Rome’s final defensive measure for Londinium before they withdrew from Britain entirely.

AD 886: Alfred and the Danish threat

After abandonment and decay in the 5th century, Alfred the Great orders the restoration of the city of London.

The Romans left Britain in the 5th century as their empire crumbled. The abandoned city of Londinium fell into decay. It is thought that the site where the Tower now stands was used as a fortified refuge for when the city was under attack.

The Saxon settlement of Lundenwic grew up around the ruined Roman city. The Saxons retreated into the walled city for protection when the Viking raids began in the 9th century. In 871-72 the Danes occupied London but Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons, expelled them and ordered the city to be restored.

AD 1080: The Conqueror’s castle

Work begins on the first Norman castle of the Conquest. The life of the mighty White Tower begins.

William the Conqueror’s seizure of the English throne in 1066 was met with riots, so the king began the construction of ‘fortifications … against the fickleness of the vast and fierce population’.

The Tower of London as we know it today began with the construction of the White Tower, which began in or shortly after 1077 when records show Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester ‘by command of King William the Great…supervising the work of the great tower of London’.

The White Tower, set within the south-east angle of the old Roman defences, followed the style of other Norman towers, or donjons, used for over 100 years for residential, ceremonial and military purposes.

AD 1200: The Tower enlarged

During the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189–99) much work was carried out to improve the defences of the castle.

Little attention appears to have been paid to the castle until the reign of Henry I (1100-35) when the White Tower was finally completed. Henry II (1154-89), one of England’s greatest castle builders, appears to have been responsible for certain repairs to the fabric of the castle.

When Richard I (1189-99) came to the throne he almost immediately departed on a crusade to the Holy Land leaving his chancellor, William Longchamp, to administer the realm. Longchamp began at once to improve the defences of the castle, including a water-filled ditch surrounding it which drew its water from the Thames.

AD 1240: The classic castle

The Tower of London is enlarged to reflect the growing authority of the King, Henry III.

The Tower of London had fallen to King John’s enemies during a rebellion in 1215, a fact not lost on Henry III, and doubtless the reason why he spent so much time and effort improving the defences during his long reign. The addition of new curtain walls effectively doubled the size of the castle and enclosed the church of St. Peter ad Vincula, which Henry embellished.

In 1240 the walls of the White Tower were painted white, giving the building its long-standing name.

AD 1300: Apogee of the Medieval castle

Edward I’s building work makes the Tower one of the strongest fortifications n England.

After his return from a crusade in 1274, Edward I (1272–1307) set about restoring royal authority that had been seriously undermined in the second half of his father’s reign. At the Tower, his work transformed the castle into one of the most formidable fortifications in the kingdom. The moat was extended, now measuring 160 ft. wide.

Edward I also built a new curtain wall, a series of additional towers and a fortified river gate which is now popularly known as ‘Traitors’ Gate’. He imported over 350,000 bricks from Flanders (modern-day Belgium) for the project. This was the first time bricks were used for a major construction since the Roman occupation.

AD 1547: The Tudor powerhouse

The Tower becomes home to Household departments, government offices and an increasing number of prisoners.

Edward II (1307–27) formed the Privy wardrobe at the Tower, an organisation specialising in arms and munitions. Edward III (1327–77) and Richard II (1377–99) also implemented much new building work. After the Wars of the Roses in 1430 and 1471, Edward VI further extended the castle’s defences.

Later, Henry VIII (1509–47) had the royal lodgings renovated for the coronation of Anne Boleyn in May 1533. After this Henry rarely stayed there and Anne was only to return for her execution. Henry also built the Long House of Ordnance ‘wherein all the Kinges majestie’s store and provicon of artilleries Ordnance and other Municons’ could be kept.

AD 1700: Showplace of the nation

The Tower increasingly becomes a military store and workshop, and a national museum of military might.

Later Tudor monarchs made only symbolic use of the Tower as a residence, usually on the eve of the coronation procession to Westminster Abbey. From 1639 the Ordnance Office converted the Tower into a military store and changed other buildings into more storehouses. In 1663 yet another store house was built.

By the end of the 17th century the role of the Tower as the central arsenal was drawing to a close as other depots such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, Chatham and Woolwich were being developed.

Over time more parts of the Tower were being used for remarkable public displays which ‘no one ever beheld without astonishment’.

AD1841: The great conflagration

Life at the Tower is disrupted by fire, the loss of the Mint and the end of the Menagerie.

In 1812 the Royal Mint established new premises to the north-west of the Tower, ending over 500 years of coin production in the castle. The Royal Menagerie closed as well in 1835 after 600 years in the Tower.

Tourist attractions were enhanced with the construction of a new museum and Jewel House. In 1838 the entry fee to the Armouries was cut from 3 shillings to 1 shilling and later to 6d, resulting in visitor numbers rising from 10,500 to 80,000 per year.

A fire on 31 October 1841 destroyed the Grand Storehouse and most of its contents – the greatest single disaster to have beset the Tower.

AD 1890: Remedievalisation of the castle

The Tower becomes a mass tourist attraction and its image as a medieval castle is revived.

From 1843 to 1845 life at the Tower was greatly disrupted by the draining and partial infill of its moat and building of new barracks to house 1,000 soldiers. The Duke of Wellington laid the foundation stone of these new Waterloo Barracks, named in celebration of his greatest victory.

Victorian architect Anthony Salvin then began the process of restoring the Tower to its medieval origins. Unfortunately, after Salvin, John Taylor, the Office of Works architect ordered many historically important buildings demolished because they did not fit his idea of what a medieval castle should look like. Fortunately the ‘remedievalisation’ was soon brought to a halt.

‘The notion of building a medieval Tower to show what England was like in the 13th century will finally be given up and in place of it a respect for genuine remains of former times will prevail.’

AD 1940: The castle at war

The two World Wars see a revival of the Tower as a state prison and place of execution.

At the start of the First World War the Kaiser specifically instructed his military commanders not to target the royal palaces and historic monuments of London. The Tower was used as a state prison and saw the execution of eleven German spies between 1914 -1916.

During the Second World War some 180 men passed through the castle on their way to prison camps in the north of England. The role of the Tower as a state prison finally ended on 14 August 1941 after the convicted German spy Josef Jacobs was executed by firing squad.

The Tower suffered damage from air raids between September and December 1940 when attacks on London were at their most intense and destruction around the Tower was considerable. It was not until 1 January 1946 that the castle was ready to reopen its gates to the public.

AD 2000: The Tower today

Archaeological and documentary research reveals new evidence of the Tower’s History.

The garrison has dwindled to a small contingent retained for guard and ceremonial duties, while the role of the Tower as a military supply base, its oldest function, ended virtually unnoticed in 1994 with the withdrawal of the Royal Logistic Corps. In 1996 most of the staff of the Armouries (renamed Royal Armouries in 1985) and much of its collection, left the Tower to come to this museum in Leeds.

Recent changes to the castle have provided opportunities to investigate its past through archaeological work and ongoing research.

The Tower is still of the nation’s most popular attractions, with over 2.5 million visitors a year.