Records of central government have been stored at the Tower since at least the reign of Edward I when the principal treasury of the Exchequer was reputedly located in St John’s Chapel. In 1278-9 Exchequer Rolls were brought into the Tower and placed under the custody of a royal justice. In 1305 King Edward ordered the delivery into the Tower of a collection of papal privileges which were to be the joint responsibility of the Controller of the Wardrobe and the Keeper of the Rolls of Chancery. The growing status of the Tower as a record office is reflected in the presses provided for the more ancient documents kept there in 1312. The White Tower was not the only repository within the Tower; records were stored elsewhere and their locations are often named in contemporary documents. During the 14th century records were stored in the ‘Black Hall’, the ‘Black Chamber’ and the ‘inner chamber’ adjacent to the ‘Black Hall’. The Black Hall was apparently the west room of the White Tower basement where diplomatic documents were kept. The listing of records was in evidence from the early 14th century. One of the earliest compilations was a calendar of Gascon documents produced between 1320 and 1322. A general register covering a wide range of documents was produced shortly afterwards under the guidance of the Treasurer of England, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter. At the same time Exchequer and Treasury records were also being sorted at the Tower. Many Exchequer documents had to be transported down the river from Westminster. While the Exchequer records were subsequently returned, many legal records of the Treasury were left in the Tower.
Records from the Treasury at Westminster continued to be sent to the Tower during the 14th century. By the 15th century, however, the Tower was the acknowledged domain of the Chancery. The Chancery had had a repository there since the reign of Edward II. In 1340 Sir Thomas Evesham was appointed Keeper of the Chancery Rolls in the Tower. As a consequence of the capture of King John II of France at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 records were removed from the White Tower to make way for his accommodation in 1360. Chancery documents were moved into the Wakefield Tower, also known as the Record Tower. Towards the end of the 15th century, however, the Tower lost importance to the new base of the Keeper at Chancery Lane where he had a dwelling house. While some Chancery records were transferred to the Tower many were stored and retained at Chancery Lane instead. The last major transfer of Chancery rolls was in 1499. Later attempts by Keepers of the Tower Record Office to reclaim these records proved fruitless.
The White Tower is not known to have been used for record storage between 1360 and 1560 other than as an overflow for the Wakefield Tower. During the second half of the 16th century the Tower Record Office struggled to maintain its status. Its failure to secure records along with allegations of embezzlement of records further undermined its reputation. In 1564 a dispute over the jurisdiction of records between the Chamberlain of the Exchequer, Edward, Lord Stafford and William Bowyer, the Keeper of Tower Records served to highlight the poor conditions in which they were kept. This was resolved in 1567 and it was agreed that Chancery records were to be moved into the White Tower; probably the Chapel of St John after repairs had been made. That move never took place but did serve to highlight the general neglect of the records.
The Record Office was staffed by two clerks who made searches for a fee on behalf of enquirers, admitted private researchers to consult documents, as well as arranging and cataloguing the collections. By the 17th century the Tower records were being used by scholars and private individuals. Private individuals regularly sought access to the records in the settlement of legal disputes often concerning land ownership. There was in fact no attempt to establish a central registry of land deeds in England until the 19th century. However, since the 13th century many land transactions had been enrolled on the Close Rolls of Chancery for which a fee was payable. Similarly, the Keepers of the Tower Records become more identifiable individuals who took an active interest in the organization of the records in their custody. In 1602, for example, William Lambarde, Keeper of the Tower Records, presented Elizabeth I with his new six-volume calendar. The White Tower was used to store the less used parts of the collection while the administrative office of the Tower Record Office was housed in the Wakefield Tower. The Keeper’s house, close by, was known as ‘Bowyer’s House’ after a previous Keeper.
During the Civil War the Tower Record Office came under the control of Parliament. The Keeper from 1643 was the scholar and polemicist John Seldon. Parliament took an interest in the storage of records and in 1650 requested a report on the usefulness of the Office of Records in the Tower. Scottish records of state were brought to the Tower in 1651 where a clerk, William Ryley, was paid to install and maintain them. William Ryley was confirmed in his position following the restoration of Charles II in 1660. However, William Prynne was appointed Keeper. Prynne had led a colourful life during the reign of Charles I. Twice imprisoned in the Tower upon charges of seditious libel against the king, Prynne had eventually emerged as a defender of the monarchy. Prynne took a hands-on approach to his work. In a letter to Sir Harbottle Grimston he described being ‘choked with the dust of neglected records (interred in their own rubbish for sundry years) in the White Tower; their rust eating out the tops of my gloves with their touch, and their dust rendering me, twice a day, as black as a chimney sweeper.’ While Prynne worked extensively on the records held at the Tower, his Abridgment was actually published in 1657 towards the end of the English Commonwealth and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Prynne’s volume improved upon and updated the earlier publication of the antiquary and politician, Sir Robert Cotton. It provided the reader with a precise description of the different sets of records stored at the Tower.
By the late 17th century the state of the Tower Record Office was again causing concern. In 1674 a clerk of the records had been found guilty of forging records in the absence of the Deputy Keeper, Thomas Ryley. Revenues were also declining. Records continued to be stored in the Chapel of St John and the Wakefield Tower. Investigations into storage in 1676 and 1681 made substantial recommendations for improving the operation of the Record Office. One suggestion called for another transfer of records from the Rolls Estate. In 1704 a Committee under the guidance of Charles Montagu, 1st Lord Halifax inspected the records again and in May William Petyt, Keeper of Records, and Sir Christopher Wren, were charged with producing a detailed scheme for improving the state of the records. Renovation work began in November 1705. It was decided that the Chapel of St John would house records of Chancery and the Wakefield Tower would house the older and most valuable records. That distinction remained until the closure of the Tower Record Office in 1858. The question of space remained a bone of contention throughout the 18th century. The idea of finding extra space in the White Tower was discussed during the 1720s and 1730s and refurbishment work in the White Tower was completed by 1739. Chancery records from the Six Clerks’ Office were then transferred, after which no more transfers from Chancery were made for 40 years. In the meantime Thomas Astle, Keeper of the Tower Record Office and Robert Lemon, clerk, continued to make improvements to the collections at the Tower. Nevertheless, those housed in the chapel in the White Tower were regarded as the least important and were, for the most part, neglected.
In 1800 a Select Committee of Parliament submitted a report into the state of records. It recommended a wholesale repair of buildings, compiling inventories of records, and the establishment of a central repository. During the early 19th century there was an expansion of storage space when some Admiralty records were transferred to the Tower. In 1811 the west room on the second floor of the White Tower was converted into extra storage. In 1838 the Record Act established the Public Record Office at Chancery Lane, the first national repository in the United Kingdom. In 1840 custody of the Tower Records Office was formally handed over to Francis Palgrave, the new Keeper of the Public Record Office. At this stage it was intended that the Tower Record Office would become a branch record office. Consequently, records were transferred from other institutions including naval records from Deptford in 1841. However, with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 and the need for additional space the transfer of records to the new Public Record Office was speeded up . By the summer of 1858 the White Tower had been completely cleared. After six centuries the Tower of London had ceased to be a record office.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
J Bayley, History and Antiquities of the Tower of London (London, 1830)
A Borg, ‘The Record Office’ in J Charlton, ed., The Tower of London: its Buildings and Institutions (London, 1978), pp. 104-5
V H Galbraith, ‘The Tower as an Exchequer Record Office in the Reign of Edward II’, in A. G. Little and F. M Powicke, eds., Essays in Medieval History Presented to T H Tout (Manchester, 1925), pp. 213-47
E Hallam, ‘The Tower of London as a Record Office’, Archives XIV (1979), 3-10
E Impey, The White Tower (New Haven and London, 2008)