I just finished reading a novel about the Tower of London. Although it was primarily a fictional account of a few quirky characters, many true facts came to light about the tower, as well. Facts I had never heard about. I was quite surprised and, now, curious.
Years ago, I visited the Tower and saw the impressive armory and also the priceless Crown Jewels that have been on display since the late 17th century. I learned about it being a prison and heard about all the beheadings. I thought I had a pretty comprehensive knowledge about the history of the Tower of London. Until now, that is.
Did you know it was built by William the Conqueror in the 1070’s? Or, strangely, did you know it had housed a menagerie of exotic animals from foreign lands that were collected by King John starting in 1204 and later his son, King Henry III. And in later decades some animals were gifts from foreign dignitaries? I didn’t know that. Such diverse animals as lions, kangaroos, leopards, ostriches, bears, polar bears and even an elephant were housed there. The menagerie was closed by the Duke of Wellington in 1835 and the animals became the basis for London Zoo in Regent’s Park.
I didn’t know the Tower had been a Royal Mint from the reign of Edward I in 1279 until 1810. That location was selected because it was the most secure in all of London.
I didn’t know the term; “Beefeaters” had been given to the Yeoman Warders because they were given as much beef from King Henry VII’s table as they wished, to guard the king. Today the Yeoman Warders guard the visitors, but still carry out ceremonial duties, such as locking and unlocking the Tower every day in the Ceremony of the Keys, and that they are long term veterans of military service to the Monarch. I’m realizing how little I knew about the Tower of London.
Most everyone remembers tales about Henry VIII and his six wives and how he had two of them beheaded; Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. And many of you are familiar with the story of the two princes, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York who were imprisoned in the Tower by their devious uncle, who became Richard III. Legend has it that he had the two boys killed so he could succeed to the throne. In recent centuries more evidence has come to light including the discovery of the bones of two young boys in a chest in the Tower which have all but been confirmed to have belonged to the boy princes.
Although only one bomb fell on the Tower of London in the First World War (it landed harmlessly in the moat), WW2 left a greater mark. On 23 September 1940, during the Blitz, high-explosive bombs damaged the castle, destroying several buildings and narrowly missing the White Tower.
During WW2, the Tower was used as a Prisoner Of War camp. Rudolf Hess, Deputy Chancellor of Nazi Germany, was imprisoned in the Tower after he attempted to parachute into Scotland. He was placed in what was the King’s House but is now the Queen’s House and he was free to roam the Tower grounds. After the war, any damage was repaired and the Tower was reopened to the public.
Many of you have heard that Ravens have always been kept at the Tower of London. When Charles II (a very superstitious Monarch) asked for the Ravens to be removed, he was advised that if the Ravens were removed, The Tower would crumble and great harm would befall the nation. Ever since, ravens (at least 6) have been kept at the Tower.
It is also said that several ghosts are said to haunt the Tower, including those of Anne Boleyn, Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole, the Princes in the Tower – and a grizzly bear! That’s something else I didn’t know. I guess I can say when it comes to knowing about the Tower of London, I have been almost completely ignorant! Who knew? There’s more history about it to learn, if you’re curious!
Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland. Join her here each 11th of the month.