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The Medieval History of the Tower of London

The White Tower of The Tower of London. Photo by Medievalists.net

By Toni Mount

540 years ago, on the 18th February 1478 the Duke of Clarence was, famously, drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Did he jump or was he pushed? The question has never been answered, so this was an opportunity for the intrepid investigator Seb Foxley – to finally solve the mystery.

The latest instalment of popular writer and historian Toni Mount’s ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series, The Colour of Murder, explores the centuries old murder mystery of the death of George, Duke of Clarence, in the Tower of London.

The White Tower of The Tower of London. Photo by Medievalists.net
The White Tower of The Tower of London. Photo by Medievalists.net

The Tower of London

The Bowyer Tower at The Tower of London housed George, Duke of Clarence during his months of imprisonment in 1477-78 and where he died in the notorious butt of malmsey wine – maybe?

The Tower of London, officially Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, stands on the north bank of the River Thames, separated from the City of London by the open area of Tower Hill. It was founded towards the end of 1066 by William the Conqueror to remind the unruly citizens of London that they were now under Norman rule. To ensure they got the message, they were taxed to pay for and forced to provide the labourers to build it – no wonder the Tower was resented as a symbol of oppression. The castle was occasionally used as a prison but that wasn’t its main purpose. It was meant to be the monarch’s London residence. The Tower is actually a complex of buildings enclosed by two rings of defensive walls and a moat and the basic plan remains as it was in the late thirteenth century.

Important to England’s history, the Tower of London was besieged several times and has served variously as an armoury and weapons’ factory, a royal treasury and the mint, a zoo, a record office and remains the place where the Crown Jewels are kept secure. From the early fourteenth century until the reign of Charles II, the monarch would process from the Tower to Westminster Abbey for their coronation. In the late fifteenth century, under the Tudors, the Tower was used less as a royal residence and more as a prison for disgraced nobles, such as Queen Anne Boleyn, her daughter Elizabeth before she became queen, Lady Jane Grey who was executed on 12th February 1554 and Sir Walter Raleigh. Despite acquiring a reputation for torture and death, only seven people were executed within the Tower before the twentieth century. Executions usually took place on Tower Hill and 112 unfortunates met their deaths there over a 400-year period.

The White Tower is the original castle keep, the strongest part of the castle where the king lodged in safety, and is still ‘the most complete eleventh-century palace in Europe’. The entrance was on the first floor, giving access to the accommodation for the Constable of the Tower as the king’s representative in charge of running the castle, his Lieutenant and other important officers. The upper floor had a great hall on the western side and a residential chamber to the east for the king’s use, both of which originally opened to the roof level, with St John’s Chapel in the south-eastern corner. The top floor was added in the fifteenth century.

The innermost ward is the area south of the White Tower that once went down to the edge of the river. By the 1170s, the king’s retinue had long outgrown the few rooms in the White Tower and new lodgings were built in the innermost ward, gradually being extended and made ever more sumptuous. Construction of the Wakefield and Lanthorn Towers at the corners of the wall along the river began c.1220 to provide apartments for the king and queen. Henry III had his queen’s chamber whitewashed and painted with flowers. A great hall was built between the two towers with a separate kitchen – for safety reasons.

The inner ward had been created during the 1190s, during Richard the Lionheart’s reign, when a moat was dug to the west of the innermost ward, doubling the area of the castle but his nephew, Henry III, created the ward’s east and north walls as they are today. The main entrance to the inner ward was through a gatehouse by the Beauchamp Tower – one of thirteen towers along the curtain wall. Of these thirteenth-century towers, all of which provided accommodation, the Bell Tower also housed a belfry, its bell meant to raise the alarm in the event of an attack. The royal bow-maker, responsible for making longbows and other weapons, had a workshop in the Bowyer Tower. This was also the tower that housed George, Duke of Clarence during his months of imprisonment in 1477-78 and where he died in the notorious butt of malmsey wine – maybe? A turret at the top of Lanthorn Tower was used as a beacon by traffic approaching the Tower at night.

Author Toni Mount

As a result of Henry III’s expansion, St Peter ad Vincula, a chapel which had previously stood outside the Tower, was incorporated into the castle. Henry added glazed windows to the chapel and stalls for himself and his queen. It was rebuilt by Edward I, costing over £300 and again by Henry VIII. Immediately west of Wakefield Tower, the Bloody Tower – known as the Garden Tower until Tudor times – was also built by Henry III as a water-gate to give access to the castle from the River Thames, protected by a portcullis and gate. The Bloody Tower acquired its name in the sixteenth century as it was believed to be the site of the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Between 1339 and 1341, another gatehouse was built between the Bell and Salt Towers.

A third, outer ward was created during Edward I’s time to completely surround the castle. The new complex consisted of an inner and outer gatehouse and a barbican which became known as the Lion Tower as it housed the animals in the Royal Menagerie since the 1330s but the The Lion Tower itself no longer survives. Edward extended the Tower of London onto land that had previously been submerged by the river, building St Thomas’s Tower; later known as Traitors’ Gate. He also moved the Royal Mint into the Tower.

During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Tower was besieged with young King Richard II inside. When Richard rode out to meet with the rebel leader Wat Tyler, a mob broke in and looted the Jewel House. They also seized the Archbishop of Canterbury who was hated as Chancellor of England for imposing high taxes and beheaded him. In the second half of the fifteenth century, during the Wars of the Roses, fought between the royal houses of Lancaster and York, the Tower was besieged and damaged by artillery in 1460 by the Yorkists. Later, the defeated Lancastrian king, Henry VI was captured and imprisoned by the Yorkist king, Edward IV in the Wakefield Tower where he died in 1471, perhaps executed on Edward’s orders.

Shortly after the death of Edward IV in 1483, the king’s young sons were living in the Garden Tower. Their subsequent disappearance gave rise to the notorious story that they were murdered by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Although there is no evidence of such a crime, the incident of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ remains one of the most infamous events associated with the Tower of London. From the Tudor period, the Tower was seldom used as a royal residence but it needed its defences updated. Henry VIII spent £3,593 on repairs and renovations but the palace buildings were neglected. The Tower’s reputation for torture dates to the century between 1540 and 1640 but since the Privy Council had to sanction torture, it was rarely used. There are only forty-eight recorded cases and the most famous victim was Guy Fawkes. In November 1605, after being tortured on the rack, he was barely able to sign his confession, concerning the Gunpowder Treason.

The last monarch to traditionally process from the Tower to Westminster to be crowned was Charles II in 1660, although the accommodation was in such poor condition he didn’t stay the night. Between 1666 and 1676, the decayed palace buildings were demolished in the innermost ward and the space around the White Tower was cleared so that anyone approaching could be seen as they crossed the open ground. The Jewel House was also demolished and the Crown Jewels rehoused in the Martin Tower.

Today, the Tower of London is a popular tourist attraction. Under the ceremonial charge of the Constable of the Tower, it is cared for by the Historic Royal Palaces charity and protected not by longbows and cannons but as a World Heritage Site.


Toni Mount is a popular writer and historian; she is the author of Everyday Life in Medieval London and A Year in the Life of Medieval England (published by Amberley Publishing). Her successful ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval whodunits is published by MadeGlobal.com and the latest book in this series, The Colour of Murder, is now available as a paperback or on Kindle.

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