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Definition: Tower of London from Collins English Dictionary


1 a fortress in the City of London, on the River Thames: begun 1078; later extended and used as a palace, the main state prison, and now as a museum containing the crown jewels

Summary Article: Tower of London
from Encyclopedia of Tudor England

During the Tudor period, the Tower of London, the great royal fortress along the Thames, ceased to be a palace with which the monarch was personally associated and took on more fully the role of state prison. About 1077, William the Conqueror began building a large stone castle at the southeast corner of the old Roman wall surrounding London. Completed about 1097, the central keep of William’s construction still remains; it is known as the White Tower because it was originally whitewashed. Various medieval kings surrounded the White Tower with new constructions, including the massive defensive enclosures built in the thirteenth century by Henry III and Edward I. By Tudor times, the Tower complex served as the royal mint, armory, and zoo. Under Henry VII, the Tower ceased to be a principal royal residence, and under Henry VIII it became the chief state prison and the site of many state executions. By the reign of Elizabeth I, the medieval palace complex at the Tower had begun to fall into decay.

During the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, the Tower remained a royal residence and fortress, even though it also became a place where various important people met their deaths or disappeared, including the deposed Henry VI, who was murdered there in 1471, and the two sons of Edward IV, who disappeared after being confined there by their uncle Richard III in 1483. Under Henry VII, the end of civil war and internal disorder made the Tower unnecessary as a fortress. Under Henry VIII, the construction or acquisition of such palaces as Whitehall and Hampton Court made the gloomy, outdated Tower unwanted as a royal residence. During Henry VIII’s reign, the Tower witnessed the confinement and execution of many important prisoners. Among those who suffered in private within the fortress on Tower Green were two queens, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, while among those who died in public outside the walls on Tower Hill were Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley; Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham; Bishop John Fisher; Sir Thomas More; Thomas Cromwell; and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. During the reign of Edward VI, the king’s uncles Thomas Seymour, Lord Seymour, and Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, died at the Tower. During the reign of Mary I, Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed at the Tower, and Princess Elizabeth was briefly imprisoned there in 1554 under suspicion of supporting Wyatt’s Rebellion. During Elizabeth’s reign, the Tower lodged numerous state prisoners, including Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk; Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; and many of the Catholic priests and missionaries who were executed for treason during the reign.

The Tower of London was sixteenth-century England’s most important state prison, and it also served as the royal mint, armory, and zoo. (morgueFile)

Conditions of imprisonment in the Tower often depended on a prisoner’s social class and the nature of his or her crime. High-ranking prisoners such as Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, who languished in the Tower during Edward’s reign, were courteously treated and allowed visitors, books, and occasional exercise in the Tower yard or on its walls. Lower-class prisoners, especially those held in the 1530s for denial of the royal supremacy, such as the Carthusian martyrs, were denied such privileges and sometimes subjected to harsh treatment. The lieutenant of the Tower had an annual budget for feeding and maintaining poorer and long-held prisoners, while wealthier prisoners whose confinement was of shorter duration were often expected to contribute to the cost of their upkeep and were required to pay for special foods or services permitted them by the monarch. Its great moat drained, the Tower complex is today one of the most visited tourist attractions in London.

See also Edward V; Empson-Dudley Affair; Princes in the Tower

Further Reading
  • Parnell, Geoffrey. The Tower of London: Past and Present. History Press Charleston, SC, 2009.
  • Rowse, A. L. The Tower of London. Joseph London, 1977.
  • Wilson, Derek. The Tower. Constable London, 1989.
  • Copyright 2012 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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