In 1066 A Norman duke who is known to history as William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and with it the English throne. But most of Saxon England still had to be brought under Norman control, so William mounted a succession of military campaigns and built fortified castles to consolidate his island kingdom.
The castles were the keypoint of the conqueror’s subjugation of England. One of the most impressive of these was the White Tower—the core of the present Tower of London compound.
Best known today as a grim, fearsome prison prison and a place of execution, the complex has also functioned as a palace, an armory, a mint, a menagerie-the famous ravens remain and, more enduringly, as a safe deposit for the Crown Jewels.
Architecture and design of Tower of London
William invited Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, to design the Tower on the banks of the Thames, within the south-east angle of an old Roman town wall. Described as “very competent and skillful at building in stone,” Gundulf also supervised the construction of the tower, which began in 1078.
The great rectangular stone keep, earliest of its kind in England and one of the largest ever built in Europe, was completed in the early 1090’s, after William’s death.
Measuring 118 feet by 107 feet (36 x 33 m) the tower rises to a height of 90 feet (almost 30 m); its four corner turrets are higher still. At its base, the walls are 15 feet (4.6 m) thick, thinning out in the upper sections to 1.1 feet (3.4 m).
Numerous arrow slits once pierced these walls, but only a few survive; the rest were replaced in the late 17th century by the window openings of the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren, who also decreed that the whitewashing of the tower should cease.
The original entrance, on the southern side. was reached by a flight of wooden stairs that could be quickly dismantled in time of danger.
The interior, organized on three levels, contained “all the essential accommodation of a royal residence.” The King’s apartments, with their fire-places and garderobes, were on the upper two floors, and within quick and easy reach of the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist.
This perfectly preserved Norman chapel is flanked on either side by a narrow aisle, with a gallery above, merging as one with the ambulatory and gallery at the eastern end; the interior is stone-vaulted throughout.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF KINGS IN ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS OF LONDON TOWER
After the reign of the Conqueror, it would be another 225 years before the tower assumed its familiar concentric configuration.
William’s son Rufus (William II, 1056-1100) built a wall around the tower in 1097; Richard I (1189-99) extended the defensive perimeter by constructing a new wall beyond William’s. Henry III (1216-72) enlarged the enclosure yet again and established the alignment that now makes up the inner curtain.
Most of the mural towers that punctuate this curtain are his additions as well, including the Garden Tower, which was later renamed the Bloody Tower after the alleged murder there in 1483 of the “Little Princes”-12 year old-Edward V and his younger brother Richard York.
Finally, Edward I (1272-1307) carried out extensive work on the tower, including the moat surrounding the castle, Traitor’s Gate, the new river gate through St. Thomas’s Tower, where prisoners came by boat before being tried at Westminster.
Edward also instigated improvements to the castle’s residential facilities. Later monarchs followed suit, including Henry VIII (1509-47), who built the Queen’s House in the south-west angle of the inner enclosure, possibly for the use of his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Henry VIII also rebuilt the fire-damaged early 12th century chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains) to the north of the “Queen’s House.” The chapel tells a tragic story; according to one Elizabethan writer, under the pavement are the remains of “two dukes between two queens, to wit, the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Northumberland, between Queen Anne and Queen Katherine, all four beheaded.”