Power of the Tower


In Aureus, King Henry II abducts Gweneth from her parents’ protective arms and installs her in the Tower of London, using her as bait to bring her husband from hiding. I am not telling the reader how that ploy worked out (just in case Aureus is your next-in-line book to read), but the Tower of London, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, is still a must-see on any traveler’s itinerary.

Begun by William the Conqueror in 1078, the tower was the victor’s way of reminding the locals who had won the Battle of Hastings (1066). Although most famous as a prison, the Tower of London was also a royal residence until the 17th century. Actually there are many towers at the site on the north bank of the River Thames; the White Tower is the most famous, but there are 23 other towers and many smaller turrets.

The moat surrounding this assemblage is the same shape as it was in 1270, when King Edward I expanded it. Nowadays it is filled with wildflowers.

Yes, the Tower has a reputation for incarceration, torture and death, but in its over 1,000 years of existence, only 22 people have been put to death within its walls. Half of that number were the 11 German spies executed during World War I. Of course, the public square on the adjacent Tower Hill has been the site of over 100 executions, two of them wives of Henry VIII.

Historically, there were 37 escapes. Most escapees were recaptured and many executed. In 1716, the Earl of Nithsdale managed a clean getaway by cross-dressing.

A list of tower prisoners reads like a Who’s Who of British history: Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes (imprisoned for plotting to blow up parliament in 1605). In 1483, two princes, Edward and his brother Richard, disappeared while living in the tower. Historians assume they were murdered. Their uncle Richard soon proclaimed himself King Richard III.

Lawyer, scholar and King Henry VIII’s chancellor, Thomas More found himself a tower guest after opposing Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. In his final moments on the scaffold, he addressed the hangman: “I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

A more recent tower resident, Hitler’s second in command, Rudolf Hess, was captured in Scotland and incarcerated there in 1941. Eventually he was tried in Nuremburg and given a life sentence.

Today, the tower is overseen by a resident governor who occupies the Queen’s House on the Tower Green. He is in charge of the yeoman warders or beefeaters, the uniformed men, also living on the premises, who give guided tours of the entire complex. Between two and three million tourists visit the Tower of London annually.