Fairy-tales, ravens and uniformed guards: a visit to the Tower of London offers history with a sinister edge. This castle and former prison is an imposing fortress on the north shore of the River Thames. The Tower was built in 1066 and expanded years later. The current 73.000-m2 complex encompasses fortresses, courtyards and 20 towers.
Norman king William the Conqueror began construction of the Tower of London after he was crowned King of England in 1066. The complex achieved notoriety as the execution place of many high-ranking individuals, including Queen Anne Boleyn in 1536. Throughout history, the Tower has served as a fortress, royal palace, state prison, mint, garrison, museum and weapons arsenal. The many harnesses and torture instruments on display attest to the Tower’s gruesome history. The British Crown Jewels are also a must see, even if only to catch a glimpse of the famous Koh-i-Nur diamond.
The Tower has its own guards - the Yeomen Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters. A Yeomen Warder must have 22 years of impeccable military service before he can take up residence as a guard at the Tower. In the past these men used to serve only as security guards but today they also act as guides, dressed in traditional costume. With their typical British sense of humour, the guides make the tours a memorable experience. There is even a Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster who is responsible for the seven ravens that live on site. This is an important task, as legend says that when the Tower of London ravens are flown away, the Crown and the Kingdom of England will fall.
Many animals used to live in the Tower, which served as the predecessor of the world’s oldest zoo: the London Zoo. Hawks, elephants, kangaroos and ostriches once lived within these walls. Even lions, tigers and bears made their home here and these animals were made to fight each other to entertain the court. As the collection of animals grew, they became more and more of a nuisance, so in 1832 all the animals were moved to Regent Park.
The top attraction at the Tower of London are the Crown Jewels, which are worn by members of the Royal family during weddings, coronations and baptisms. The collection includes tiaras, rings, necklaces and brooches, but also crowns and swords. Some highlights of the collection are the 530-carat First Star of Africa, the largest flawless cut diamond in the world which is now mounted in the Sovereign’s Sceptre; the famous Imperial State Crown set with over 3,000 gems; and the famous Koh-i-Nur diamond. This 105-carat stone is believed to be the most expensive in the world. Nobody can even estimate the diamond’s price but it is certainly not for sale. The jewels are on display in the Jewel House, located in the Waterloo Barracks just north of the White Tower.