Tower of London

In the early 1080s, William the Conqueror began to build a massive stone tower at the centre of his London fortress. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Through the centuries that followed, successive monarchs added to the fortifications. This short history charts the different stages of its construction and explains its role as fortress, palace and prison.

It is not clear exactly when work started on the Conqueror’s White Tower or precisely when it was finished but the first phase of building work was certainly underway in the 1070s.

Gundulf, the new Bishop of Rochester, was in charge. Norman masons were employed and some of the building stone was specially imported from William’s native Normandy. Labour, however, was provided by Englishmen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments in 1097 that ‘many shires whose labour was due to London were hard pressed because of the wall that they built around the Tower’. By 1100 the White Tower was complete.

Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in England before. The building was immense, at 36m x 32.5m (118 x 106ft) across, and on the south side where the ground is lowest, 27.5m (90ft) tall. The Tower dominated the skyline for miles around.

The Tower was protected by Roman walls on two sides, ditches to the north and west up to 7.5m (25ft) wide and 3.4m (11ft) deep and an earthwork topped by a wooden palisade.

Although many later kings and queens stayed at the Tower, it was never intended as the main royal residence. Palaces like Westminster had more opulent rooms. Equally the Tower was not the first line of defence against invading armies, though it could rise to this challenge.

The Tower’s primary function was as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century.

Description by Historic Royal Palaces


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