White Tower

The White Tower is a central tower, the old keep, at the Tower of London. It was started in 1078 by William the Conqueror who ordered the White Tower to be built inside the south-east angle of The City walls, adjacent to the River Thames. Its construction was supervised by Bishop Gundulf of Rochester Cathedral, a talented military engineer who built many Norman fortifications and went on to become the 'Father of the Corps of Royal Engineers'. This was as much to protect the Normans from the people of the City of London as to protect London from outside invaders. William ordered the Tower to be built of Caen stone, which he had specially imported from France. The tower was finished around 1087 by his sons and successors, William Rufus and Henry I.

In the 12th century, King Richard the Lionheart enclosed the White Tower with a curtain wall and had a moat dug around it filled with water from the River Thames. The moat was not successful until Henry III, in the 13th century, employed a Dutch moat-building technique. Henry refurnished the Chapel and had the exterior of the building whitewashed in 1240, hence its name.

The White Tower is a massive construction, 90 feet (27 m) high and 118 feet (36 m) by 107 feet (33 m) across, the walls varying from 15 feet (4.6 m) thickness at the base to almost 11 feet (3.4 m) in the upper parts. Above the battlements rise four turrets; three of them are square, but the one on the north-east is circular. This turret once contained the first Royal observatory. The four weather vanes on the turrets of the tower date from 1669. At the south-east corner is a semicircular protrusion which houses the Chapel of St. John.

Its walls are now home to displays from the Royal Armouries, including original armours worn by Henry VIII and Charles I plus a reconstructed display of the massive collection of weapons once housed in the Grand Storehouse. The 'Spanish Armoury' contains the Tower's historic instruments of torture, including the infamous block and axe.

Historical incidents

Randulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, the first recorded prisoner at the Tower of London, was imprisoned in the White Tower on the orders of King Henry I in 1100. He escaped in 1101 and fled to Normandy, using a rope smuggled to him in a pot of wine.

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr, illegitimate son of Welsh Prince Llywelyn the Great, died while attempting to escape from the Tower in 1244. He is said to have used an improvised rope made from sheets and cloths to lower himself from his window, but as he was a heavy man the rope broke and he fell to his death. His body was discovered by the Yeomen Warders the next morning at the foot of the White Tower where he had fallen some 90 feet. The window from which he made his descent is on the south side of the Tower on the top floor. It was bricked up afterwards and can still be seen today.

A royal council chamber occupied the middle floor. In this chamber in 1399 Richard II was forced to sign away his throne to Henry IV, and in 1483 Richard III summarily sentenced Lord Hastings to death.

There are suspicions that the Princes in the Tower were truly murdered in the White Tower rather than in the legendary Bloody Tower but, like most of the story, the evidence is unclear. It has never been determined whether the two bodies found under the staircase were actually the two princes.

In 1974, there was a bomb explosion in the mortar room in the White Tower leaving one person dead and 41 injured. No one claimed responsibility for the blast, but the police investigated the possibility that the Irish Republican Army was behind it.

Building Activity

  • updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via Annotator
  • updated a digital reference and removed 2 media
    about 5 years ago via OpenBuildings.com