Medieval Monday – The Tower of London

The Tower of London.  The very name conjures up a wealth of emotion along with all of the facts you might have learned about the place in school.  It was a place of awe, a place of execution.  It houses the crown jewels and tourist attractions today, but people were held prisoner and lost their lives there, from royalty to peasants, in times gone by.  The Tower’s part in the deaths of the young Tudor princes, Edward and Richard, Anne Boleyn, and so many others is legendary.

But the Tower was never meant to be a place of horror and death.  In fact, very few executions actually took place at the Tower of London.  The Tower’s original purpose was as a great castle and fortress.

View from the Tower circa 1450
from Wikimedia Commons

Begun by William the Conqueror in 1978, the Tower was the first Norman castle with a stone keep.  At that time most castle keeps were made of wood and, as you might imagine, didn’t last for a thousand years.  The White Tower, the keep of the Tower of London, has not only lasted for almost a thousand years, it has been in continuous use in one form or another for all that time.

At the same time, the Tower of London that you can visit today doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the medieval fortress is used to be.  Over time the wall has been extended and added to, out-buildings of various kinds have been added or knocked down, and the overall shape of the structure has gone through a lot of changes.  Even the impressive and iconic White Tower has changed, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the outside.

And this is where I get to have fun.

The Tower of London features prominently in my forthcoming novel, The Courageous Heart.  A huge chunk of the action takes place within the Tower grounds and inside of The White Tower.  But the Tower as it existed in 1194 is not anywhere close to the structure that my brother toured and brought back a report of in the summer of 2012.  So for those of you who might have visited the Tower before and are ready to read The Courageous Heart and say “wait, the Tower wasn’t like that at all when I visited”, here’s a look at the Tower of London as it existed in 1194.

In the reign of Richard I, the Tower was about half of the size it is now.  The wall on the west side wasn’t expanded to its present location for another decade, and not to its full, current extent until the reign of Edward I.  In its original design a wide moat ran around the perimeter, like any well-constructed medieval castle.  The Tower Richard inherited was much closer to being a simple medieval castle.

Except that its mystique wasn’t simple at all.  The White Tower was possibly the most formidable structure in England.  It was designed to strike awe into the hearts of friend and foe alike.  The white stone that it was constructed out of shone in the sunlight and its height and power dominated the London skyline of the time.  It was not the kind of fortress that you wanted to mess with.

The entrance was on the first floor, as opposed to the ground floor which was more of a dungeon in the traditional sense of the word.  Access to the front door was by a great wooden staircase.  The reasons for all this were so that if the castle was ever sieged all of the important people could be piled into the White Tower and the stairs could be burned so that no one would be able to get in.

The White Tower was a primary royal residence up until the time of the Tudors.  And while there may have been a room reserved as the king’s bedchamber, like most medieval castles, the rooms were all multi-purpose.  The great halls of the first floor could be used as audience halls or guard chambers or storage facilities.  The long room on the second floor was variously a banquet hall or a dorm as needed.  Prisoners were held at the Tower, but only those of noble birth and special circumstance.  Some may have been held in the dungeons, but many were housed in the out-buildings around the White Tower in what would have been considered comfort at the time.

One of the most amazing aspects of the White Tower is St. John’s chapel.  Inside of this vast (by medieval standards) castle is a beautiful Norman chapel.  It was used for all sorts of smaller functions and ceremonies.  It also contained a small room built into the thick inner wall that was variously used as a closet and a prison.  That’s something you might want to keep in mind as you read The Courageous Heart.

The Tower of London today
© Stephen Finn |

So this all begs the question.  Have I been historically accurate in depicting the Tower of London in The Courageous Heart?  Um, well, sort of.  Its use as a royal, multi-purpose residence is definitely true to history.  So is the appearance of the White Tower.  I took a teensy bit of liberty with the size of the Tower grounds, going with the walls as they would have been about 10 years after my story takes place.

The biggest historical inconsistency that I have included in The Courageous Heart is the executions that take place within the Tower.  In fact, prior to the middle of the 20th century, only 7 executions were known to have taken place on the tower green.  Yup, just 7.  Most of the executions at the Tower actually took place on Tower Hill, just north of the fortress.  And there were only 112 of those in the last 400 years.  Ah, but that’s only the last 400 years.  I’m banking on the fact that history sometimes gets lost and that there may have been far more going on at the Tower in its earliest days than was recorded.  It makes perfect sense to me that, considering how important the Tower was, justice of all sorts was served there.

So which of the Noble Hearts characters loses their head(s) at the Tower of London?  You’ll be able to find out in just a few weeks.