History of the Tower
Since its initial construction began under William the Conqueror in the 1070s, the Tower of London has played a pivotal role throughout the turbulent periods of England’s history. Following Richard the Lionheart’s absence in the late 1100s, the tower remained the centerpiece in the power struggle between Richard’s Lord Chancellor, William Longchamp, and Richard’s younger brother Prince John. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the tower was repurposed into a state prison for high profile captives, such as Queen Elizabeth I before her ascension to the throne in 1558. Parliament’s acquisition of the tower in 1642 marked a heavy blow against Charles I during the British Civil War which ultimately led to his abdication of the throne in 1651. During the Napoleonic era the outer tower walls were reinforced to handle artillery and Waterloo Barracks was constructed to house a garrison of one thousand men.
Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula
Originally a parish church, the Chapel was incorporated into the walls of the castle during Henry III’s expansion. It has been rebuilt at least twice, once in the reign of Edward I, and then again in its present form in Henry VIII’s reign. Three queens of England Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey, and two saints of the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More and John Fischer, are buried here. Their headless bodies were buried under the nave or chancel without memorial until the 19th century when remains found in the nave were re-interred in the crypt. The chapel also has many monuments which commemorate officers and residents of the Tower who worshipped here. It remains a place of worship for the Tower’s community of 150 or so residents.
St. John’s Chapel
The Chapel of St. John’s is not only the best-preserved interior in the White Tower, but also one of the best examples of Anglo-Normal church architecture in England. Constructed in 1080 within the original keep under William the Conqueror, Saint John’s remains as the oldest church in London. Although it was probably brightly painted, Henry III (1216-72) embellished it with stained glass windows representing the Virgin and Child and St. John the Evangelist, a painting of Edward the Confessor, and a figure of Christ. For much of its later history, it was used to store state records.
The Tower Today
Today, the tower grounds remain primarily as a tourist attraction, seeing two and a half million visitors. The fantastic preservation is due in large part to the diligent conservation and renovation that has taken place at the tower starting in the late 18th century. Though much of the Tower was damaged during the German Blitzkrieg in World War II, the White Tower remained untouched.