Tower of London is one of the world’s most iconic historical attractions. The 1000-year-old fortress buildings are indeed impressive, but what’s even more fascinating is the important role it played shaping Britain’s history. If those walls could talk…
Let’s start with a bit of history. Do you know why the Tower was built in the first place? It’s easy to assume that it was built to protect London from invaders coming up the Thames to attack the city, such as the old enemies of the English like the Vikings and the French. Actually, the opposite is true – it was the invaders (a mix of Vikings AND French) of Britain that built the Tower to rule over the English.
Highlights for kids at the Tower of London
- Norman history – visiting the Tower is a great opportunity for kids to learn about 1066 and the Normans
- The Tudors – learn about all those brutal moments during Henry VIII’s rule
- The Menagerie – Tower of London was an early version of London Zoo with exotic animals
- Ravens – see if you can count all 5 ravens, and learn about the legend of the Tower
- Crown Jewels – get up close to the Queen’s impressive crowns and jewels
- Princes in the Tower – learn about the story about two the two princes that suddenly disappeared
- Prison graffiti – see if you can recognize any of the names on the wall of the Salt Tower
- The Royal Armouries – see the impressive collection of weapons and armour
The invaders who built the Tower of London was, of course, the Normans. They successfully took Britain by force in 1066 and built the Tower to protect themselves from the native Londoners who were very hostile towards their new rules. The Normans were very effective and established similar strongholds like Tower all over Britain, rapidly building over 100 fortresses, each ruled by a Norman warlord that would subdue the English in their local area.
The Normans themselves were originally Vikings from Norway and Denmark that settled in Normandy where they gradually adopted French culture and language. It wouldn’t take long until they did the same in Britain, merging their own culture with the British.
Kids are easily fascinated by Tudor history with all its drama, and even if the Tower wasn’t a royal residence, it played a central role as a place of execution and imprisonment.
The Tudors at the Tower:
- Yeomen of the Guard: The official royal bodyguard, the “Beefeaters” were established by Henry Tudor
- Traitors’ Gate: The watergate where the doomed prisoners arrived by boat from the Thames during Tudor times
- The White Tower: Where all the important prisoners were held, like Elizabeth during the reign of her Catholic sister Mary
- Tower Hill: Where Henry VIII’s 2nd wife Anne Boleyn and 5th wife Catherine Howard were executed
- Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula: The final resting place of Anne Boleyn after her execution
The Tower Menagerie
Did you know that King Haakon IV of Norway gave a polar bear as a gift to Henry III in 1252? Henry paid fourpence a day to keep the bear fed at the Tower, but it also used to fish in the Thames while tied to a chain according to historical records. Other animals included:
- In 1235, King Henry III received three lions (or leopards) from Emperor Frederick II.
- African elephant (received from King Louis IX of France in 1255
- In the 1780s, the Tower monkeys lived in a furnished room where visitors would be amused by their antics and humanlike behaviour.
- A zebra was ‘particularly fond’ of ale and would run off to the soldiers’ canteen to have a drink.
“For many centuries, ravens have guarded the Tower of London and, since they are said to hold the power of the Crown, it is believed that the Crown and the Tower will fall, if ever the ravens should leave. Fortunately, these respected residents, since the reign of King Charles II, have been protected by royal decree.”
At least this is what Tower of London’s brochure says. But if were are to believe the scholars on this subject, this is actually an invented tradition to dramatize the executions at the Tower. So more of a marketing stunt than historically correct, but that doesn’t really matter. For the kids, it’s great fun to watch the ravens and hear about the ravens.
We’re talking about the Queen’s Crown Jewels of course! One example: The Imperial State Crown from 1937 is regularly used by Queen Elizabeth II when opening the Parliament and has more than 2,800 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 269 pearls and 4 rubies!
As part of the collection of Royal Bling, you’ll also see some very exceptional diamonds like the Koh-i-Nûr (or ‘Mountain of Light’) diamond. Discovered in 15th-century India, it earned a reputation of bringing bad luck to men. Nevertheless, it was presented to Queen Victoria in 1849 and now adorns the front of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s Crown (1837).
The two Princes in the Tower
The intriguing story about the two princes Edward V and Richard who mysteriously disappeared from Tower of London never fails to fascinate, captivating kids as well as adults.
Rumours have it that it was the Princes’ greedy uncle Richard III that had them murdered for himself to become King of England… The story comes alive through an interactive display that makes the story come alive again.
The Execution of Anne Boleyn at the Tower
Henry VIII had called for the “Headsman of Calais” even before Anne’s trial would begin in the Great Hall of The Tower of London. According to historian Alison Weir, for the executioner to arrive on the 18th, (the original date set for her execution) he would have had to have been ordered as early as the 9th or 10th. Anne was tried and found guilty, along with her brother, George, on May 15th.
Anne’s execution was postponed twice, giving her a cruel, false hope. She was finally brought to the scaffold built on the north side of the White Tower near the Waterloo Barracks on the morning of May 19th where she spoke these words:
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”
Her ladies removed her headdress and necklaces, and then tied a blindfold over her eyes as she knelt upright in the French style for execution by the sword. After kneeling Anne repeated several times: “To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.”
The expert headsman, Jean Rombaud, dispatched Anne with a single stroke. No provisions had been made for a coffin or Anne’s burial, so a man working at the Tower placed her head and body in an empty arrow chest and she was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.