The Tower of London

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The Tower of London: A Landmark Alive With History

The Tower of London is one of the most famous and visited historic monuments in the world. For some people it conjures up images of Norman architecture and towering battlements, but most associate it with arms and armour, ravens, the Crown Jewels, Yeoman Warders, imprisonment, death and ghostly apparitions. But this does not do it justice: the history of the Tower and its buildings is a vast, fascinating and complex subject, intertwined with the history of the country of England, its government, its kings and queens, and its people and institutions. The castle's first four centuries, during the Middle Ages, saw the development of the layout of buildings that we know today and its peak as a great fortress and use as a royal residence. From the late 15th century onwards the Tower's role as a stronghold declined but the importance of the activities and institutions it fostered greatly increased. In modern times, the landmark has become not only a tourist museum but also a working example of lives and times gone past.

The history of the Tower of London begins in 1066, but the location was determined by buildings put up under the Romans, rulers of Britain from AD 43 to 410. During the second half of the 2nd century the future site of the castle was built over, as shown by the foundations of Roman buildings revealed beside and underneath William the Conqueror's White Tower. It was also in this century that some features of the city's modern street layout were first established including the route of Great Tower Street which was later to influence the sitting of the castle's early entrances. In about AD 200 the entire landward side of the city was enclosed by a massive defensive wall, part of which formed the fortress' eastern rampart up to the 1240s. In about AD 250 a wall was also built along the riverside, probably in response to the new threat of seaborne attack by the Saxons. The Roman armies withdrew from the city in AD 410 but their development and progress in London, and especially the walled defences they created determined the future setting of the Tower.

Nearly 700 years elapsed between the collapse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest, but little is known about London's history and the Tower's site in this period. The architectural record indicates that much of the walled city was then under cultivation, and that the main Saxon settlement was to the west of the Roman city, roughly on the site of the Strand. Nevertheless, there is evidence on and around the site of the Tower of London of the establishment of churches, one of which, St Peter ad Vincula, was eventually enclosed within the castle. The foundation of the Tower of London was a result of the conquest, in 1066, of the rich and powerful kingdom of England by the Normans, rulers of a small state in central northern France. The initial success was linked to their exceptional skills in war, inherited from their Viking ancestors, but their ability to conquer and hold the country can be attributed in part to their pioneering use of castles, of which the Tower was soon to become a supreme example. Once Duke William of Normandy had defeated the English army at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, he knew he must secure London, the kingdom's richest and most populous city. He proceeded to do so without much difficulty and soon after made plans to fortify London with various castles situated on the boundaries of the city in each direction. However, the supremacy of the castle on the Tower's site was soon to be confirmed by the building of the White Tower. The sitting of the castle took advantage of the ready-made defences provided by the Roman city walls and made the city's strength immediately obvious to ships coming up river. The White Tower, the structure that gave the Tower of London its name, was modelled directly after towers that had been constructed by the Normans in France....
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