Today, The Tower of London is known as a must-see tourist destination in the UK capital, a place where you can see the Crown Jewels and maybe snap an epic photo of a raven with a castle in the background. But this ancient castle that is now known as a traveler’s mecca once served a variety of very different, both gruesome and entertaining purposes – from an impenetrable fortress and royal residence it was turned into a prison, and later into a zoo and even the Royal Mint.
As you can imagine, throughout its nearly 1,000 years of existence (it was founded in 1066), the Tower of London has accumulated quite a number of fascinating and chilling stories, as you may imagine. Below, we’ve retold 10 such gripping facts about this world-famous fortress that we hope you’ll enjoy learning about.
1. The Tower of London held several Famous prisoners within its grounds
At its very beginning, The Tower of London was to serve as the royal residence of William the Conqueror and become a symbol of the Norman king’s power over Londoners. The White Tower, the first part of the now huge fortress, was completed in 1078 and soon after, in 1100, the first prisoners started to be held in the castle.
And although it wasn’t its primary role throughout history, the fortress was used as a prison until 1952. In this time, many famous historical figures – queens, revolutionaries, and even major Nazi leaders – were kept there. Anne Boleyn was condemned to death by King Henry VIII, her husband, at the Tower of London. Other famous people like Sir Walter Raleigh, who was kept there for 13 years, had a more favorable prison stay – Raleigh had comfortable lodgings, servants, and even his family living with him in the Tower.
Other famous prisoners committed to the Tower of London include Guy Fawkes, the revolutionary who wanted to blow up the English parliament, and Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s second-in-command.
2. Someone has a set of spare keys to the fortress
On November 6, 2012, a man was caught trespassing the Tower of London in the early morning and he was then escorted from the premises of the fortress. The security services of the Tower later revealed that the keys from the tourist attraction and home of the crown jewels were stolen. As a result, some locks have been replaced immediately to prevent the intruder from entering the premises, but to this day, someone somewhere likely has the ring of keys that may still be able to unlock at least some of the rooms in the castle.
In the 13th century, the Tower of London earned a new profile as King John started collecting exotic animals from all around the world and created the royal menagerie. Ever since, kings and queens have held all the animals that they received as gifts from other monarchs at the Tower, and the place became an attraction where Londoners could see polar bears and captive lions, to name a few. The zoo remained active until the 1830s, and all the inhabitants were subsequently moved to the London Zoo.
To remember the castle’s legacy as the royal zoo, artist Kendra Haste created a sculpture of three lions to be displayed at the Tower of London. The sculpture is a nod to an archeological discovery made in 1936, during which 2 lion skulls from the Middle ages were found in the moat of the fortress. These were not ordinary lions either, but a variety of Barbary lions that have been extinct for over a century.
4. Beefeaters and their families actually live in the Tower
The Yeoman Warders have been protecting the Tower of London since 1485, as ordered by King Henry VII, although they have likely existed for much longer. These guardians are dressed in all red and very characteristic uniforms, and they are also known as Beefeaters because part of their salary consisted of chunks of beef up until the 1800s.
There are 37 Beefeaters, both men and women, living in the Tower today, and they give tours of the fortress. They are probably most famous for the 7-century-old tradition called the Ceremony of Keys, where they lock the Tower every night at precisely 9:53 PM. What most people don’t realize is that Beefeaters don’t just work at the Tower, though. Since the 13th century, they have been living in the fortress with their families, too. Today, there are about 150 people living in the Tower of London.
5. Only 40 people managed to escape from the Tower of London while it was a prison
The Tower is a real stronghold, complete with its own guards, sky-tall walls, and a moat surrounding it. Still, 40 prisoners somehow managed to flee the Tower of London, one escape every 20-30 years. The first person to ever break free from the fortress was one Bishop Ranulf Flambard, who somehow got the guards so drunk that he successfully managed to slip away using a rope in 1101.
Some of these escapes were even more impressive and featured writing letters with invisible ink, dressing up as nuns, and drugging the guards – so that’s where movie makers got the plots of pretty much every prison break movie imaginable!