The Tower of London is one of the world’s oldest and most famous prisons, though its original purpose was not to house criminals. In fact, the Tower, which is actually a complex of several towers and structures, was built in the latter part of the 11th century as fortress to protect London, the capital city of the British Empire. The Tower of London soon became notorious for its other, more brutal, uses.

The White Tower

Initial construction of the “White Tower,” the oldest structure in the Tower of London complex, started in 1078 and was completed in 1100, during the rule of King William II.

It was designed and built by Gundulf of Rochester, a Norman bishop who has been credited with overseeing the construction of a number of important sites in English history, including the Priory and Cathedral Church in his home city.

The White Tower was made from white limestone (hence its name) imported from Caen in northwestern France as well as a local building material called Kentish ragstone.

While designed as a battlement, the Tower of London soon found use as a prison. When King Henry I assumed the throne in 1100, following the assassination of his brother, William II, one of his first acts was to order the arrest of Rannulf Flambard, the Bishop of Durham.

Flambard was charged with the crime of simony, or the act of selling administrative positions in the church for money. He became the first prisoner held in the Tower of London, though he later escaped.

The Bell Tower and the Wardrobe Tower

Subsequent monarchs took steps to fortify and expand the complex. Construction of the Bell Tower commenced in 1190 and was completed in 1210. The bell at the top of the tower was rung to warn of emergencies, such as a fire or impending enemy attack.

The Wardrobe Tower was also commissioned in 1190 and completed in 1199. As the name indicates, the tower was used to hold the royal garments and the famous Crown Jewels of England.

Ten years after completion of the Bell Tower, King Henry III ordered construction of the Wakefield and Lanthorn towers, the latter being the Old English spelling of the present-day word “lantern.”

As the name suggests, a lantern was positioned at night at the top of the Lanthorn Tower to help guide ships entering the River Thames and the historic port of London.

The Beefeaters

Over the ensuing centuries, many towers as well as a protective wall were added to the Tower of London complex. In the late 1200s, for example, King Edward I ordered the construction of a mint in the complex, which remained in use until 1968.

Since 1485, security at the Tower of London complex has been maintained by a special order of guards known as the Yeomen Warders, commonly known as “the Beefeaters.”

The name of the Beefeaters is allegedly based on a comment from an Italian nobleman in the 17th century, who remarked that members of the security corps were given a large daily ration of beef.

Torture in the Tower of London

The Tower of London’s role as a prison evolved to make it the preferred incarceration site for anyone—even members of the royalty—deemed a threat to national security.

As cruel as the place was known to be, however, not all prisoners suffered terrible conditions. Wealthy inmates, for example, were allowed to live relatively luxuriously, with some even allowed to leave to go on hunting trips.

Scottish King John Balliol was able to bring his own servants, hunting dogs and wife with him when he was imprisoned for three years at the Tower until he was allowed to go to France, in exile, in 1299.

Although the site became notorious as a site of torture—most notably with the infamous device known as “the rack”—records suggest relatively few inmates were tortured. Torture was used as a means of compelling political prisoners to provide their captors with information, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries.

These prisoners were forced to lie down on the rack, with their hands and feet bound. Ropes attached to these bindings were slowly pulled to inflict pain.

Executions at the Tower

Torture may have been fairly rare, but executions were relatively common at the Tower of London. Scores of prisoners were executed at the site, by beheading, firing squad or hanging.

Writer and statesman Sir Thomas More was beheaded in the Tower after refusing to recognize King Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England in 1535. A year later, Henry VIII famously ordered the beheading of his wife, Anne Boleyn. In 1542, Henry VIII had his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, executed at the Tower of London as well.

Perhaps most notably, political prisoner Guy Fawkes was executed at the Tower in 1606. Fawkes was arrested for his role in a plot to blow up Parliament, after he was found guarding a cache of explosives and gunpowder in the basement of the legislature on November 5, 1605.

Guy Fawkes Night is still celebrated in much of the United Kingdom on that date, to commemorate the foiling of that plot and the survival of the British Empire.

In addition, King Edward VI was murdered at the Tower of London in 1471 during the War of the Roses civil war.

The Tower of London Today

The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction in the city since the late 19th century, but while Simon Fraser was the last person executed by beheading at the prison, in 1745, for his role in the Scottish Jacobite Rebellion, the facility retained its role in crime and punishment well into the 20th century.

Eleven German spies were executed at the Tower of London during World War I. Interestingly, although London suffered numerous attacks during that conflict, only one bomb was dropped on the Tower. It landed in the moat.

The facility wasn’t so fortunate during World War II. The Tower complex suffered significant damage during multiple bombings, with several buildings destroyed.

The Tower of London still fulfilled its role as a prison in that conflict, however, with Hitler’s second in command, Rudolf Hess, incarcerated there in 1941, after he was captured in Scotland.

Hess was later transferred to another prison. He was eventually tried at Nuremberg and given a life sentence. He died in 1987.

Another Nazi, German spy Josef Jakobs, was the last person executed at the Tower. He was shot in August 1941.


Prisoners of the Tower. Historic Royal Palaces.
King John Balliol of Scotland (1292-1296).
German spy Josef Jakobs was last man to be executed in Tower of London. The Daily Telegraph.