The history of the Tower of London

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The reigns of the Tudor kings and queens were comparatively stable in terms of civil disorder. However, from the 1530s onwards the unrest caused by the Reformation (when Henry VIII broke with the Church in Rome) gave the Tower an expanded role as the home for a large number of religious and political prisoners.

The first important Tudor prisoners were Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher of Rochester, both of whom were executed in 1535 for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the English Church. They were soon followed by a still more famous prisoner and victim, the Kings second wife Anne Boleyn, executed along with her brother and four others a little under a year later. July 1540 saw the execution of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and former Chief Minister of the King - in which capacity he had modernised the Towers defences and, ironically enough, sent many others to their deaths on the same spot. Two years later, Catherine Howard, the second of Henry VIIIs six wives to be beheaded, met her death outside the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula which Henry had rebuilt a few years before.

The reign of Edward VI (1547-53) saw no end to the political executions which had begun in his fathers reign; the young Kings protector the Duke of Somerset and his confederates met their death at the Tower in 1552, falsely accused of treason. During Edwards reign the English Church became more Protestant, but the Kings early death in 1553 left the country with a Catholic heir, Mary I (1553-8). During her brief reign many important Protestants and political rivals were either imprisoned or executed at the Tower. The most famous victim was Lady Jane Grey, and the most famous prisoner the Queens sister Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I). Religious controversy did not end with Marys death in 1558; Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) spent much of her reign warding off the threat from Catholic Europe, and important recusants (people who refused to attend Church of England services) and others who might have opposed her rule were locked up in the Tower. Never had it been so full of prisoners, or such illustrious ones: bishops, archbishops, knights, barons, earls and dukes all spent months and some of them years languishing in the towers of the Tower of London.

Little was done to the Towers defences in these years. The Royal Mint was modified and extended, new storehouses were built for royal military supplies. In the reign of James I (1603-25) the Lieutenants house - built in the 1540s and today called the Queens House - was extended and modified; the kings lions were rehoused in better dens made for them in the west gate barbican.

The Restoration and After: The Tower and the Office of Ordnance

After a long period of peace at home, the reign of Charles I saw civil war break out again in 1642, between King and Parliament. As during the Wars of the Roses and previous conflicts, the Tower was recognised as one of the most important of the Kings assets. Londoners, in particular, were frightened that the Tower would be used by him to dominate the City. In 1643, after a political rather than a military struggle, control of the Tower was seized from the King by the parliamentarians and remained in their hands throughout the Civil War (1642-9). The loss of the Tower, and of London as a whole, was a crucial factor in the defeat of Charles I by Parliament. It was during this period that a permanent garrison was installed in the Tower for the first time, by Oliver Cromwell, soon to be Lord Protector but then a prominent parliamentary commander.

Todays small military guard, seen outside the Queens House and the Waterloo Barracks, is an echo of Cromwells innovation.

: 19/12/2009