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The Tower of London, or to give it its official name Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress is located within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, separated from the City of London by an area known as Tower Hill. The oldest part of the complex is the White Tower, the building of which was started by William the Conqueror. Over the centuries the site has been expanded and developed, and has acted as a royal palace, a prison, a site of execution, a mint, an arsenal, home to a menagerie, and a jewel house. These days it still fills some of these roles, but what needs to be added to the list is its role as one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.

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The central Norman Keep, now known as the White Tower is the oldest part of the Tower of London complex. Construction is believed to have started in 1078 under the orders of William the Conqueror. The entrance is up one floor from ground level, and was and is now, accessed by climbing a removable staircase. In the south-east corner of the tower is a semi-circular protrusion which marks the position of the Chapel of St John the Evangelist. The chapel’s plain and unadorned interior is much like it would have been during Norman times.   

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The Bloody tower was originally named the Garden Tower. The change of name came about during the reign of Charles II when the remains of two children were found buried under a stairway in the tower. It was believed that these remains were those of the two little princes Edward V and his brother Richard Duke of York. They were being held in the tower under the orders of their late father’s brother, Richard Duke of York. It had long been suspected that they were murdered here by Richard in 1483. Later Richard Duke of York was crowned Richard III. So from 1571 the Garden Tower has been known as the Bloody Tower.

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The tower was once home to the Royal Menagerie. The practice of keeping animals here is reported date from the days of Henry III, when in 1251 documentation shows that the sheriffs were instructed to pay towards the upkeep of the King’s polar bear. In 1254, there was a similar instruction, this time to pay towards the building of an elephant house. The precise location of which is not known, although records do show that lions were housed in the barbican, which became known as the Lion Tower. It became fashionable for dignitaries to gift exotic animals to the monarch, and so the collection quickly grew. During the 18th century, the public was starting to be allowed in to view these exotic creatures, and an entry charge was introduced. By 1835 there were an estimated 280 animals in the menagerie. In 1835 the animals who remained in the tower were relocated to Regents Park, and eventually developed into the London Zoo. The Lion Tower was demolished in 1853.

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From the very beginning, The Tower of London has acted as an armoury. The object was to keep the armaments to hand if they were ever needed to protect king and country, but to also keep them out of the hands of others who may wish to use them for more sinister purposes, such as plots against the king. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Armoury had already become a tourist attraction where people on payment of an entrance fee could view the collection. Special displays were created to show the items off at their best, wooden dummies were introduced which included depictions of English kings mounted on their horses. These displays have now been re-created and are on view in the White Tower.

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The vast majority of the prisoners in the Tower of London who were sentenced to death, were executed on Tower Hill, which were very public affairs with vast crowds turning up to watch. Other executions were held within the walls of the fortress, as they were considered to be too politically sensitive to carry out in full public view, but even on these occasions spectators would be present and could number up to 200 or so. Executed on Tower Green, these victims were usually buried adjacent to Tower Green in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. Probably one of the most famous executions on the site was that of the Queen of England and second wife to Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn on May 19th 1536. Anne had been held here in the royal apartments after being arrested on charges of treason and adultery. Death by the axe, although much quicker than other methods used at the time, was still a terrifying prospect, as it often took several attempts before the head was finally severed from the body. For Anne, an executioner from France, who used a sword rather than an axe, was employed. So at least in Anne’s case death came relatively quickly.

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The Crown Jewels displayed at the tower are part of the royal Collection. At the centre of the display are those associated with the coronation of the monarch, and often referred to as the Royal Regalia, the oldest piece of which is the Anointing Spoon which dates back to the 12th century, and is used during the coronation when the monarch is anointed with holy oil. This and the three coronation swords of Temporal Justice, Spiritual Justice, and Mercy, are the only items to have survived when the then Royal Regalia was destroyed under the orders of Oliver Cromwell after the beheading of Charles I in 1649. The principle item of the Royal Regalia is St Edward’s Crown, which was used to crown Queen Elizabeth II on June 2nd 1953. Also on view is what is probably the most famous of the many crowns on display, the Imperial State Crown. This crown has been remodelled a number of times since the 17th century, with the last time being for Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI in 1937. The crown is set with over 3,000 gems, which were transferred from the previous Imperial Crown. The monarch traditionally wares this crown when leaving Westminster Abbey after the coronation, and at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament. Of all the wonderful gems on display, one of the most famous is the First Star of Africa which is set in the top of the Sovereign’s Sceptre. It is the largest flawless cut diamond in the world, and weighs in at 530 carats. This and the Second Star of Africa, which can also be seen as part of the Imperial Crown, were cut from the Cullinan Diamond, which at 3,000 carats is the largest diamond ever discovered.