"Hence with him to the Tower," declares King Edward in Shakespeare's ' Henry
VI', Part 3. The Bard's Elizabethan audiences knew exactly what that meant, and
all that it implied.
The 12-acre complex of buildings known as the Tower of London was not erected as a prison, nor were any formal jail facilities ever built in it. Yet since construction began about 1078, some 1,700 prisoners have been hurled into its basements, locked in its towers, or, for those of influence, opulently housed in its most comfortable rooms.
One day I leafed through the list of prisoners, drawn from the archives. For every Thomas More, Walter Raleigh, or Anne Boleyn there were hundreds of other unfortunates who passed through the gates to an ominous unknown. "1241: William de Marish. Conspiracy against Henry III. Locked in chains, then disemboweled and quartered"
"1441: Margery Jourdayn. Treason, witch-craft and sorcery. Burned...as a heretic".
"1302: Sir William de la Pole. Rebellion against Henry VII. ...held in the Tower, almost 38 years"
"1746: Lady Teresa Traquair... became a voluntary prisoner.... to be with her husband."
The Tower is today, and has always been, dominated by the original structure at its centre, the 90-foot-high White Tower begun as a palace stronghold by William the Conqueror. Some of its stones William had brought from Normandy.
The monument now draws some 2 million tourists each year. But few notice the long lines of private homes built against the inner face of the 13th-century outer wall. Here live most of the 41 yeoman warders, better known as beefeaters. Some say the nickname, coined in the 1670s, has to do with an early responsibility of testing the king's food to protect him from poisoning, It was during the reign of Edward VI, in 1550, that the Tower warders were made extraordinary members of the Yeomen of the Guard, an elite corps of 200 that served as his personal security force. In the ensuing centuries the yeoman warders have been bodyguards, Tower jailers, and, for the past 300 years or so, tour guides with a flair.
"National Geographic" No4, October 1993.