Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tower of London

Situated along the north bank of the Thames in the eastern edge of the city center, the Tower of London served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, and an astronomical observatory. The White Tower (reopened in 1999) holds the Armouries, which date from the reign of Henry VIII, as well as a display of instruments of torture and execution that recall some of the most ghastly moments in the Tower's history.

The Tower is a compound of structures built mostly as expressions of royal power. The oldest is the White Tower, begun by William the Conqueror in 1078 to keep London's native Saxon population in check. Later rulers added other towers, walls and fortified gates, until the buildings became like a small town within a city. Until the reign of James I (beginning in 1603), the Tower was also one of the royal residences. But above all, it was a prison for distinguished captives, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Devereux, two wives of Henry VIII (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) Sir Thomas More, and the 9-day queen (Lady Jane Grey), all of whom spent their last days on earth imprisoned here.

In the Jewel House are the Tower's greatest attraction, the Crown Jewels – some of the world's most precious stones set into robes, swords, scepters, and crowns. The Imperial State Crown is the most famous crown on earth; made for Queen Victoria in 1837, it's worn today by Queen Elizabeth II when she opens Parliament. Studded with some 3,000 jewels, it includes the Black Prince's Ruby, worn by Henry V at Agincourt. The 530-carat Star of Africa, a cut diamond on the Royal Sceptre with Cross, is breathtaking. You'll stand in long lines to catch a glimpse of the jewels as you and hundreds of others scroll by on moving sidewalks.

An ancient palace inhabited by King Edward I in the late 1200s stands above Traitors' Gate; it's the only surviving medieval palace in Britain. Guides at the palace are dressed in period costumes, and reproductions of furniture and fittings, including Edward's throne, evoke the era, along with burning incense and candles.

One-hour guided tours of the entire compound are given by the Yeoman Warders (also known as "Beefeaters") every half-hour, from the Middle Tower near the main entrance. The last guided walk starts about 3:30pm in summer.

Adjacent to the Tower complex is Tower Bridge (separate admission), one of the world's most celebrated landmarks. Despite its medieval appearance, Tower Bridge was built in 1894. An exhibition inside the bridge commemorates its century-old history; a tour takes you up the north tower to high walkways between the two towers with spectacular views of St. Paul's, the Tower of London, and the Houses of Parliament. You're then led down the south tower and into the bridge's original engine room, containing the Victorian boilers and steam engines that used to raise and lower the bridge for ships to pass. Multimedia exhibits in the towers illustrate the history of the bridge.

Tip: the worst crowds at the Tower of London are on Sundays. Early morning on a weekday is your best bet. Don’t miss the six ravens!

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