Secrets of the White Tower

Actualizado: 19 de ene de 2019

16 September 2018

Working at the Tower of London is so inspiring. When you get there at 7am you have the whole place to yourself; no crowds at the entrance, no people at the doors, no one to ask you where the toilets are. I greet the Yeomen, the Wardens of the White Tower and the Crown Jewels. Even the ravens welcome me in, looking down at me from their favourite spots on the old Inmost Ward wall or the columns outside the exit of the Crown Jewels.

First day at the Tower of London, July 2017

My shop is located in the basement of the imposing structure of the White Tower. Visitors often mistake this room for the castle's torture chambers and dungeons and I totally understand why they assume this; after all, a room with no windows or natural light is where you would expect a prison cell to be!

When I first transferred to this shop last winter, customers came downstairs expecting to see all types of gruesome torture devices. I even had someone disappointed because they didn't see the "chopping board" (modern slang for the block and axe). It's actually now on the top floor by the way.

So I took it upon myself to find out everything possible about this amazing space, because there is indeed a lot more to it than the shop itself (which is amazing too by the way!) For instance, did you know that the Tower of London has the second oldest door in London? And yes, it is in the basement of the White Tower of London. It connects the East chamber with the Chapel sub-basement and you can still see today where the old hinges are were encased. Under Edward III, in 1346, the Riverside Wharf to the South of the tower was built and new doors were inserted into the building. The door dates between 1346 and 1350, and was fitted into an older Norman doorway.

This is the kind of information that you don't get from the tours, the audio guides or the guidebook. There is simply too much to put into them! But you know those guys in the galleries with the top hats and long coats? Instead of asking them where the nearest loo is, strike up a conversation with them and they will make your day! They are called wardens and they are like walking encyclopedias, ask them anything about everything and they will know. That's what I did, and reading the great publication on the White Tower by Edward Impey, this is everything I have discovered about this magnificent, forgotten room.

White Tower during the early stages of construction. Built within defences already standing in 1066.

Let's start with a brief introduction to the Tower of London; when William Duke of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he built a series of forts of such strength and quality that they still remain today, including the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. The construction of the first castle on the site of the Tower of London took place in 1066. It took the form of an earth and timber rampart closing off a small area in the corner of the city's roman walls; parts of these walls survive elsewhere in London, including a section just outside Tower Hill tube station. Remains can also be seen at the base of the Wardrobe Tower, right next to the White Tower. William seems to have built another castle in the equivalent position at the other (west) end of the city, in an area still known as Baynard's Castle.

In the 1070's, William began building the White Tower within his existing castle (see picture above), beginning, of course, with its foundations and basement. This makes the basement the oldest visible part of the building.

The basement is formed of three spaces; the West chamber, also known as the Black Hall, the East chamber, and the chapel basement, sitting just underneath the floors of St. John's Chapel on the second floor. As you come in from the galleries, you walk into what is the final display space where you can see cannons, guns and rifles. This is the East room, and most of those weapons you see have actually been stored there since 1916, when the whole tower was rearranged to accommodate the opening of basement to the public after World War I. It was also during this period that the "chopping board" was stored here, in an attempt to attract visitors to the Tower to witness the dungeons. No wonder there is a common misconception!

Inspection of the damages to the Tower. The floors and walls on the floor above were destroyed.

Many visitors bypass the commemorative plaque on the floor of this room. It's easy to miss if you're not looking for it because it's in between cannons, but it represents an important part of the history. In July 1974, a bomb was placed inside one of the gun barrels. Although this lessened the impact and avoided the whole Tower from collapsing on top of millions of people, the bomb still had enough force to destroy the windows and the ground of the top floor. It also killed a visitor, Dorothy Household, and severely injured others.

Arrangement of the basement in 1754 for storage, by Peter Campbell

But what was the basement actually used for then? There is no short answer to this so I will break it down:

- Storage: between 1320 and 1400, the West Room was a repository for records about Gascony and the wars with France. Then, from 1715-1719, the basement stored saltpeter and gunpowder that was imported into the Tower by the East India Company. The ceilings were vaulted later, between 1732-7, to create a more secure space.

Sir Benjamin Stone, 'Little Ease', torture cell beneath the White Tower 1898

- Imprisonment: you will be pleased to know that yes, the basement did house prisoners, the most famous of them being Guy Fawkes for helping hatch the Gunpowder Plot. He was allegedly kept in a cell that was too small to lie down or sit up in. There was a type of torture that used a cell like this to cause the prisoner constant suffering. If you speak to the wardens that patrol that room, they will point out the space in which it is thought Guy Fawkes's cell was.

There is another account in the book by Impey on a prisoner addressed as "Matthew of the Exchequer", who was held in the Black Hall in 1295. He had been previously imprisoned at Fleet Prison but after his unsuccessful escape, he was transferred to the Tower of London under orders of the Bishop of Bath. I did some more research on prisoners matching these details and I believe his full name was Matthew II Redmayne, Lord of Levens.

The last account of imprisonment took place in the sub-basement, which is today closed to the public. Under the reign of Edward I, there were a series persecutions of Jews. Old records of the White Tower state that 600 Jews were accused of coin clipping kept in this room for 140 days. Today, the room is quite a disappointment considering it is closed up on all four sides and only a small square of a space remains. However, on each wall there is evidence of an entrance space that has been walled up. In 1834, the Board of Ordnance approved the project of building a railway between the Wharf and the White Tower to ease transport of stores from Water Lane Storehouse into the basement.

The Tower of London in 1939.

- World Wars: there were plans to open up the basement to the public in 1910 as dungeons and torture chambers to make them more appealing. However, due to the outbreak of World War I, the Tower served its military purpose and used to store the most valuable items of the Armouries. It finally opened in 1916, when the collection was transferred to Brass Mount and the collections rearranged to display guns, firearms and cannons, records of personal effects of historic figures owned by the armories, and of course, the bock and axe.

In World War II, the Tower was completely closed off visitors and rearranged to accommodate soldiers; there was a canteen, a badminton court, a theatre and even a library on the first and second floors. The basement was furnished with bunk beds for the soldiers to sleep in.

The main issue with the basement is that you bypass all the most important parts of it because after taking what feels like all the stairs in the world, you are just aching to get out. I know it, I here you say it when you make it to the shop with things like "Oh great, more stairs for the exit." or "Oh great, a gift shop". So let me make this particular room even more interesting. When you visit the Tower, on your way out, ask one of the wardens to show you the hidden graffitis by lift. It is not known who was kept there, but luckily there is a date on one of them; 1667.

My next mission? Keep searching, and encourage you to visit and pop in to tell me how much you loved the place. I know you will!

Accessibility information:

  • There is an accessible lift that will take you to the basement floor of the White Tower. If you have mobility issues, please refer to a staff member to help you operate the lift. Note: Due to the nature of the building, the lift does not go to the top of the White Tower.

  • The floor in the basement gallery has smooth, wooden floors and the shop has stone floors with slight level changes, but both are easy to navigate.

  • The learning panels of the basement gallery are all available in Standard English Braille (SEB) code.

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