Overlooking the River Thames, the Tower of London is one of the capital’s most unique and popular tourist attractions. Speak Up talked to John Paul Davis, historian and author, about the Tower’s remarkable history. Davis begins with a quote by John Stow, an antiquarian from the Elizabethan era

John Paul Davis (English accent): Stow wrote of the Tower, “The Tower is a citadel to defend or command the city, a royal palace for assemblies or treaties, a prison of state for the most dangerous offenders, the only place of coinage for all England at this time, the armoury for war provision, the treasury of the ornaments and jewels of the crown, and general conserver of most records of the King’s Court of Justice of Westminster.” Now, I don’t know about you [but] I can’t think of another place on the planet that has so many of these purposes wrapped into one.


With such a long history, it is inevitable that there are myths and legends surrounding the Tower of London. The Norman architect responsible for its construction also built another massive fortress further east at Colchester in Essex. In the 20th century, a well-known British author appears to have used these connections in his writing, says Davis. 

John Paul Davis: The stonework happened under a guy called Gundulf of Caen who was a Bishop. And he had also been made the Bishop of Rochester. And he also did the castle at Colchester. And as I mentioned in the book, there’s a legend that J. R. R. Tolkien had a massive interest in Gundulf, and named the wizard after him. And apparently these two towers, the White Tower, the Tower of London, and the keep of Colchester, are the so-called... the Two Towers. So if you’re into the The Lord of the Rings, then that might mean something.


Many visitors to the Tower of London recognise it as a historic place of imprisonment and punishment for high-profile prisoners: political opponents, religious evangelists or prominent criminals. Although living in different times and committing different crimes, the prisoners usually shared one thing: a sense of dread as they approached the Tower! This was understandable, as few would ever see the outside world again, says Davis.

John Paul Davis: It’s around eight thousand prisoners in its history, which is actually only an average of three or four a year over the course of its history, but they tended to be important ones. We had Guy Fawkes, of course. We had Rudolf Hess. We had pretenders to the crown. We had the Poor Princes in the Tower. So a real collection of very, very glamorous and interesting, and at times incredibly deceitful, characters. 


The Tower of London is a world-famous tourist attraction. But what, we asked Davis, does the Tower of London symbolise for the millions of visitors who come here, and particularly for Londoners and the English? 

John Paul Davis: There is something about the whole saying, “An Englishman’s home is his castle” sort of thing. It is a strange one, because if you go up somewhere like the Shard now, and look down at the Tower, it actually looks pretty puny by comparison. But of course that wouldn’t have been the case at the time. But if you look at the Tower, say from one of the nearby bridges, such as Tower Bridge or one of the other ones, along... or even just walk along from somewhere like Wapping or Tower Hamlets to the Bank, or perhaps look at it from the side of the river, it’s still pretty imposing. And the White Tower is still at the heart of that.