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Mysteries of the Tower of London

This segment of the Tower of London walk takes visitors through Traitors’ Gate, the Medieval Palace and the Bloody Tower.

Traitors’ Gate

In pre-Tudor days, the Tower of London was used primarily as a royal palace and not yet as a full-time prison. At the time, the river came right up to the Tower wall where today there is a wharf. The Thames River was the city’s lifeblood and provided a busy thoroughfare for commerce and trade. The river entrance to the palace was called “Traders Gate” and acted as a sort of tradesman’s entrance where vendors could pull up in barges, sell their wares, then push off again and ferry to their next stop.

When the Tower’s purpose took a more sinister turn, the river entrance offered a way to sneak the monarch’s more controversial prisoners into the Tower away from public eye. Princess Elizabeth made a low-key entrance through this “Traitors’ Gate” at the age of twenty-one when her Catholic half-sister Queen Mary Tudor imprisoned her on suspicious of inciting a Protestant rebellion. Elizabeth vehemently protested her innocence and, although Queen Mary’s throne was not considered secure as long as Elizabeth was alive, Queen Mary did not order her execution. After Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth acceded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth I and reigned for nearly 45 years.

The Medieval Palace

Just beside Traitors’ Gate lies the entrance to the Medieval Palace, where modern visitors can get a vivid sense of life at the Tower during the 13th century. The Medieval Palace is the collective name used for the three towers of St. Thomas, Wakefield and Lanthorn, where King Henri III and his successors Edward I and II lived at various periods during the Middle Ages.

In medieval times, kings and their courts traveled frequently, sometimes at a moment’s notice. All furnishings and decorations required portability. Rooms themselves had to be adaptable, since each chamber held multiple functions throughout the day, serving in turn as a bedchamber, dining hall and a place of entertainment.

Edward I’s bedchamber has been painstakingly restored to its medieval splendor with richly colored furnishings, wall hangings and a magnificent four-poster bed all based on descriptions of the palace found in surviving documents and in archeological research. Costumed interpreters bring the Medieval Palace to life through various speeches and sketches.

The Wakefield Tower includes a throne room complete with a throne replicated from the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey as well as a small oratory (or prayer room), where Henry VI is thought to have been murdered while at prayer.

Did You Know? The Crown Jewels were displayed in the Medieval Palace from 1870 to 1967.

Bloody Tower

The Bloody Tower, formerly known by the more prosaic name of Garden Tower, enshrines in its walls the secrets of its many prisoners. Chief among its secrets is what happened to two young princes once imprisoned there.

At King Edward IV’s death in 1483, his 12-year-old son acceded to the throne as Edward V. But things went downhill for him after that. On his way to London, Edward was met by his uncle Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, who escorted him to the Tower of London where he was to be kept until his coronation. Edward was joined by his brother Richard, age 9, a few days later. Before Edward has a chance to be officially crowned, his uncle declared his brother Edward IV’s marriage to the young princes’ mother unlawful, making the boys illegitimate offspring and therefore ineligible for the throne. The Duke of Gloucester then declared himself king and reigned as Richard III.

The princes at the Tower were seen less and less frequently until they seemed to disappear altogether, never to be seen again. Foul play on the uncle’s part was suspected, as William Shakespeare depicts in his play Henry III, but nothing was ever proven. Fueling rumors that the boys were murdered was the discovery of two small skeletons, presumably of two boys around the princes’ ages, in the White Tower 200 years later. What really happened to the young princes remains one of the Tower’s darkest mysteries.

The Bloody Tower is also known as the place where the great poet and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years, accused of treason by King James. Despite his long imprisonment, Raleigh lived in considerable ease and comfort and managed to write his History of the World before his beheading in 1618.

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