The Tower of London: 1000 years of resilience and strength (part 1)

Part 1: famine and fires at the Tower of London

In this difficult time many of us are taking great comfort in the example of normal people showing extraordinary compassion for the good of their communities. Everyday our homes are made brighter by the courage and kindness of our NHS staff, bus drivers, shop keepers, council workers, couriers and many more besides. All of whom put the needs of their neighbours above their own. This is certainly not the first time we have faced a crisis, and sometimes it can be instructive to look to our forbearers for inspiration. The Tower of London has witnessed some of our nation’s most testing moments and is a symbol of our collective resilience. Over the next two blogs we will explore some of these trials, and the small but important part the Tower and its people played in tackling them. We begin our story in the Middle Ages…

1066 and all that…

When William the Conqueror first built the Tower of London following his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, the people of London were far from enthusiastic about the latest addition to their skyline. The great symbol of Norman power was intended to impress and intimidate the City of London, as much as it was foreign invaders. However, over time the Londoners got used to and (albeit slowly) even began to love their imposing neighbour. The Tower has performed many functions throughout its history being a palace, a prison, a fortress, and even housing the Royal Menagerie. These multiple functions required a steady programme of building as the Castle was gradually improved, adapted and expanded. One of the great building periods happened under King Henry III, who is better known for his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Henry was not a great politician, but he was a pious king  famous for his devotion to Saint Edward the Confessor and his attention to the poor. Henry’s charity was known far and wide and even the Saint King Louis IX of France was impressed by his example. In one famous quote King Louis reprimanded his advisor John of Joinville for not washing the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday saying:

“You would be very unwilling to follow the example of the King of England, who washes the feet of lepers, and kisses them”

Some of Henry’s famous charity was centred at the Tower of London. For example, in the Spring of 1261 England was suffering political unrest and a terrible bout of famine, made worse by three successive years of poor harvest. In response Henry III ordered over 37,000 loaves of ‘good and fine’ bread, to be delivered to the Tower just before Easter, for distribution to the poor.  While Henry may have been hoping for some political credit in addition to spiritual reward, this charity must have offered some welcome relief to the poor and hungry in the city.

Henry III by Iain McIntosh ©Historic Royal Palaces

The Tower of London continued to protect its neighbours in times of need for many centuries to come. In the 18th century the offices based at the Tower paid a yearly contribution to help the poor inhabitants of the Tower Liberty – the area inside and immediately outside the castle walls.  This seems not to have been formalised until 1729, when it was agreed that the Tower would annually contribute £70. This cost was shared out amongst the Tower’s various institutions, with the Garrison paying over £10, the Ordnance £42 and the Mint £17. From that moment on the poor relief of the Tower Liberty would depend on the Tower and its people.

The Great Fire of London

Throughout the medieval and early modern period London suffered from numerous terrible fires, made worse by the tightly packed, poorly built and largely timber-framed structures of the city. The most famous of these was The Great Fire of London, which swept through its streets between 2 and 6 September 1666. The fire famously started in the king’s bakery in Pudding Lane near London Bridge, and soon got out of control. By the time it was put out it had decimated four-fifths of the city, including over 13,200 houses and Old St Pauls Cathedral. During this tragedy the Tower served the City in several important ways. Firstly, it opened its gates to the numerous homeless and injured people who has been made destitute by the disaster. The Tower also served as a secure storehouse for its neighbours’ valuables, including money and treasure belonging to the Goldsmith’s Guild, said to be worth over one million pounds.

The Great Fire of London, c. 1675, The Great Fire of London Showing the Tower of London on the right © Museum of London, Public domain

Critically, the Tower of London played a crucial part in preventing the further spread of the fire. The tactic employed, as commanded by King Charles II himself, was to take down the houses in the path of the fire preventing it from spreading. This was initially done by pulling them down manually with hooked poles, but the fire moved too quickly for this to be effective. What they needed was gunpowder to blow up the houses more quickly, creating gaps big enough to prevent the spread. Fortunately, the Tower’s munition stores were full of it. The action saved the Tower and many of its neighbouring East London parishes, such as St Botolph’s Aldgate. While the fire continued to rage in other parts of the city, more and more affected and dispossessed citizens sought refuge inside the fortress. In the aftermath of the fire, Yeoman Warders and other inhabitants of the Tower went out to the City to offer help. In the end the fire was tackled only by the incredible team effort of the people of London, helped by soldiers, sailors, and even the king himself. Charles II reportedly was seen by several observers covered in soot, passing buckets of water to fireman and liberally handing out gold coins in reward. The diarist John Evelyn wrote:

“How extraordinary the vigilance and activity of the king and duke was, ever labouring in person, and being present to command, order, reward and encourage workmen, by which he showed his affection to his people and gained theirs.”

King Charles II, unknown artist, circa 1665 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It was in the aftermath of the Great Fire that the first Fire Brigades were established, as many concluded that quicker response could have prevented the mass destruction that followed. The Tower of London reacted too and began to equip itself to tackle future blazes. On several occasions the quick actions of the Tower protected their neighbours and their livelihoods. At 11pm on 7 January 1734, Colonel Adam Wiliamson, the Deputy Governor of the Tower, sent out two fire engines to tackle a serious blaze at some wooden buildings opposite the east Wharf Gate. The fire engines were provided by Colonel Armstrong, the Surveyor of the Ordnance, and accompanied by thirty men with two buckets each, and another thirty to help with crowd control. These efforts helped to extinguish the fire promptly and only two poultry houses were lost. Another major disaster was prevented by the Tower garrison on 25 October 1738, when a fire broke out at 1am in the warehouses of the Custom House, which stood to the west of the Tower. Over 200 men were sent out to fight the fire that had already consumed about sixty feet of buildings both in Thames Street and on the Quays. These efforts were greatly appreciated, and the Lord Mayor and the Secretary at War gifted the soldiers five guineas for their drink, while the Commissioners of the Customs sent a further ten guineas. Fifteen guineas equated to nearly half a year’s wages for a skilled labourer at the time, so we can imagine it was rather appreciated and funded quite a celebration.

Next time…

This week we have seen how the Tower of London made the transition from an imposing symbol of royal authority to an essential and valued part of city life. In the next blog we will race forward over 150 years and learn how the Tower’s communities came together with their neighbours to stand against the greatest challenges of the 20th century.

The Curators
Historic Royal Palaces

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