The Living Tower of London


National Geographic Magazine November 1993



Through a cross-shaped arrow slit the river Thames was barely visible, obscured by gathering darkness in the Tower of London’s low outer wall.

I balanced uncomfortably on a rough-hewn ledge in a star-shaped stone chamber. Ten paces across the room was a solid wooden door, without even the tiny window I had expected in a medieval prison cell. Of course, I was free to open that door and leave the cell at anytime. But I had decided to spend the night, to get a sense of what it was like to be imprisoned here, confined by stone walls and he chased by an inescapable chill.

That was how it was for Sir Thomas More. He lived in this room for most of the 15 months he spent in the Tower, refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the church in England.

“I am dying already,” he wrote more six months before his death. Then, on July 6, 1535, he walked to the executioner’s block.

As I watched the shadows lengthen inside More’s cell, the vaulted ceiling disappeared into darkness. I moved from one arrow slit to another. The night air swirled with sounds of humanity–the Tower has some 50 families living in it still–but my cell’s tiny openings, some 20 feet above the ground, hid all signs of life from view.

I heard a woman talking about supper arrangements. At the main gate, just below, friends laughed and said goodbye. At regular intervals, the click of a sentry’s boots past, first in one direction, then in the other.

Minutes before 10 p.m., I heard the sentry shout his challenge to the chief yeoman warder, who had just locked the gates in the nightly 700 year old Ceremony of the Keys.  “Halt! Who comes there?” was the muffled cry. “The keys.” “Whose keys?” “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”

How often More and other prisoners of the Crown must have heard those jangling keys and dreamed of freedom. By my only source of light, a dim sliver squeezing through an arrow slit from a sentry post lantern, I read from his Dialogue of Comfort, written within these walls, of his “joyful meditation of a eternal life in Heaven that we shall win with this short temporal death.”

I brought along to blankets. I threw one on the floor, lay down, and wondered if More ever looked forward to another morning in the tower. I pulled the blanket to my chin and made a pillow of a jacket. On the ceiling, the shaft of light through the arrow slit projected a perfect cross.

My sleep was dreamless, as if within these walls all dreams have been used up long ago.

The Caesars were here first. At the southeast corner of the old wall that surrounded the Roman city of Londinium, William the Conqueror began work on his great fortress in 1078. Ninety feet high with walls 15 feet thick at the base, the central tower was virtually impregnable. At its heart William built a magnificent Norman chapel dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, its walls crafted with stones shipped from France.

  Like growth rings on a tree, the Tower of London grew concentrically around the White Tower. Richard I's first curtain wall pressed flush against the river. Just a few decades later, Edward I erected the outer wall, filling in the Thames shoreline.

  A broad moat was dug on three sides, with the bright idea of having the swift Thames tides flush it out twice a day. Someone flubbed the design, though, and the Tower moat soon became a stagnant cesspool. Subsequent attempts at redesign didn't help much, and the moat was finally filled in during the early 1800s.

  The Tower of London we see today is essentially the same as it stood 700 years ago. But more than the bricks and mortar survive; the people who live within its walls preserve traditions and functions that date into the Middle Ages. 

“Hence with him to the Tower,” declares King Edward in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3. The Bard’s Elizabethan audiences knew exactly what that meant, and all that it implied. 

The 12-acre complex of buildings known as the Tower of London has never had any prison facilities built in it. Yet some 1,700 prisoners have been hurled into its basements, locked in its towers, or, for those of influence, opulently housed in its most comfortable rooms. 

At the height of its role as palace, barracks, prison, and mint, some 1,500 people lived behind the Tower walls at once. 

  It was in the 150 years following the 1480s that the Tower earned its reputation as a political prison. During these dark years a melancholy list prisoners entered its gates en route to execution on Tower Green: Anne Boleyn, who failed to give Henry VIII a son; The Countess of Salisbury whose only crime was to give birth to one of Henry's enemies; Teenaged Lady Jane Gray, perhaps the most pitiful victim of the Tower, who was Queen for ten days before her cousin Mary removed Jane's crown and head.

  Some 112 other Tower prisoners—among them Oliver Cromwell, Thomas More, and Walter Raleigh—met their ends on nearby Tower hill, where executions were a gruesome spectator sport. At the beheading of Lord Lovatt in 1747, a grandstand collapsed under the weight of one thousand spectators.

One day I leafed through the list of prisoners, drawn from the archives. For every Thomas More, Walter Raleigh, or Anne Boleyn there were hundreds of other unfortunates who passed through the gates to an ominous unknown. 

“1241: Wiliam de Marish. Conspiracy against Henry III. Locked in chains, then disemboweled and quartered.”

“1441: Margery Jourdayn. Treason, witchcraft and sorcery. Burned as a heretic.”

“1502: Sir William de la Pole. Rebellion against Henry VII Held in the Tower almost 38 years.”

“1746: Lady Teresa Traquair. Became a voluntary prisoner to be with her husband.”

  Today, the Tower's sole official function is as repository of the Crown Jewels. Arms-toting Army regulars are charged with protecting the treasure, while the splendidly dressed yeoman warders defend the Tower's equally precious heritage.

Gray on gray, the Tower of London etched itself into a midnight sky, swathing itself in a rising Thames mist. Alone at its ancient Middle Tower entrance, Karen McGrath watched a friend's sports car hum off into the darkness.

  A small door cut from the great wooden gate swung open. She bent forward to step through the portal, a stance that in earlier times would have rendered her back and neck vulnerable to attack from guards inside.

  Along a cobbled street she walked toward home, her echoing steps volleying between the tall stone walls on either side. At her left was the Bell Tower. To her right; St. Thomas’ Tower, remnant of a king's royal palace. A left turn, and she passed under the Bloody Tower, prison home of Walter Raleigh and dying ground for two young princes.

  As she neared the top of a long staircase,  William the Conqueror's great White Tower to her right, she turned to cross Tower Green, where three queens were beheaded.

  "Password," came a man's voice. 

  Karen turned, startled. A soldier in green camouflage fatigues, carrying a submachine gun, waited expectantly. For Tower residents it’s not an infrequent encounter, but it’s always unnerving nevertheless.

"I think the password is the oddest part of living here," Karen, 21, told me as we sipped tea in the dining room of her family's home on Tower Green. "The first few times they asked me, I didn't actually speak. I just stood there with my mouth open. But even now, if you're very tired when you come home, you might forget the password. Then you have to go back to the gate and start all over again."

  Karen, her mother, and two brothers live with her father, Dr. John McGrath, the Tower physician. Tradition holds that his predecessors were responsible for resuscitating torture victims. That may be fact, it may be fable. Both are hopelessly intertwined in the lives of the 150 people who live in the Tower of London.

  Of the 2.5 million tourists who visit the Tower every year, few take notice of the long lines of private homes carved out of the 13th Century outer wall. These are the residences of most of the Tower's 41 yeoman warders, better known as beefeaters. Some say the nickname, coined in the 1670s, has o do with an early responsibility of testing the king’s food to protect him from poisoning.

The residential areas are strictly off-limits to visitors. But some homes, like those of the Tower's governor and his two deputies, stand directly on the Tower's bustling central ward.

  "I'll never forget finding two very confused looking Canadian women in my front hall one afternoon," recalls Deputy Governor David Anderson. "They thought our home was part of the tour.

  "My wife and I were surprised, but we did the civil thing: We asked them to tea." 

  Still other homes are tucked in every imaginable spare space within the tower; above museum areas, in a 19th Century barracks, even on the upper level of the moat's Byward Tower. 

  It is at night, after the daily crunch of visitors has departed, that the Tower truly comes alive. One by one the warders and their families reclaim it, walking their dogs, hitting golf balls or playing tennis in the moat, perhaps bending an elbow at the Yeoman Warder's Club. The monument by day reverts to a village by night, in a pattern that has sustained itself for 900 years.


  Chief Yeoman Warder Norman Jackson barely looked up from his desk as the Tower's petite public information officer Manda Sivyer informed him I was intent on chatting with his staff and their families. 

  He fixed on Manda a glare that seemed to melt her into the flagstone floor.

  "Well, then," said Jackson. "I suppose that's going to be up to the men, now, isn't it? I can't very well order my men to talk to anybody, now, can I?" 

  There followed a silence that seemed longer than the Hundred Years War.

  "You know how she got this job, don't you," Jackson intoned, never taking his eyes off Manda. "She's the only person short enough to go up the stairs to her office without smashing her head against the overhang. That is her sole qualification."

  He smiled. A little. Manda started to breathe again. Jackson shook my hand, and, yes, I understood perfectly who was in charge here.

   "The Chief" to his fellow beefeaters, Jackson oversees the day-to-day duties of the men. He also represents their interests before Historic Royal Palaces, the agency that holds the Tower's purse strings.

  Jackson's concerns—longer opening hours are a particularly touchy issue these days—echo those of any labor representative. But his constituents are anything but common. It was Henry VII who in the late 1400s created the Yeomen of the Guard, an elite corps of some 200. Jackson's position is a direct descendant of Henry's Gentleman Porter, who kept the gates and organized guard duties.


One rainy afternoon Jackson and I met for lunch just upriver from the Tower, at the Tower Thistle Hotel. 

“You never really forget your living in the Tower of London,” said Jackson, looking very un Beefeater–like in a jacket and tie as he shared his umbrella.   

“The accommodations are comfortable, but not large by any means,” said Jackson. He held me back as, like countless London’s visitors, I looked the wrong way before crossing the street. 

From a restaurant window, Jackson fixed a steely gaze at storm clouds rushing over the Victorian fantasy of Tower Bridge. Trouble days lay ahead for his men, he said. There were rumblings about cutbacks, for one thing. 

I wondered what Edward VI I would have thought. It was during his reign, in 1550, that the Tower warders were made Extraordinary Members of the Yeomen of the Guard, an elite core of 200 that served as his personal security force.

By the 1600s, the guard's reputation had slipped to the point where a disgusted Tower governor complained of their tendency "to drunkenness and disorder." Two hundred years later the Duke of Wellington, as Constable of the Tower, did something about the situation.

  "He felt the Tower had fallen into disrepute," said Jackson. "He decreed that all Yeoman Warders must be retired Army warrant officers or senior noncommissioned officers with at least 22 years of service, and a Long Service Good Conduct Medal."

Jackson and his wife Beryl have lived in a cozy two-story home in the Tower's outer wall since they arrived in 1977.

"When I had my interview, they practically insisted that I bring Beryl along,” he said. “The lady needs to know what she's facing, rather than have it come as a nasty surprise, as has sometimes happened in the past."

I hesitated to ask the obvious question: When will a prospective yeoman warder arrive at the Tower with her husband in tow? Jackson was remarkably matter-of-fact.


"There's nothing to bar a woman," he said, "so long as she's got good damn strong voice that can be heard by 200 people at once.  But I can honestly say that no woman has ever applied for the job.

  "When she does, I suppose we'll have to make some alterations to the uniform."

On Tower Green, the Tower of London’s tree-shaded Village Square, I watched a beefeater recite the listing of those who lost their heads on that tranquil plot of ground. Standing above his listeners on a black wooden block, he embodied the mixture of pride and pain the British draw from their history.

The first official execution on the spot was an informal affair. At an otherwise routine meeting in the White Tower one day in 1483 the future King Richard III declared Lord Hastings a traitor, ordering him dragged outside and his head cut off on a log. Hastings was buried beneath the floor of the Towers church St. Peter ad Vincula. Over the next century and a half his bones would mingle with those of other enemies of the Crown.

Sitting alone in the back row of the chapel, I envisioned the grim post-execution routine, the wooden doors swinging open and workmen clanging in with their spades, dragging the decapitated body by the heels. (the heads were usually displayed on London bridge.) A large floor stone or two was raised, a hole dug. Some quicklime to hasten decomposition, a bit of refilling, and the stones were replaced. After a few centuries of this, the floor was so jumbled that a complete restoration was ordered by Queen Victoria.

Henry VIII, king from 15 092-1547, was responsible for many of those burials. The 1533 coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn was occasion for one of the towers first gun salutes; three years later she was the first reigning queen to be executed inside the tower. Adultery was the charge, failure to give Henry a son the reason.

Anne’s last request was to be dispatched with a sword, rather than an ax. Doubtless she knew the ax was a messy method. Henry granted her wish and sent to France for a swordsman. She was pleased with the choice.

“I have heard say the executioner was very good,” she told a friend. With a hearty laugh and she added, ”And I have a little neck.”

Sir Walter Raleigh eventually lost his head; still, he must be considered one of the Tower’s great survivors. A swaggering and a popular nobleman, Raleigh was also a shameless self-promoter who made his share of enemies. Despite flimsy evidence, he was implicated in a plot to overthrow King James I in 1603. Sentenced to death, Raleigh was instead jailed indefinitely.

“In that tower… I have suffered so much adversity,” he declared at the end of his life, though by sheer audacity he spent many of his 13 years there living in relative luxury. He arranged to have an additional floor inserted in his Bloody Tower quarters and brought in his wife and son. He grew tobacco in his garden and turned a hen house into a chemical laboratory. In his spare time he wrote his History of the World.

Raleigh himself became one of London’s chief tourist attractions. At the same hour each day, crowds gathered at the riverfront to see the prisoner, in black velvet coat and lace cap, stride a walltop terrace known today as Raleigh’s Walk.

I walked that’s terrace one sunny afternoon. To the north west I could make out the bank and insurance buildings that power the pulse of today’s London, towers of glass and steel where modern Raleighs wheel and deal in executive suites.

Raleigh’s luck seemed to turn in 1616, when he persuaded James to look beyond his rancor and let him head an expedition to South America in search of gold. But when Raleigh returned empty-handed, James threw him back into the Tower and reinstated his death sentence. When his time finally came, Raleigh was aged and sick. As he approached the executioner’s block, a flash of his old with returned: “This is a sharp medicine,” he said, examining the blade, “but it is a short cure for all diseases.”

  At the heart of the Tower is Tower Green, perhaps the loveliest and most horrific plot of ground in England. Overlooking the spot where seven victims, including three queens, met death stands the Queen's House, built by Henry VII. I pushed open the front door (like most Tower homes, it has no lock) to meet the current resident, Major General Christopher A. Tyler, Governor General of Her Majesty's Fortress the Tower of London.

  "Please, call me Christopher," said the Governor, welcoming me into his office. Outside a wide window, river buses plied the Thames. Hanging on one wall was the ceremonial axe carried in processions by the Tower's jailer—they spell it gaoler. When yeoman warders were responsible for prisoners, the gaoler carried that axe alongside an accused returning to the Tower from the Westminster court. If the blade faced the prisoner, he'd been condemned to be executed.

  Upstairs, in rooms where centuries of history have been played out, Tyler and his wife Joan continue a tradition of governor's residency that can be traced back to William the Conqueror. 

  "I have the shortest commute in London, I suppose," said the Governor, in appearance a young Gregory Peck. He retired from the Army three years ago to take this, his final military post.

  Tyler takes pleasure in recounting how, in the early days of his tenure, he turned down director Franco Zeffirelli, who wanted to film Hamlet there.

  "It was the best thing I ever did," he beamed. "Because now, whenever anyone calls wanting to do a film or something that doesn't seem quite right, I can say no, and then I add, 'You know, I turned down Zeffirelli, too.' They usually don't argue after that."

  I had come with my own list of things I wanted to see, pictures to take, people to talk with. Only one request was denied: I could not see the chair in which the Tower's last victim of execution died.

  "I don't really like to be difficult about it," said the Major in a polite tone that declared "over my dead body."

  The execution in question took place just over 50 years ago, during World War II.  Josef Jakobs, a sergeant in the German Army, was captured after he parachuted into England in early 1941, breaking an ankle as he landed. Under his flying outfit he wore a pinstriped suit. 

  A court martial found him guilty of spying. On a pistol range where today yeoman warders park their cars, he was seated in a chair (because of his injured ankle) and shot to death by an Army firing squad. The chair, reportedly a brown Windsor type with its rear supporting rails blown away, is locked somewhere in the Tower. And there it will stay until 2045, if the Major has his way.

  "You see, it is my job to preserve the dignity of the Tower of London," he explained. "I feel to put the item on display would be just too sensational, too much. Of course, anything I decide can ultimately be overruled by my successors."

  The Governor's successors are already jockeying for position. The Resident Governor, appointed by the Queen, serves for five years. Tyler's term will be up in 1994. He and his wife Joan will retire to the country then, after a lifetime of military wanderings.

  "At first, I thought this was an absolutely awful place to live," said Joan, pouring tea on her balcony overlooking Tower Green. One story below, an August weekday crush of visitors fanned out among the towers and museums that dot the complex.

  "I was desperately unhappy. I cried and cried. It was like living on a stage, with people watching your every move. But as time went on, I came to realize the problem was with me, and not the place. I found there are ways to preserve your privacy."

  For one thing, Joan lined the balcony railing with bright red chrysanthemums.

  "They block the view from down below. And I also wanted something that would compliment both the black and white Tudor house and the red uniforms of the Yeoman Warders."

  "I feel we've done a lot to make this place a home. But I don't know how much longer it will remain one."

  Historic Royal Palaces, the government agency in charge of the Tower and several other heritage sites, is already looking at ways to open at least some of the Queen's House to visitors after the Tylers leave.

  Said Sue, "There's nothing the people in charge would like better than to have tourists tramping through the house."

  Indeed, the floors of the residence creak with history. Here in the dining hall Guy Falkes—after a bit of persuasion on the rack in a torture chamber beneath the White Tower—confessed to trying to blow up Parliament in the notorious Gunpowder Plot.  And here, in the closing days of World War II, Hitler's right-hand man Rudolf Hess cooled his heels after having parachuted into Scotland on a solo mission to negotiate a deal with the British government. 

  But was the Tower prepared to hold the Fuhrer himself? Prowling about in the 700-year-old Bell Tower, I followed a 30-foot passage in the thickness of the walls and was stunned to find, at its dead end, a 1930s-vintage toilet.


"A former Chief Yeoman Warder believed that Winston Churchill himself had that put in," said Joan. "He supposedly wanted to be able to go on the radio and tell the nation 'We have captured Hitler and we have thrown him in the Tower!' This would have been as secure a place as any for him."

  A great story, one that will forever remain utterly unsubstantiated. And, fortunately, virtually irrefutable, as well. 

  "So many of the stories about the Tower just cannot be proved," lamented Geoffrey Parnell, an archaeologist who supervises all restorations at the Tower. "And others can be dismissed outright. In the Queen's House is a room that for centuries has been called Anne Boleyn's bedroom. But that part of the house wasn't built until after she died. Was King Henry VI assassinated at prayer in the Wakefield Tower, as tradition holds? We've no way of knowing for sure. For the most part it comes down to educated guesses."

History and tradition also collide head on in the Bloody Tower. Ushering reverential tourists to its base, the beefeaters never fail to relate the grim genesis of its name: the deaths of the two young princess, supposedly on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. Shakespeare, and before him Thomas Moore, blamed Richard, contending that his henchmen smothered the boys in what was then known as the Garden Tower.

But as I stood beneath the tower hearing one beefeater after another tell the story, I was struck with their caution. The word ”allegedly” occurred more often than on a TV news crime report. Chalk up another one for historian Parnell: the fact is that no one can be sure just what happened to the boys. After their arrival at the Tower in 1483 they were declared illegitimate and in eligible for the crown. The princes were then seen less and less frequently, until finally no one saw them again. Two small skeletons were found buried under the White Tower stairs 191 years later, but they cannot be positively identified, and nobody has been able to pin the debts on Richard.

“You make a flat statement about Richard the third guilt,” I heard Norman Jackson worn a new yeoman warder, “and you can bet someone will call you on it.”

“Of course,” your mind tells you at first glimpse of the Crown Jewels, “they’re all fake.” 

But they are not. Displayed behind thick glass, the crowns and scepters are arranged in a blinding series of still lifes. The more spectacular pieces, including the Imperial State Crown and Imperial Crown of India, are embedded with thousands of diamonds each. But my eyes were drawn–or perhaps averted by glare –to the simple St. Edwards crown, with its plain gold surfaces and semi precious decorative stones. With a history that may go back to Alfred the Great in the 800s, the crown in its present form was used by Charles II in 1661. It gets out for air once or twice per century, at the climax of the Coronation ceremony. 

There is no insurance on the jewels. There’re priceless,” curator Bob Melling told me. “Beyond the metals in stones, how do you put a price on antiquity, on the fact that every king and queen of England has worn them?”

In 1671 the Crown Jewels were kept in the Martin Tower– the tower farthest from the main gate–and it was there that the only attempt to steal the jewels was made. An Irish adventurer named Thomas Blood–who liked to be called Colonel Blood–disguised himself as a clergymen and befriended the keeper of the jewel house. He arrived one morning with three friends, asking to see the Jewels. As the keeper on locked the door, the foursome overcame him and he ran off with St. Edward’s Crown and the royal orb.

The thieves made it out the tower Gate, but three of them–including Blood–were captured with their loot along the wharf outside.

Blood, prickly as Walter Raleigh before him, told his captors he would speak only to King Charles II. He did just that and emerged not condemned but with a pardon and a 500-pounds-a-year pension thrown in.

Why? Some say that Charles, strapped for cash, was in on the plot to steal and sell the jewels.

  "George Bush sat in your chair," Tyler told me, recalling the night he hosted a Tower dinner for the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Japan, and Germany.

  World leaders have been paying their respects at the Tower since its earliest centuries. In 1251 the King of Norway sent Henry III a polar bear, which Henry had fitted with a long chain so it could fish in the Thames. Not long after that an African elephant arrived from the King of France. Surprisingly, it was England's second pachyderm: Centuries earlier Roman invaders arrived with one of their own.

  The Tower's royal menagerie became a tourist attraction in Medieval times, and remained so until the early 1800s. Then the Duke of Wellington, a militaristic party pooper, shipped them off to form the nucleus of London's Regent Park Zoo. His plans to evict tourists from the Tower, however, were defeated by public outcry.

  Generations have each left their mark on the Tower, but it's getting harder and harder to do so. Preservation regulations prohibit residents from so much as hammering a nail into a wall without permission from government heritage watchdogs.

  When Yeoman Warder Rodney Truelove and his wife Rosemary moved into their Tower home in 1988 they faced a unique domestic quandary: How to incorporate two arrow slits into their decorating scheme.

  "There's one in the parlor and one in the kitchen," said Rod. "You can't just close them over, because they're the only windows you've got."

  Rosemary put flowers in the slit that pierces the wall over her kitchen sink. "We send one of our sons in there to clean it out once in awhile," she said. The other has become a liquor cabinet in which the walls are definitely of older vintage than the contents.

  The Trueloves have two sons, Richard, 15, and Matthew, 16. As military kids, they've been uprooted to far-flung posts in Europe and the Far East. But the transition to the Tower seems to have been especially difficult for them.

  "There aren't any other boys our age around," said Matthew, who has joined an American football team and idolizes the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino. "And when school friends come over, it's not like they can just walk up and knock on your door."

  Like most teens, Matthew and Richard are forever trying to figure how to make some spending cash. After-hours expeditions to retrieve tourists' coins thrown into the water at Traitor's Gate seemed like a good idea—until a passing beefeater ordered them out and told them to put the money back. A thriving car-washing business dried up with water restrictions during a London drought. 

  The boys do make a few pounds at Christmas time, delivering greeting cards among the yeoman warders' homes.

  Otherwise, Matthew joked, a bit sadly, living in the Tower is kind of like "being caged." Real freedom comes during trips to the family's vacation house in Wales, where the brothers ride bicycles over the countryside.

 Each morning, Richard and Matthew catch a red double-decker bus to a Catholic school several miles away. It's generally agreed among Tower parents that the publicly financed schools near the Tower are sub-par.

  That's one reason why Deputy Governor David Anderson feels he'll be ready to move on when his five-year hitch at the Tower is up. By then his 3-year-old son Charlie will be school age.

  "Besides, I don't suppose this is the best place for a little guy to be charging around, as little boys do."

  Unlike the rest of the Tower staff, Colonel Anderson is on active duty in the British Army. Traditionally, the Ministry of Defense lends the Tower one officer to handle contracts and other business matters, and Anderson is the current "loaner."

  The day I met Anderson was not particularly good one for Great Britain. The pound was under seige, the Duchess of York was embroiled in scandal, and Jackie the Raven had escaped from the Tower of London.


Of the three crises, l'affair Jackie was foremost on David's mind. Tradition holds that when the last raven leaves the Tower the British Empire will fall and tradition, after all, is what the Tower of London is all about. True, Jackie had left five winged colleagues behind in her bold flight to freedom, but her escape was still something of an embarrassment.


Anderson's office became the situation room in the search for Jackie. He'd already had a conference with Raven Master David Cope the morning I stopped in. 

With a diet including raw meat, the black scavengers are the true beefeaters of the tower– six official ravens and two on reserve . As Raven Master, Cope’s responsibilities include clipping the birds’ wings so they cannot flee. It is absolutely painless, and Cope trims back the feathers under only one wing.

“That causes less left on that wing, so the best they can do is fly in an arc.”

Ravens are a protected species in Great Britain, and The Tower has its own raven breeding program. When the first Tower-grown raven hatched in 1989, children around the country submitted names. The winner: Ronald Raven.

“Unfortunately, Ronald had to be discharged,” said Cope. ”He kept biting people.”

  Now the unthinkable had happened. Jackie, clipped wing and all, got a hold of a favorable wind and was last seen heading toward London's traffic-choked, glass-and-girder business center, which presses against the Tower on two sides.

  "I suspect Jackie could end up under the wheels of a lorry." said Anderson, frowning theatrically. The smile returned. "Of course, things being what they are, perhaps somebody will eat her."

That day I sat on a Tower bench scanning a Fleet Street newspaper, blaring with headlines about the pound and royal scandal.

“You see,” said a warder looking over my shoulder. “And that’s with just one bird gone!”

  I found no ghosts in the Tower of London. If ever a place should be haunted by the saints and sinners of a nation's life it should be the Tower, where spilled blood—innocent and not—has cemented more than one despot's claim to power. 

  But given every opportunity, the residents I asked could at best relate half-hearted second- and third-hand tales of Tower specters.

  "I knew a fellow who..." 

  "They say that on some nights..."

  "Two ladies from America told us..."        

   Showing me around the Queen's House, Sue Tyler stopped to smooth the covers in one bedroom.

  "Every time I come in here these covers are rumpled," said Sue. "I used to think the housekeeper was having a lie down, but it happens even when she's gone."

  A ghost? Sue doesn't speculate, but like most Tower residents, she won't rule it out, either.

  There is a sort-of ghost at Dr. McGrath's house, says his daughter Karen.

  "When we have guests, they have the same dream about an old woman sitting in a chair next to their bed. In their dream, the people reach out to touch the woman, and she disappears."

  David Anderson confesses he and the Governor once conspired to "ham it up" for some dinner guests. "

  "I dashed into Anne Boleyn's bedroom and opened the window just long enough to let the cold night air in,” he said. “Then I sprayed a bit of Marks and Spencer perfume around. Soon the Governor walked in with the guests and told them, 'You know, some people come in here and feel a chill, even when the heat is on like tonight. And they also detect the unmistakable scent of spring flowers.'

  "You could see these people kind of looking at each other. We don't do that anymore, but it was fun."

  There are tales of Anne Boleyn walking across Tower Green "with her head tucked underneath her arm," in the words of an English music hall ditty. In 1817 the Keeper of the Crown Jewels reported a cylindrical object hovered over his dinner table for a minute or two before vanishing. And shortly after that a sentry outside the Martin Tower died of a heart from seeing what looked like a bear coming from under the door.

  If anything haunts the Tower, it seems to be the memories of sorrows past. One such tragedy still lives vividly in the minds of a few Tower residents.

  It was July 17, 1973. A typical summer crowd packed the basement of the White Tower, milling amongst the cannon and other armaments. There, in a chamber measuring 70 by 30 feet, a 10-pound terrorist bomb exploded. The walls contained the explosion like a bank vault. Inside was carnage.

  "I was working at the main gate," recalled beefeater Cedric Ramshell. "I heard the explosion. All hell broke loose. Police cars and ambulances came screaming to the Tower, trying to get through the masses that were trying to get out.

  "But the reaction of the staff was tremendous. Two or three of the beefeaters were very quickly into the cellar to rescue people, even though they'd been warned there might be a second bomb."

  One woman was killed. A boy lost his leg below the knee. Thirty five others were injured. The tragedy led to airport-like security at the Tower's gates. Police check purses and camera bags of all who enter.

  "It's funny, but the families here never really became all that edgy after the bomb," said Cedric. "They'd seen it all before. There's no family here that hasn't served overseas. They're used to the odd incident."

  Cedric, his bushy white beard making him unmistakably a beefeater even in his "civvies," was busy packing the accumulated souvenirs of 20 years at the Tower. His retirement was official, he was moving to a home near the shore.


"What I'll miss most is my colleagues," he said. "We've all got the same ideas, we all are used to wearing a uniform. And I'll not shave my beard. It makes me look like the beefeater I am. And besides, I do Santa Claus at the children's hospital."

  I was amazed at the number of the yeoman warders who had never set foot in the Tower before arriving for their job interview. In fact, newcomer Ray Bruce didn't even consider the Tower as a career move until his wife Janice brought it up.

  "I was watching a TV program about the people who live in the Tower several years ago, and I thought it looked like a lovely place to live," said Janice. "So I told Ray he should look into it."

  Janice, like most Tower wives, has a career outside its walls. She is a manager at Tower Pageant, a historic ride and museum adjacent to the Tower. Other wives have office jobs, many in the numerous insurance companies drawn to the City of London.

  "It's funny," said Janice. "Traditionally you think of the wife staying home and the husband working. But here, the husbands all stay home all day, because it's where their jobs are. It's the wives who go out to work. In a way, the men become institutionalized, while the women look outward more."

  Whatever the social implications, Ray terms his wife's career counseling as "brilliant." 

My last day at the Tower was a good one. Jackie the Raven had been found—in a woman's yard on the opposite side of the Thames. The woman had tried to feed Jackie, who obliged by biting her.

  After visitors left that night, Ray Bruce was sworn in as the newest Yeoman Warder. His colleagues filled tankards with port from a Charles I silver punch bowl and toasted him. Their traditional cry, "May you never die a yeoman warder," dates back to the bad old days when a retiring beefeater could sell his post for 250 guineas. But if he died in office, the Constable of the Tower made the sale—and kept the fee.


As the sounds of celebration echoed from the Yeoman Warder's Club—the last of some nine pubs that once enlivened the Tower community—I crossed the moat one last time.

 At the middle of Tower Bridge, I looked back at the fortress by the river. A rush of  taxis and trucks rumbled by me. Along the black water, a river bus ferried bleary-eyed workaholics to their riverside condos.


In the village behind the medieval walls, the Tower bell pealed. It was 10 o'clock. And all was well. 

A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the November 1993 issue of National Geographic Magazine