On the site of the Tower there probably stood successively a British and a Roman fort, possibly also a Saxon one, perhaps restored by King Alfred. But the White Tower, the oldest part of the present fortress, dates from soon after the Conquest, while most of the other fortifications are to be referred to the reign of Henry III. (1216-72). The royal residence, which stood between the White Tower and the river, was probably begun by Henry I. (1100-35); it was pulled down by Oliver Cromwell, and nothing of it remains.
Built by the Norman Conqueror to overawe the citizens of London, the Tower has never been seriously assaulted, and its gloomy history is more that of a state-prison than of a fortress. Sir William Wallace (executed in 1305), King David II. of Scotland (1346-57), and King John of France (1356-60) were confined here under Edward I. and Edward III. In 1399 Richard II. here formally abdicated in favour of Henry IV. James I. of Scotland spent part of his long imprisonment in England (1406-24) at the Tower, and Charles of Orleans languished here from 1415 to 1440, with Sir John Oldcastle (hanged in 1417), leader of the Lollards, as a fellow-prisoner. In the same century the Tower witnessed the secret murders of Henry VI. (1471), of the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV. (1478), and of Edward V. and his brother, 'the little Princes in the Tower' (1483). Henry VIII. (1509-47), who built the 'King's House' and made other improvements within the Tower, was here married to Catherine of Aragon and to Anne Boleyn; and here the latter queen, after a trial in the Great Hall of the palace, was beheaded in 1536. Other victims in this reign were the Duke of Buckingham (beheaded 1521; comp. Shakespeare's 'Henry VIII.'), Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More (both beheaded 1535), Thomas Cromwell (beheaded 1540), and Queen Catherine Howard (beheaded 1541). The most notable prisoner in the reign of Edward VI. was Protector Somerset. Among the many prisoners of Mary's reign (1553-58) were Lady Jane Grey and her husband. Lord Guildford Dudley (both beheaded 1554), Elizabeth (afterwards queen), who was rigidly confined for two months, Cranmer (burned at Oxford, 1556), Ridley and Latimer (burned at Oxford, 1555), and Sir Thomas Wyatt (beheaded 1554), by whose followers the Tower had been attacked, for the last time in its history. In Elizabeth's reign many prisoners were committed to the Tower on religious grounds, and many of them were tortured. The Duke of Norfolk, who was beheaded in 1572 for intriguing in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Earl of Essex (beheaded 1601) were likewise imprisoned here. James I. (1603-25) was the last monarch who resided in the Tower. The most notable prisoner in his reign was Sir Walter Raleigh, who had already suffered a brief confinement in 1592, in the previous reign. During his second imprisonment, from 1603 to 1616, Raleigh wrote his 'History of the World.' After his return from the disastrous expedition to the Orinoco in 1618 he was more rigorously confined, and shortly afterwards beheaded at Westminster. In 1605-6 Guy Fawkes and his companions were tortured in the dungeons of the White Tower. Sir Thomas Overbury, the poet, died of poison in the Tower in 1613. The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud both passed through the Tower to the scaffold (in 1641 and 1645), followed, after the Restoration, by Viscount Stafford (1680), Lord William Russell (1683), and the Duke of Monmouth (1685). Charles II. (1660-85), who here passed the night before his coronation in 1661, was the last monarch to sleep at the Tower. Many prisoners were brought to the Tower after the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745. Lord Nithsdale escaped in 1716, owing to the clever contrivance of his wife; but the Earl of Kilmarnock, Lord Balmerino, and Lord Lovat all perished on the scaffold in 1747. Lovat was the last person beheaded in England. Later prisoners in the Tower were John Wilkes (1763), Lord George Gordon (1780), Sir Francis Burdett (1810), and the Cato St. conspirators (1820). After an interval of nearly a century the Tower once more became a prison during the Great War, and several spies met their just doom within its walls.