We explore the hidden secrets of The Jewel Tower – the lesser-known cousin of the Tower of London.
The Tower of London gets too much credit. What about the little guy? We think the Jewel Tower is way too easily overlooked. For example, if you walked through Westminster you probably wouldn’t even turn your head because you’ll want to take in the splendour of the Houses of Parliament.
If you did glance over the road though, you’d be looking at one of the oldest surviving buildings in London – a place where kings dating back to Edward III have kept their personal riches, parliament their most important records (and even their record keeper).
It’s one of those fascinating places that you find dotted all round this city that isn’t widely known, but has a mind-boggling story. Here it is…
Why Visit the Jewel Tower?
To get a look at the inside of a 700-year-old fortification for one, but also because inside that fortification you’ll find a treasure trove of information painting a picture of life for the royals of the Middle Ages, and the early iterations of the Palace of Westminster.
The History of the Jewel Tower
The Palace of Westminster
In the days of yore, way back before Buckingham Palace British royalty lived at the Palace of Westminster. It was a complex that included Westminster Abbey – from where the palace gets its name – and the Houses of Parliament, which we now still refer to as The Palace of Westminster.
Alongside these buildings you’d have found the royal residencies, sprawling gardens and other administrative buildings where things like records would have been kept, all surrounded by towers, high walls and a moat that drew its water from the Thames.
The Jewel Tower
One of these towers was the Jewel Tower. It was completed in 1366 as a safe place to keep King Edward III’s personal riches. In those days the monarch’s riches would have been used as a substitute for money, helping them fund wars and maintain power so as you can imagine, this stash was mighty important.
The tower built to keep it safe was in a hard-to-reach corner of the defences, stood three floors tall with a crenellated top and was made of thick, solid stone. It’s said that the early period of the tower had a marvellous vaulted wooden ceiling, now unfortunately gone.
Work on the tower was laborious. Stone and tiles were imported from as far away as Flanders and Normandy, more came from Devon and Kent. A new moat was dug and iron workers brought in to make locks and window grates.
An Interesting Aside
The tower was actually built on land owned by Westminster Abbey, not the crown. A six-year feud over compensation ensued with William Usshborne, one of Edward’s officials not wanting to pay out.
Usshborne later died when he choked while eating fish he’d caught from the palace pond, causing the monks at Westminster Abbey to call it God taking his revenge.
The Jewel Tower was used by the succeeding British royals in its usual capacity until a fire in 1512 burnt down the palace, causing Henry VIII to relocate his royal residences to Whitehall.
He continued to use the Jewel Tower to store his less expensive possessions, clothing and apparently his walking sticks and royal chess sets – yes, that was a thing – and referring to the tower as ‘Tholde Juelhous’ (The Old Jewel House).
Over the next 50 years or so parliament started to use the tower to store records until by the 1590s the tower was being used as a house for the parliamentary clerk (He was eventually given a proper house next to the tower).
In More Recent Years
The Jewel Tower has taken a beating throughout the years. The fire of 1512 was not the only one to lick flames on the tower’s stonework. A fire in 1834 that burnt down the rest of the old Palace of Westminster narrowly missed taking the Jewel Tower out altogether.
During WW2 an incendiary bomb hit the tower setting it ablaze and damaging it severely. The tower you can visit today is the product of several restoration missions, done in such a way that they hide the work that’s been done, showing you only how the tower would have looked in its heyday.
You can visit The Jewel Tower, though you won’t find any jewels there anymore. Instead you can see a great exhibition about the tower’s history and items that have been found in archaeological digs in the grounds of the old palace.
The Jewel Tower: Practical Information
Address: The Jewel Tower, Abingdon St, London SW1P 3JY
Opening Times: 10am – 5pm