The White Tower — George Cruikshank. March 1840. Eighteenth illustration (twelfth wood-engraving) in William Harrison Ainsworth's The Tower of London. 8.5 cm high by 9.6 cm wide, vignetted, p. 70. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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Rising to a height of nearly a hundred feet; built in a quadrangular form; terminated at each angle by a lofty turret, three of which are square, while the fourth, situated at the northeast, is circular, and of larger dimensions than the others; embattled; having walls of immense thickness, exceeding fourteen feet, and further strengthened by broad flat buttresses, dividing the face of the building into compartments; lighted by deep semi-circular-arched windows; — this massive stronghold, constructed entirely of stone, — and now in some parts defaced by a coating of mortar and flints, — occupies an area of an hundred and sixteen feet on the north and south, and ninety-six on the east and west. At the south-east corner is a broad semi-circular projection, marking the situation of St. John’s Chapel, already described. The round turret, at the north-east angle, was used as an observatory by the celebrated astronomer, Flamstead, in the reign of Charles the Second. The principal entrance was on the north, and was much more spacious than the modern doorway, which occupies its site.

At the period of this chronicle the White Tower was connected, as has already been mentioned, on the south-east with the ancient palace. On the south stood a fabric called the Jewel-house; while at the south-western angle was another embattled structure of equal elevation and dimensions with the By-ward Tower and the other gates, denominated the Coal-harbour Tower. These, with the Lanthorn Tower and the line of buildings extending in an easterly direction towards the Broad Arrow Tower, have totally disappeared, and the White Tower is now disconnected with every other edifice. For centuries it has stood, and for centuries may it continue to stand! Within its walls the old monarchs of England have held their councils, — within its vaults prisoners have sighed, — from its gates queens have come forth to execution! — Long may it flourish as a fearful memento of the past!

On the present occasion, it presented a stirring picture. From a tall staff, planted on the roof, floated the royal standard. Cannon bristled from its battlements, and armed men were seen marching from post to post on its platforms. Before the principal entrance four warders were stationed; and in front troops of arquebusiers and archers were passing under the review of their leaders. The sound of martial music filled the air; pennons and banners fluttered in the breeze; and pikes, steel caps, and corslets glittered in the sunbeams. Amid these warlike groups, the figures of the gigantic warders and their diminutive attendant, Xit, caught the eye of Renard, and filled him with astonishment: — the former being taller by the head and shoulders than the mass of their companions, besides far exceeding them in bulk and size of limb; while the latter, with more than ordinary pretensions to the dignity of manhood, had scarcely the stature of a child. It must not be omitted in the description of the White Tower that the summits of its four turrets were surmounted by large vanes, each decorated with a crown, in the hollows of which, as in our own time, the jackdaws were accustomed to build. [Chapter 10, "How The Duke of Northumberland Menaced Simon Renard in St. Peter's Chapel on The Tower-Green; and How Queen Jane Interposed Between Them," pp. 70-71]


Critic Anthony Burton has criticized the numerous wood-engravings of the "various features of the Tower, as they looked in the nineteenth century" (p. 115) as failing to make an impact, but concedes that these small-scale illustrations "neatly dropped into the text at appropriate points . . . make the intended effect." The logical question, then, is, "What was Cruikshank's intention in providing so many wood-engravings of the Tower and its environs?" Probably Ainsworth's intention in commissioning these was at least as much antiquarian as it was literary, for his passages describing the physical setting are often accompanied by Cruikshank's architectural wood-engravings. The highly realistic illustrations of the actual setting lend some of the more outlandish aspects of Ainsworth's "historical romance" a certain verisimilitude, like the sixteenth-century costumes worn by the characters in Cruikshank's forty steel-engravings. But the essential difference between the etchings on the facing pages and the wood-engravings dropped into the text and read simultaneously with the text is inner life. Even though the Warders, for example, are caricatures, they are lively, whereas the architectural scenes, with the exception of the present illustration and the title-page vignette, are entirely lacking in figures. They are, as it were, promotional pictures for London tourism utterly devoid of tourists. The wood-engravings generally represent the "historical" aspect of the story asserted in the subtitle. This particular engraving serves as an induction as the open portal bids the reader enter the mid-sixteenth century on Tower Hill.

Although for much of the Middle Ages the White Tower, which William the Conqueror ordered constructed in 1080, served as both a fortress and a royal residence, during the sixteenth century, the Tower acquired an bloody associations. In Victorian readers' minds, it was a grim, forbidding prison where prisoners of state had been housed, sentenced, and decapitated. The white Caen stone from Normandy and Portland stone give the whole castle its name. Completed by William's death in 1087, the White Tower, the earliest stone keep in England, was the strongest point of the early fortress. The White Tower, not including its four projecting corner towers, measures 36 by 32 metres (118 by 105 feet) at the base, and is 27 metres (90 feet) high at the southern battlements. Originally three storeys high, comprising a basement floor, an entrance level, and an upper floor, the White Tower had its entrance, as was common in Norman keeps, above ground, on the south face. The wooden staircase leading to its entrance could be removed in the event of an attack. Henry II (1154–1189) added a forebuilding to the south side to provide addition defence for the entrance, but it has not survived. Each floor had three chambers, the largest on the western side, a smaller room in the north-east, with the Chapel of St. John taking up the entrance and upper floors of the south-east.

The moat which Ainsworth mentions throughout the novel still surrounded the castle in Tudor times; by the nineteenth century had become silted over, despite attempts at clearing it. Since it was still integral to the castle's defences, in 1830 the Duke of Wellington in his capacity as Constable of the Tower, ordered a general clearance of several feet of accumulated silt. However, this initiative did not prevent an outbreak of disease in the garrison in 1841 caused by poor water supply. To address these health problems, the moat was drained and filled with earth. Between 1828 and 1858 the government, fearing civil unrest during the era of Chartist protests, considered refortifying rather than restoring the Tower of London.


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Last modified 30 September 2017