Jewel Tower – a Medieval survivor of the Palace Of Westminster
When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.
Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.
The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.
For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.
By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use.
On 16 October 1834, a huge fire swept through Westminster Palace, destroying most of the estate. The firefighters focused their energies on saving Westminster Hall, which still stands today. The Jewel Tower managed to survive because it was relatively cut off from the rest of the buildings and due to the direction of the wind. After Westminster was rebuilt to Sir Charles Barry‘s (1795-1860) Neo-Gothic design, the building was renamed the Jewel Tower again because the Victorians believed it used to house the Crown Jewels.
In 1869, the Tower had a new use again after the passing of the Standards of Weights, Measures, and Coinage Act three years previously. The new government department – the Board of Trade Standards Department – moved in and started to regulate the country’s weight and measures. The standards and testing equipment was housed in the tower, with some of the Victorian artefacts on display today. By the early 20th century, the old Tower was struggling. The standard of the old roof was called into question, while the vibrating from the growing traffic from nearby Lambeth Bridge was affecting the accuracy of measuring. The department moved out in 1938.
With its prime location near the Palace of Westminster and the Abbey, it was no surprise that the area for a target for Nazi bombers. Explosives damaged the roof of the Jewel Tower in 1941. As London recovered from World War II over the 1950s, several of the surrounding buildings were demolished, giving a clear view of the Jewel Tower from Millbank. Since 1956 the Jewel Tower has been open to tourists, with various changing exhibitions through the years. The current presentation dates back to 2013 and features the Tower’s history and the various government and royal departments it has housed over the centuries.
- Jewel Tower, Abingdon Street, Westminster, SW1P 3JX. Nearest station: Westminster. Open daily (30 Mar-30 Sep) 10am-6pm. Closed Bank Holidays. Tickets: Adults £5.40, Children 5-17 yrs £3.20. For more information, visit English Heritage.
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Posted on 19 Aug 2018, in Architecture, Families, History, London, Tourist Attractions and tagged 14th century, English Heritage, history, London, Medieval London, Westminster, World War II. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Jewel Tower – a Medieval survivor of the Palace Of Westminster.