The Jewel Tower
The small but picturesque Jewel Tower in Westminster is one of the few surviving sections of the great medieval Palace of Westminster which was largely destroyed by fire in 1834.
The Jewel Tower
The Tower was originally built to hold Edward III's personal belongings and treasures, but has had several other uses through the centuries. The tower now has a small café and shop on the ground floor, and displays about the Tower's history, the British Parliamentary system and British Standard Imperial weights and measures on the upper two floors.
Architecture and history
The Jewel Tower was built in 1365 as part of the great Palace of Westminster (now generally known as the Houses of Parliament). These days the Tower is separated from the Palace's Victoria Tower by a busy road, but originally it was built into a corner of the defensive wall that surrounded the whole complex. Access was via the King's Privy (i.e. private) garden. This position away from the main palace buildings not only made it secure, but also saved it from fires - notably in the 16th century and the great fire of 1834.
The Tower is an L-shaped building, three stories high and made of stone. A spiral staircase connects the three floors and gives access to the roof (sadly closed to the public). On the north and east sides of the tower you can clearly see where the defensive walls (long gone) once ran, and a portion of the outer moat has been re-dug, although it no longer has water. The heavy white stone window surrounds were added during renovations in the 18th century (in which Christopher Wren had a hand). Architecturally, other than the generally antiquity of the tower, the main point of interest is the ground floor's rib vaulted stone ceiling with ornate carves bosses.
The Jewel Tower was built on the orders of Edward III (1327-1377) to be the King's Privy Wardrobe, in other words premises for the part of the Royal Household in charge of buying, storing and transporting the King's, and Royal Family's, most valuable belongings. Items stored and cared for in the Tower would have included ceremonial and heraldic objects, gold and silver plate (tableware), rare and expensive textiles, and jewellery. Despite the current name of the tower, the Crown Jewels have never been kept here (in Edward III's time they were kept in Westminster Abbey, and later in the Tower of London where they remain to this day).
The tower remained a Royal treasure house until the 17th century when it was converted to hold the Archive of Parliament (specifically the records of the House of Lords). The conversion entailed a number of fireproofing measures, including the replacement of several of the upper wooden floors and ceilings with plain stone vaults and the installation of a solid iron inner door on the 1st floor (note the date emblazoned across it: 1621). It was thanks to the Jewel Tower that the archive survived the fire of 1834, and it continued to be stored in the Tower until around 1860 when it was moved across the road into purpose built fireproof premises incorporated into the newly constructed Victoria Tower
The tower wasn't empty for long. In 1869 it became the testing centre for the Board of Trade's Standards Department. There had been a set of standard coins, weights and measures since the 12th century and the Standards Department was in charge of checking accuracy and uniformity across the country. The Tower's thick stone walls meant that it had an even temperature and was - at that time - vibration free: important considerations for taking exact measurements.
By 1938, however, the ever-increasing traffic on the road outside meant that the Standards Department moved elsewhere. The Tower was renovated in the 1950s, including underpinning of the whole structure, the moat was excavated, and the site was opened to the public in the care of English Heritage
Inside the Tower and the displays
As noted above, the ground floor of the Tower, now occupied by the ticket desk, English Heritage shop and a small café, is architecturally the most interesting part of the Tower's interior. The vaulted ceiling is especially impressive for such a small building, but that is perhaps unsurprising given its original Royal status and the fact that it was built by the famous master mason Henry Yevele. Displayed at the far end of the room are eight carved stone capitals (the topmost part of a pillar or column) that are thought to date to the earliest construction at Westminster in the late 11th century. The carved figures include humans, a lion and a large lizard. Surprisingly, the capitals were used as wall core less than 200 years later.
The upper floors of the Tower are very plain and have little of architectural interest (at least to the non-expert) except for the obviously ancient wooden doors and the fireproof iron door of 1621 (see above). The display on the Tower's history notes that few of the items known (from historic documents) to have been stored here survive. It is certainly hard to imagine what these rooms would have looked like when packed with medieval treasures and rare textiles. The rooms are now used for displays on the British Parliamentary system, and the history of the Tower, including its use as a weights and measures testing centre.
The Parliament display is detailed but clearly explained and illustrated. It covers parliament's origins in the King's Great Council of the Middle Ages, the development of political parties in the 17th century and the three functions of parliament today: making laws, keeping a check on government and raising and spending money. It also explains the three elements of parliamentary government: the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the Queen, and information on topics such as parliamentary reporting and women in parliament. In a time when we take parliament for granted, it's interested to learn that it was only in 1689 that parliament started to meet every year!
On the top floor you can see a section of the Tower's original elm and oakwood foundations, which were replaced when the Tower was renovated in the 1950s. There is also a small case of items found during the renovations, including a very finely made sword of around 800 AD, and several 17th century glass wine bottles stamped with the marks of the taverns they belonged to.
There is also a small display of Imperial weights and measures, relating to the Tower's use from 1869 to 1938 by the Board of Trade's Standards Department. One of the Department's tasks was the ceremonial testing of the official copies of the standard Imperial Yard (length) and Pound (weight) held in the Houses of Parliament against the originals held in the Jewel Tower. A glass case holds a number of weights and measures, including a set of grain weights - the grain of wheat being the smallest unit of weight in the Imperial system
- ranging from 10 grains to 4000 grains.
Visiting the Jewel Tower
The Jewel Tower ticket desk is inside the Tower on the ground floor. Don't queue at the ticket office in the building to the right of the Tower's entrance - it sells only tickets for tours of the Houses of Parliament. The Jewel Tower is managed by English Heritage
and entry is free for English Heritage Members. London Pass
holders are also admitted free.
The entrance fee is relatively modest by London standards, however unless you have a particular interest in learning about the British Parliamentary system or British weights and measures* we would tend to advise against going in. Many visitors (and especially those who struggle to read English) are disappointed with the interior and regret spending the money. The ground floor of the Tower houses the café and shop, and we suspect that the staff would have no problem with you entering to see the vaulted ceiling (architecturally the most interesting aspect of the Tower, as noted above) on the pretext of 'looking around the shop'.
* If you DO have an interest in this, then a visit is worthwhile.
Access to the small but nicely kept grounds around the Tower is free and there are two information panels that give a basic history of the site together with helpful images of what it may have looked like in the past. You can walk right around the Tower (past a large fig tree at the back) and enjoy a little peace and quiet in this otherwise very busy area of London. The benches are also a good place to sit and contemplate the beautiful Victoria Tower opposite - in the summer look out for the family of falcons that nests at the top of the Tower. The young make quite a racket when they're hungry!
All in all, this little tower is worth at least a quick look at the exterior for its long and interesting history. Most tourists don't even realise it exists as they hurry between the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, so the grounds form a charming oasis among the pomp and power of the neighbouring sites.