Vic Keegan’s Lost London 34: the medieval Jewel Tower

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 34: the medieval Jewel Tower

The Jewel Tower, built in 1365, is one of only two buildings from the medieval Palace of Westminster – seat of kings and parliament – which have remained intact. The other is a near neighbour, Westminster Hall. The Tower’s full glory has only recently been revealed because from the 17th Century until the 1960s it had buildings around it on three sides blocking it from general public view (see photo below). There were fears during the 19th century that it would be demolished.

As writer and raconteur Augustus J Hare (1834-1903) observed: “It will scarcely be credited by those who visit it that the destruction of this interesting building is occasionally in contemplation and that the present century, for the sake of making a regular street, will perhaps bear the stigma of having destroyed one of the most precious buildings in Westminster which, if the houses around it were cleared away and it were preserved as a museum of Westminster antiquities, would be the greatest possible addition to the group of historic buildings to which it belongs.”

Survive the Tower did and – in keeping with Hare’s dream – the buildings round it were demolished. It started life under Edward III (1312-1377) as a repository for the royal jewels and later as storage place for official documents. When that function was transferred to the newly built Victoria Tower in 1869 the Jewel Tower became the place where official weights, measures and volumes for the whole of the British Empire were tested – including the volume of a pint of beer. This lasted until the arrival of the motor car and the construction of Lambeth Bridge, when the resulting vibrations proved too much for such a delicate operation.

The lawn in front of today’s Tower is roughly where the King’s garden was in the private section of the Palace. Not that Edward was there very often. He had other homes to go to at Windsor, Eltham and Sheen. Only the Norman kings stayed regularly at Westminster so they could make a quick getaway down the Thames if the going got rough. In more recent times, the space to the left of the Jewel Tower – between the Tower and the old Abbey wall – was where Prime Ministers parked their cars.

If you enter the Tower’s ground floor room to pay your admission fee today and have a cup of coffee in the cafe – for which there is no admission charge – it would be easy to miss the beautifully constructed vaulted ceiling, which wouldn’t look out of place in a cathedral. The first floor has another vaulted ceiling, a stone one installed in the 1750s as a fire precaution. The second floor looks much as it did in medieval times with a 14th century door, though its wooden ceiling was installed in 1949.

The rectangularly framed windows in the turret on the north (Abbey) side were probably designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. He was Clerk of Works at Westminster, where he designed the western entrance to the Abbey. He lived in nearby Millbank.

Looking at the Tower from the road you can see the remains of a moat once used as a fishpond, beside which the drain from the Abbey ran to the river, and what is left of the old fortification wall protruding.

Instalments 1-33 of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London

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