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Before it was a popular tourist attraction, the Tower of London was, well, just about everything else.

Alex Schechter

For almost 1,000 years, the Tower of London has been an intimidating fortress on the River Thames. Originally designed as a castle for William the Conqueror in 1078, it’s hardly a cozy palace like Buckingham or Kensington. In the centuries that followed, a stone wall was erected around the gleaming Caen stone residence, and later a moat. An additional wall and series of towers rose up around the complex, making it virtually impenetrable by 1350.

During the Tudor Dynasty, the Tower of London gained its notorious reputation as a torture chamber. While the residence functioned as a state prison, it was also where Henry VIII imprisoned two of his six wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) and where conspirator Guy Fawkes was tortured and executed. Even the Duke of Gloucester, best known as Richard III, is said to have held captive and murdered his nephews, 12-year-old Prince Edward and his younger brother, 9-year-old Richard. Skeletons found beneath a staircase in the tower in the 1600’s are thought to be those of the two young royals.

Only 22 total executions took place at the Tower of London, but the citadel’s dark and bloody reputation precedes the historic site. Today, visitors to London flock here in droves to see the Crown Jewels, and the display of antique suits of armor (like Charles I’s gilt, gold leaf-armor) at the Line of Kings: the world’s longest-running visitor attraction, which dates back to 1688.

Royal treasure isn’t the only thing hidden inside the Tower of London. For more surprising facts and well-kept secrets, read on.

The Tower of London doubled as the Mint

For 500 years, beginning in 1279, the Tower of London guarded the country’s Mint. Until 1663, coins were hammered by hand.

It protects $32 billion worth of treasure

The dazzling Crown Jewels—a priceless collection of historic ceremonial objects—have been on display since the 17th century. Among the most prized items is the Star of Africa, a single diamond worth $400 million, and the Imperial Crown, which sits protected in a bullet-proof glass case, and is embedded with exactly 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies.

Animals once called the Tower home

Before the Tower was a prison, it was a zoo for exotic animals. Founded by King John as a royal menagerie in 1210, the gallery’s various residents included lions, ostrich, elephants, and even a polar bear snatched from Antarctica. Supposedly, the poor creature hunted fish in the River Thames.  

A sorcerer was imprisoned in the 1500’s

One of the tower’s more unusual inmates was an innkeeper from Bristol named Hew Draper. This being the 1500s, authorities incarcerated Draper for the gravest offense: sorcery. Evidence of his occult practices can still be seen today in the Salt Tower, where Draper left a cryptic astrological sphere, labeled with the twelve zodiac signs, inscribed on the stone wall of his cell.

It wasn’t as deadly as it sounds

Despite all the infamous tales of torture, only 22 people were actually executed inside the Tower’s walls. Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was the last person to be killed on the property. He was shot by a firing squad on August 15, 1941.

The ravens are the Tower’s guardians

Charles II insisted that the resident ravens—six in total, plus one spare—should be protected. He foresaw that if the ravens departed, the kingdom and the Tower would fall. Perhaps more out of respect for tradition, the ravens are housed and cared for to this day. According to the Raven Master, they are fed raw meat and blood-soaked bird biscuits every day.

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