The White Tower: the Early “Prototype”

A more specific example of the rectangular keep castle design can be seen in the White Tower in London. The castle was built in a location that was clearly strategically important: the capital. This castle, as one of the earliest keeps on the British Isle, was crucial to the development Britain’s stone keeps (Morris 00:45:54-00:46:03). As stated in earlier posts, this castle proved to be the “prototype” for later keeps in Britain (Morris 00:40:19-00:40:25).

The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror (DeVries & Smith 230-231). William the Conqueror’s chaplain, William de Poitiers, writes about an advance force being ordered to build this fortress with the intention that it would protect the new king against the unruly locals of London (Morris 198). It seems William the Conqueror wanted something more than the motte-and-bailey castle to secure this city. Geoffrey Hindley writes in his book Medieval Sieges & Siegecraft that:

When William the Conqueror decided to build the Tower of London he wanted more than safety for his soldier; he also needed a secure base for their operations, a place from which they could control what was even then one of the major cities of northern Europe and a place from which he could, at will, harry the subject population. (Hindley para. 24)

If this true, the flammable motte-and-bailey castle with all of its disadvantages would have been ill-suited to keep the many harassed Londoners at bay. Indeed, as a building in the capital, it was likely constructed with the intent that it would be a permanent “primary personal residence” (DeVries & Smith 231).

It is not entirely certain when the work on the White Tower began (Dolman et. al. 7). It seems certain that the work had begun sometimes in the 1070s (Toy 66). It was certainly underway in the 1090s as indicated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records that in A.D. 1097 that “many counties also that were confined to London by work were grievously oppressed on account of the wall that they were building about the tower”. In any case, the White Tower was completed by 1100 (Dolman et. al. 7).

The White Tower was likely the work of Gundulf who was the Bishop of Rochester (DeVries & Smith 230-231). Crucial to the Tower’s design was the fortress’s “three main functions,” which were typical of keeps of the time (Dolman et. al. 49). Firstly, it was designed to be an impenetrable fortress that could withstand a siege (Dolman et. al. 49). Recalling what William Poitiers said and considering the riotous circumstances surrounding the Norman Conquest, it makes sense that this was the White Tower’s primary purpose. Secondly, the interiors were designed to house the king and provide “a setting for major governmental and ceremonial functions” (Dolman, et. al. 49). Thirdly, it was intended to reassert Norman control over the local populace (Dolman, et. al. 49). One aspect of this purpose is demonstrated by the building’s stone construction and intimidating design (Morris 00:40:45-00:41:49).

The White Tower’s name originated from the whitewashing that it underwent (DeVries & Smith 231). It rose 90 feet tall from the bottom of the ground to the top of the parapet (Toy 70). The White Tower’s walls were and are thick with measurements of “12 feet to 15 feet at the base” (Toy 70). Those walls “are built of ragstone rubble with ashlar dressings” (Toy 70). The corners were further reinforced by pilasters buttresses (Toy 70). “The entrance was at the second [story] on the south” side (Toy 70) and was reached by stair built outside the keep (Dolman et. al. 50), which was protected by “a forebuilding” that no longer exists today (Toy 70). “The entranceway itself, complete with barrel-vault, [had] arched seats for sentries and arrangements for barring the door” (Dolman et. al. 50). A picture of the keep is provided below, and one can see the external stairs leading to the entrance.


Padraig. “The Original Entrance to the White Tower Was at First-Floor Level.” Wikipedia, 19 March 2007, Accessed 25 Nov. 2015.

Today, the keep’s interior is divided into four stories—if one includes the basement along with the three floors (Toy 70). However, there is evidence suggesting that one of the floors was added in the 15th century, so it is likely that at the time of its original completion the Tower only had two floors and a basement (Dolman et. al. 49). The first level was designed to conduct the governmental business of the land while the second level contained the “residential chambers” (DeVries & Smith 231). Spiral staircases connected the various stories and the roof (DeVries & Smith 231).

The Tower’s floors were further “divided into two large halls,” with the Tower’s largest hall “measure[ing] 28 by 11.3 meters” (DeVries & Smith 231). The Tower “has a large apsidal projection for a chapel at the south end of the east wall” (Toy 70). This chapel of St. John was unlike the other floors in that it “rose from the basement to the roof and included a crypt and sub-crypt” (DeVries & Smith 231). You can see the projection that houses the chapel in the picture below and the chapel interior in the picture below that.


Gagnon, Bernard. “Tower of London White Tower.” Wikimedia Commons, 29 Aug. 2007, Accessed 24 Nov. 2016.


Geer, Samuel Taylor. “St. John’s Chapel Inside the White Tower at the Tower of London.” Wikimedia Commons, 07 Sept. 2014, Accessed 04 Dec. 2016.

Due to the Tower of London’s strategic position, it is no surprise that it continued to be developed throughout the centuries with many kings adding additions to the building (Dolman, et. al. 14-15). It is important to remember that when analyzing the structure. At the time of its initial completion, the structure consisted of the White Tower and outer walls, two of which were of Roman origin (Dolman, et. al. 8). The tower remained unchanged for about a century until it gained a two towered curtain walls in the extensive construction period of 1190 to 1285 (Dolman, et. al. 14-15). Additional modifications were to come, but the White Tower keep still stands in the center of the Tower of London (Dolman, et. al. 6). It remains one of the “grandest example of Norman stone castle building” (DeVries & Smith 231).

Works Cited

DeVries, Kelly, and Robert Douglas Smith. “Chapter Nine: Stone Castles.” Medieval Military Technology, 2nd ed., University of Toronto Press, 2002. pp. 223-260.

Dolman, Brett, et. al. Experience the Tower of London. Historic Royal Palaces, 2013.

Gagnon, Bernard. “Tower of London White Tower.” Wikimedia Commons, 29 Aug. 2007. Accessed 24 Nov. 2016.

Geer, Samuel Taylor. “St. John’s Chapel Inside the White Tower at the Tower of London.” Wikimedia Commons, 07 Sept. 2014, Accessed 04 Dec. 2016.

Hindley, Geoffrey. “Chapter Seven: Attack and Defense.” Medieval Sieges & Siegecraft. NewYork: Skyhorse Publishing, 2009, EBSCO Host, Accessed 02 Nov 2016.

Morris, Marc. “Castle Episode 1: Tower of London & Dover Castle.” Discovery Channel, Youtube, uploaded by HistoriaandHistory, 2003, Accessed 06 Dec. 2016.

—. “Chapter 13: Insurrection.” The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. Pegasus Books, 2012, pp. 205-231.

Padraig. “The Original Entrance to the White Tower Was at First-floor Level.” Wikipedia, 19 March 2007. Accessed 25 Nov. 2015.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by James Ingram, 1823. Yale Law School: Lillian Goldman Law Library, 2008. Accessed 25 Nov. 2016.

Toy, Sidney. “Chapter VII: Rectangular Keeps or Donjons.” Castles: Their Construction and History. 1939. Dover Publications, Inc., 1985. pp. 66-81.

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