Jewel Tower

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Surviving annex of Westminster’s medieval palace

Jewel Tower, Abingdon Street, Westminster

The Jewel Tower exterior
The Jewel Tower, viewed from the east

This is not the repos­itory of the Crown Jewels, which are stored in the Jewel House (formerly also known as the Jewel Tower) at the Tower of London. However, Westminster’s Jewel Tower was originally built to accom­modate the royal valuables, as a branch of the King’s Privy Wardrobe.

On the recom­mend­ation of William Usshebourne (or de Husseborne), keeper of the Privy Palace, Edward III appro­priated a plot of land from Westminster Abbey and raised an L-shaped tower with a polygonal stair-turret on the north side, surrounded by a moat that would provide protection from fire and thieves. The tower was designed by Henry Yevele, the leading architect of the day, and built in 1364–6 from Kentish rag-stone, 98 boatloads of which were shipped from Maidstone. Usshebourne stocked the moat with fresh­water fish and is said to have choked to death while eating a pike caught there. The abbey’s monks appar­ently took a somewhat unseemly delight in this tragedy, which they were convinced was a retributive act of God.

One room of the Jewel Tower was briefly used as a prison in 1450 when the Duke of Suffolk was trans­ferred here from the Tower of London, where he had been held on a charge of treason. The Jewel Tower made for a compar­at­ively comfortable jail-house and was conveni­ently located for visits from sympathetic members of the House of Lords. The consid­erate nature of this transfer was perhaps a reflection of the weakness of the evidence against the duke and the charge was soon dropped.

After a fire at the palace in 1512, when Henry VIII abandoned Westminster, the majority of the royal jewels were moved elsewhere and the tower became a store­house for the king’s plentiful collection of apparel. From the end of the 16th century the Jewel Tower was used by the House of Lords as a depos­itory for Parliamentary rolls and the level of protection was enhanced in 1619 by the addition of a fireproof stron­groom on the first floor. This had the provid­ential consequence of preserving the Lords’ records when the Palace of Westminster burned down.

By the early 18th century the upper part of the tower was in a dilap­idated state and it was restored in 1718 under the aegis of the clerk of works for Westminster, Nicholas Hawksmoor, who also had the windows reshaped, giving them round arches.

In 1864 the Parliamentary documents were moved to the new Palace of Westminster’s Victoria Tower and the Jewel Tower subsequently served as the Office of the Standards Department, housing the official weights and measures. The tower was damaged during the Second World War, and was after­wards restored and opened to the public. Its features include 13th-century ceiling carvings from the old Palace of Westminster, an unaltered 14th century ribbed vault and exhib­i­tions of historic weights and measures and on the the history of Parliament.

Since 2013 an exhib­ition covering all three floors of the Jewel Tower has highlighted its history and changing role over the centuries. Features include a model of the medieval palace of Westminster, replicas of precious objects and areas of set dressing, including an 18th-century clerk’s office.

The second floor of the Jewel Tower

Abingdon Street, London SW1P 3JX
Phone: 020 7222 2219
Website: English Heritage
Admission: adults £4.20; concessions £3.80 (not much of a concession); children £2.50; English Heritage members free
Open daily 10.00am–5.00pm from April to October; weekends only, 10.00am–4.00pm in winter; closed at Christmas and New Year; last admission half an hour before closing
Nearest station: Westminster (District, Circle and Jubilee lines)
Further reading: Jeremy Ashbee, The Jewel Tower, English Heritage, 2013