History of the Jewel Tower

The Jewel Tower is a precious survival from the medieval Palace of Westminster. It was built in the 1360s as a secure store for royal treasure within the private palace of Edward III. Later it became the records office of the House of Lords, surviving the fire which in 1834 destroyed much of the historic palace. Later still, it served as a testing facility, determining the value of weights and measures for Britain and its empire. From the 1950s demolition of nearby buildings, landscaping works and archaeological investigations have brought to light important features of the tower’s setting.

A reconstruction drawing showing the Palace of Westminster in the late 15th century. The Jewel Tower is at the corner of the palace garden
A reconstruction drawing showing the Palace of Westminster in the late 15th century. The Jewel Tower is in the centre foreground, at the corner of the palace garden © Historic England (Illustration by Terry Ball and Richard Lea)

Construction and Early Use

The Jewel Tower was built between 1365 and 1366 at the extreme southern end of the Palace of Westminster, which was nominally the chief residence of medieval English kings from the 11th to the 16th century.[1] This area was known as the Privy Palace, a residential complex of hall, chambers and chapels for the royal family, removed from the more public law courts and Exchequer in and around Westminster Hall.[2]

The Jewel Tower stood at the western end of a royal garden, defended by a moat to the south and west, on land which had been appropriated from the adjacent Westminster Abbey.[3] Building works, directed by the master mason Henry Yevele and the master carpenter Hugh Herland, were largely completed within a year. The 15th-century ‘Black Book’ of Westminster Abbey recorded the monks' anger at the seizure of their land for the construction of the tower and the apparent divine retribution that struck the perpetrator, William Usshborne, keeper of the palace.

The original intended use of the building, then known as ‘Jewel House’,[4] was the keeping of precious goods, particularly silver plate.[5] The first keeper, William Sleaford, probably used the ground floor as an administrative office (and possibly accommodation for his assistants) and the two upper floors as storage; the second floor, which had double doors, may have housed the most valuable goods.[6] Documents of the late 14th and early 15th centuries describe the occasional dispatch of items for use in other royal manors and castles.[7] 


The Tudors

In 1512 parts of the Privy Palace were destroyed by fire,[8] and the use of Westminster as a royal residence effectively ended. This state of affairs became irrevocable after 1529 when Henry VIII (r.1509–47) acquired the nearby Whitehall Palace (formerly York Place, the residence of Cardinal Wolsey as Archbishop of York), and proceeded to rebuild it.[9]

The Jewel Tower's use was correspondingly downgraded. In 1547, an inventory listed an unrelated range of objects including clothing, table and bed linen, furniture, gaming-tables and even toy dolls used by Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.[10]

The interior of the stone walled room on the first floor of the Jewel Tower, with tall wooden shelving filled with pipe rolls
The smaller room on the first floor of the tower. By 1600 this floor had become a records store for the House of Lords, and the mortared brick vault was added in 1621 to help protect the records from fire

The Parliament Office

Sometime before 1600, the former Jewel House was transferred to the Clerk of the Parliaments, the official who recorded sittings and committee meetings of the House of Lords. In that year a new timber-framed house for the clerk was built against the eastern front of the tower, while the tower’s first floor became a repository for the Acts of Parliament, Lords’ journals and minute-books.[11] (The ground-floor rooms became the kitchen and scullery for the clerk's house; the function of the second floor is unknown.)[12] In 1621 a brick vault was added to the smaller first-floor room, the first of many measures to protect the tower’s contents against fire.[13]

It is unclear what, if any, disruption to the regime in the Jewel Tower was caused when in 1649 the House of Lords was abolished and the Jewel Tower came under the authority of the Clerk of the Commons. At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, however, the House of Lords was revived and its former clerk, John Browne, reinstated.

18th-century Transformation

By the early 18th century, two problems had become evident: the medieval tower was in a ruinous condition, and the volume of documents on the first floor had become unmanageable.[14]

Between 1718 and 1719 the Office of Works made repairs and alterations to the building, creating several features visible today, including the brick parapets and the Portland stone windows throughout (including several newly created windows), as well as joinery shelves and presses to hold the documents.[15] Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was Secretary to the Board of Works in 1717, may have devised at least some of these new features. From this time onwards, records were kept on the second floor as well as the first.

These works ran badly over time and budget, partly through administrative disruption at the Office of Works. Further improvements followed: in 1726 a brick partition was built between the two second-floor rooms, to improve fire protection;[16] and later, possibly in 1753, the first floor was given a stone vault.[17]

In October 1834 the tower's location, slightly removed from the main Palace of Westminster (by then being used as the seat of Parliament), saved the records when large areas of the palace were gutted by fire. Even those records that had been transferred from the tower into the palace a few years earlier were salvaged, whereas almost all the records of the House of Commons were burnt.[18]

The construction of Sir Charles Barry’s new Palace of Westminster saw the demolition of almost all the remaining medieval buildings, save Westminster Hall, the chapel of St Mary Undercroft, St Stephen's Cloister and the Jewel Tower. Within the new palace the enormous Victoria Tower was built as a fireproof document repository, and the records were removed there from the Jewel Tower in 1864.

An engraving showing the ground floor of the Jewel Tower in use as a testing facility for the Board of Trade Standards Department, an official surrounded by cased scales and other equipment
An engraving showing the ground floor of the Jewel Tower in use as a testing facility for the Board of Trade Standards Department in the 1890s © British Library Board (from HJ Chaney, Our Weights and Measures, London, 1897, p 123)

Weights and Measures

In 1869 the Jewel Tower became a testing facility for the Board of Trade Standards Department, often known as Weights and Measures.[19] The two lower floors were testing rooms, while the second floor contained historic standards of weight, volume and dimension.

But over time, the deterioration of the building's fabric, together with increased vibration from road traffic, made the building less than ideal. From the 1920s much of the testing was carried out at Teddington, and in 1938 the department vacated the tower entirely.

Ancient Monument

The roof of the Jewel Tower was badly burned by incendiary bombs in May 1941. From 1948 the Ministry of Works undertook repairs (almost entirely replacing the roof), presenting the building as a monument of the 14th and 18th centuries and using it to display objects found in archaeological excavations in London.[20]

Most radically, from 1954 a number of adjacent buildings were demolished, principally the rear ranges of the 18th-century 6 and 7 Old Palace Yard, which stood against the tower's east front; a stable on the western side; 5 Old Palace Yard to the north; the house and garage of the Prime Minister's chauffeur to the south; and a row of 18th-century houses fronting onto Abingdon Street to the east. These works permitted the gradual excavation and redisplay of the medieval moat around the tower, and the laying out of a small lawn to the east.

In the 1990s, the display of archaeological artefacts was replaced by an exhibition concerned with the institution of Parliament, and in 2013 a new re-presentation opened, describing the evolution of the Jewel Tower and the various institutions that have used it.

About the Author

Dr Jeremy Ashbee is the Head Historic Properties Curator of English Heritage, specialising in the study of medieval palaces and castles, on which he has published numerous articles. He is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to the Jewel Tower, published in 2013.


1. The National Archives (TNA) E101/472/14; E372/211.
2. RA Brown, HM Colvin and AJ Taylor, The History of the King’s Works, vol 1: The Middle Ages (London, 1963), 534–7.
3. Westminster Abbey Muniments Book 1, Liber Niger Quaternus, fol 80v.
4. Eg TNA E364/89 rot E in dorso.
5. For William Sleaford as keeper of the king’s gold and silver plate at Westminster, see for example TNA E101/400/2 and E101/401/19.
6. AJ Taylor, The Jewel Tower (guidebook, revised edn, London, 1996), 25, 27 and 28.
7. Eg TNA E101/404/18.
8. CL Kingsford (ed), A Survey of London, by John Stow (London, 1908), vol 2, 117 (accessed 26 June 2013).
9. M Biddle, HM Colvin, JR Hale, M Merriman and J Summerson, The History of the King’s Works, vol 4: 1485–1660 (Part 2) (London, 1982), 287.
10. British Library Harleian MS 1419A, fols 159r–185v; published in D Starkey (ed), The Inventory of King Henry VIII (London, 1998), 249–59.
11. A Thrush, ‘The House of Lords’ records repository and the Clerk of the Parliaments’ house: a Tudor achievement’, Parliamentary History, 21:3 (2002), 367–73 (subscription required; accessed 20 May 2013).
12. Taylor, op cit, 25.
13. TNA E351/3254.
14. TNA Work 4/1 (13 Nov 1716, 31 Jan 1717), Work 6/7, 2–4.
15. Journal of the House of Lords, vol 20 (1714–1717), 420, 435, 455, 486, 527 (accessed 15 May 2013).
16. Journal of the House of Lords, vol 22 (1722–1726), 526; Journal of the House of Lords, vol 23 (1727–1731), 281–2 (accessed 15 May 2013).
17. Taylor, op cit, 26.
18. C Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (Oxford, 2012).
19. TNA BT 101/78, 101/188, 101/878 and 101/953; HJ Chaney, Our Weights and Measures (London, 1897) (accessed 21 June 2013).
20. See Historic England Archives, photographic albums AL1114 and AL1115, for detailed information about the scope and progress of restorations in the 1950s and 1960s, the demolition of adjacent buildings and the excavation of the moat. Documentation (patchy) of developments in this period is provided in TNA Work 14/2169, 14/2170 and 14/2446.

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