63: The Jewel Tower

The Jewel Tower. Note where the defensive wall has been removed and the difference between the outward facing dressed stone and inward facing rubble wall

Building London’s blog post on the medieval Palace of Westminster really should have included The Jewel Tower [1] [1a] [1b] as it was and is historically part of the Palace. But it now stands isolated from the main Palace of Westminster, the other side of Old Palace Yard [2] and Abingdon Street. And it’s worth treating separately. And, unlike Westminster Hall, or The White Tower at the Tower of London, the Jewel Tower can be seen from the outside any day and the inside most days.

The Tower was built between 1365-66 for Edward III, to store his jewels in. As one does! It later became a records office for the House of Lords, and not being affected by the fire of 1834 saved countless priceless records, and later became where Britain’s weights and measures were tested, calibrated and stored. The British pint was first calibrated there and the measure remains on display there! [3]  

The Jewel Tower is in the top left corner of this west facing representation. Note the clock tower on the far right and Westminster Hall in the centre-right.

The Tower was built to the south west of the existing palace buildings and controversially it was built on land seized by the King from Westminster Abbey! “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.. 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.” [4] The divine retribution saw Usshbourne choke to death on a fishbone from a pike in the moat! [3]

While the bulk of the Jewel Tower is C16th it has had works done to it since then. “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…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) … Further improvements followed: in 1726 a brick partition was built between the two second-floor rooms, to improve fire protection;… and later, possibly in 1753, the first floor was given a stone vault.”[4]   

Note the involvement of Henry Yevele and Hugh Herland who designed and had built the roof of Westminster Hall “The Jewel Tower was designed and built by Henry de Yevele…supported by a team of masons he commissioned for both this project and a neighbouring piece of work to build a new clock tower nearby. Hugh Herland was taken on as the chief carpenter for both projects.” [5]  

The Jewel Tower totally surrounded in 1893-4. It’s in the centre at the end of College Mews. From National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/view/231272358

While initially separated from the rest of the Palace by gardens, over the centuries the tower got engulfed by housing and offices on Old Palace Yard and Abingdon Street till it couldn’t be seen! And astonishingly, for a medieval survivor, it was suggested in the C19th to demolish the building.“… 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.” [6]

Engraving by John Thomas Smith, 1807, Antiquities of Westminster,

Luckily it wasn’t demolished and Hare got his way 50 or so years later when following war time bomb damage Abingdon Street, a row of Georgian houses that stood between the tower and Parliament, was demolished. Only 1 of the buildings that surrounded, 6-7 Old Palace Yard, a fine Georgian house, now remains, [7] while Abingdon Street is now a public park with views of the Houses of Parliament, the medieval College Green walls and the Jewel Tower

6-7 Old Palace Yard, with The Jewel Tower now visible behind
Photo Philip Pankhurst 2011 CCL https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2507777
The opened up view of the Jewel Tower from the north west

With the opening up of the area around the tower the original moat was opened up though it now is waterless after becoming stagnant. [8] Garden historian Tom Turner has called for water to be returned to the moat and the herb gardens re-instated to their medieval form. [9]

Tom Turner @ Garden Visits suggestion for reinstating the moat and herb gardens https://www.gardenvisit.com/londongardenswalk/london_garden_landscape_history/westminster_palace_jewel_tower_garden
Excavations in the 1960s revealed more of the old moat.

The moat and dock is listed seperately by Histpric England “Former dock retaining walls to moat around Jewel House G.V. I Quay retaining walls. Medieval, antedating the Jewel Tower. Ashlar faced quay, the remains of a dock serving Westminster Palace uncovered in 1963-64 excavations and now forming a moat to the south, west and north of the Jewel Tower in the garden around it.” [18]

But what, Building London asks, is it made from!?

The Historic England listing mentions vaguely just “stone rubble” and “Portland stone”. “The Jewel House (or Tower) 5.2.70 of the Palace of Westminster G.V. I Royal Treasure House or repository forming the south west corner of the former Privy Palace. 1364-66, by Henry Yevele, with windows and parapet renewed 1718-19. Principally stone rubble with Portland stone dressed windows.” [10]

The Portland Stone windows clearly visible

But we know from the original records that the “stone rubble” was Kentish Ragstone and that stone from Caen and Beer, in Devon, was used for dressing. “The external walling of dressed Kentish ragstone is essentially from the original construction of the 1360s: other stones include Beer stone and Caen for other dressings. It is notable that the outward-facing stonework (on the south and west sides) is more finely dressed than the masonry of the eastern sides, that formerly faced into the palace garden. The original foundations of elm-piles, discovered during 20th-century excavations, were replaced in 1954 with concrete underpinning. The large windows represent 18th-century replacements of the medieval originals, remodelled externally but internally retaining their medieval rere-arches: the iron-work is also thought to date to the early 18th century. The brick parapet and capping to the spiral stair date, like the windows, to 1718. Stubs of masonry indicate the former continuation of masonry to the north and south-east, showing the relationship between the tower and the medieval boundary wall of the palace. The moat, now dry and gravel-bottomed, was originally fed by a canal from the Thames to the south-east of the tower: the medieval stone revetment of the moat still survives in its lower courses” [11]

Caen stone arch

And again we know the stone for the Jewel and clock tower being built at the same time “….98 boat-loads of rough stone and 13,782 feet (4,201 m) of dressed stone from Maidstone; 469 cart-loads from Reigate; 26 long tons (26 t) from Devon and 16 long tons (16 t) from Normandy. Timber was brought from Surrey, red floor tiles from Flanders and 97 square feet (9.0 m2) of glass purchased for the Jewel Tower alone.” [12]

Caen roof vaulting

E.W. Brayley in his ‘The Ancient Palace of Westminster’ of 1836 recounts details from the original records, though as the two towers were being built at the same time sometimes it’s not always clear what was for what. Of the clock tower, sadly demolished in the 1698, opposite the north facing doors of Westminster Hall, somewhere near where Portcullis house now stands there is strangely little written. Of The Jewel Tower Brayley writes “This Tower is yet standing, and is now called the Parliament Office, from its appropriation to the keeping of State’ Records. It is of a square form, with an octagonal staircase turret annexed ; and is probably of the age of William Rufus. After it came into the possession of King Edward III., it was designated The Jewel House; In Henry the Eighth’s reign it was used as a Royal Wardrobe”

Caen stone in the Jewel Tower

And in terms of it’s building, Brayley recounts the payment records of 1365 from the “Roll in the King’s Remembrancer’s office, … “Particulae Compoti”… ‘Particulars of the Account of William de Sleford, clerk and supervisor of the King’s Works at his Palace at Westminster, of all receipts, disbursements, and expenses of the said William, from the 28th of September, in the 39th year [of Edward III] to the 27th of September ensuing, being for one whole year.’
– To John Wytcliff, for 22 dol. [blocks?] of Bere-stone, (with freitage,) bought “pro tabulamentis et gargol,”— entablatures and gargols (or gargles*) of the New Tower at the end of the king’s garden and for the entablature of a clock-tower, “pro quot orolog” within the palace…
– To John Donat, for sixteen dol. of Caen stone, (with freitage) …
– To Philip Profit, John Longeland, and Stephen Pratte, for 469 “carrats” of Reygate stone, bought for doors and windows, and for boatage of the same to the above tower, and carriage from Reygate to Battersey…
– To  William  Gretyng,  Simon  atte  Hall,  Maurice  Yong,  and William  atte  Barr,  for  81071/2  feet  of  stone  called  ashlar, bought  at  Maidstone  for  the  aforesaid  dial-tower …
– To  the  same  persons,  for  5675  feet  of  stone  called  “urnell” bought  for  the  same  works…
– To John Morden, for 240 stones of Reygate, for the work called ‘sherches’ bought for a certain stair-case…  in the  aforesaid tower near the king’s garden…
– To the  same John, for fifteen stones of Reygate, for the work called “nowells” [newells], bought for the same staircase, in gross…”

The original 14thC Elm piles replaced in the 1960s.

Nb: a ‘carrat’ is a cartload [14] and ‘urnell’ refers to Kentish ragstone Build 129 … defines the word as ‘rag’, i.e. an ‘inferior variet[y] of stone’, and ornel as a ‘trade term […] confined to Kent’… [so] Kentish rag stone, rubble (used for building purposes or for paving)” [15] and see Tim Tatton Brown below, and that Bere refers to Beer in Devon.

Ruth Sidell at the incredible London Pavement Geology also identifies Reigate stone “A wide variety of stones are used in the Jewel Tower. Ragstone and Reigate Stone are the most common, but Caen Stone and hard Chalk (Clunch) are also used here.” [16] The Clunch is Beer stone.

While the infill is almost certainly Beer stone, a form of chalk, the ribbing may be Reigate Stone and the walls Caen.

Tim Tatton-Brown notes The Jewel Tower is not just built from rubble Kentish ragstone but dressed stone, but only on the outward facing walls. “… the finest visible example is the Jewel Tower, where the beautiful ashlar masonry plinth of the tower, and the masonry walls of the moat, show the quality of masonry that Thomas Hardegrey could produce in the mid-1360s. One can also see very good external masonry on the tower itself, while on the ‘inside’ faces behind (and only facing the King’s garden), rough-coursed rubble is used.”

Vaulted ceiling showing maybe Reigate ribbing and Beer stone infill.
Wiki Creative Commons original Paul Brown

Tatton-Brown also suggests that the name of the mason, Thomas Hardegrey, is based in the stone he worked with and the Jewel Tower was built from“… ‘Hardegrey’ is an unusual name, but in the late 13th or early 14th century we often read in contemporary building accounts of the ‘greystone’ or ‘ragstone’ of Aylesford (sometimes the ‘grey stone called ragg’)… From the middle of the 14th century, we also hear of the use of ‘hard stone of Kent’ and of ‘stone called urnell’ (or ournal or ornell), which was used for making walls, gutters, drains and paving. All this stone came from quarries near Aylesford and Maidstone, and there is now much archaeological evidence to show that in the 14th century the stone was being cut and shaped much more carefully for masonry work. It is possible, therefore, that Thomas Hardegrey was, in the 1360s, a local man from west Kent, who got his name from his particular ability to work and build with this hard grey stone of Kent” [17]


Visting the Jewel Tower is easy. Not only can the outside be seen, fairly close, at any time, it is open regular and decent hours, without booking in advance and not too expensive, though it’s not big, and it doesn’t seem to get the mass tourism of somewhere like Westminster Abbey, even though it is just around the corner, or The Tower of London. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/jewel-tower/

For a couple of other reports see The Londonist https://londonist.com/london/history/visit-the-jewel-of-westminster and Memoirs of a Metro Girl https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2018/08/19/jewel-tower-a-lone-survivor-of-the-palace-of-westminster/


Visting the Jewel Tower is easy. Not only can the outside be seen, fairly close, at any time, it is open regular and decent hours, without booking in advance and not too expensive, though it’s not big, and it doesn’t seem to get the mass tourism of somewhere like Westminster Abbey, even though it is just around the corner, or The Tower of London. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/jewel-tower/

For a couple of other reports see The Londonist https://londonist.com/london/history/visit-the-jewel-of-westminster and Memoirs of a Metro Girl https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2018/08/19/jewel-tower-a-lone-survivor-of-the-palace-of-westminster/


[1] https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/estatehistory/the-middle-ages/jewel-tower/
[1a] https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/jewel-tower/history/significance/
[1b] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003580
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Palace_Yard
[3] https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/inspire-me/blog/blog-posts/6-5-secrets-from-londons-forgotten-landmark/
[4] https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/jewel-tower/history/
[5] https://castellogy.com/sites/sites-london/jewel-tower
[6] https://thethorneyislandsociety.org.uk/ttis/index.php/thorney-tales/39-thorney-tales-3
[7] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1266309
[8] https://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/2020/05/13/the-lockdown-diaries-the-most-intriguing-paradoxes/
[9] https://www.gardenvisit.com/londongardenswalk/london_garden_landscape_history/westminster_palace_jewel_tower_garden
[10] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1225529
[11] ‘Jewel Tower FINAL Interpretation Plan 2012/13, English Heritage’
[12] from AJ Taylor ‘The Jewel Tower: Westminster’ 1991 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewel_Tower
[13] E.W. Brayley ‘The Ancient Palace of Westminster’ 1836  https://archive.org/details/historyancientp00britgoog/
[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Load_(unit)
[15] https://anglo-norman.net/entry/ornel
[16] http://www.londonpavementgeology.co.uk/location-details/?id=918&search_field=jewel%20tower
[17] ‘Kentish ragstone ashlar masonry in London’ Autumn 2016 London Archaeologist 261 https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-457-1/dissemination/pdf/vol14/vol14_10/LonArch_14-10_5_tatton-brown.pdf
[18] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1266310

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