Prisoners of the Tower

Although the Tower wasn’t built as a prison, hundreds of people were incarcerated here

Although the Tower wasn’t built as a prison, hundreds of people were incarcerated here

A notorious prison

The Tower was used to contain people who posed a serious threat to national security. Wealthy prisoners were often treated well, while others languished in gloomy dungeons. 

Despite its fearsome reputation, not all of the Tower’s prisoners at the Tower suffered terrible conditions.

Serving time

Prisoners at the Tower of London had varying experiences, from the luxurious to the lethal. Wealthy, influential inmates could be held in relative comfort, deprived only of their liberty.

Some captive kings, such as Scottish king John Balliol brought in a host of servants. Others were allowed out on hunting or shopping trips! But those suspected or found guilty of treason, which including counterfeiting coins as well as plotting against the monarch, suffered far more.

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth (I) Attributed to William Scrots

Princess Elizabeth

The young Princess Elizabeth was one of the most famous inmates at the Tower. She was imprisoned by her half-sister Mary I, who in the early days of her reign feared that Elizabeth was plotting against her.

Elizabeth arrived at the Tower on 17 March 1554. Legend has it that she entered through Traitors’ Gate, but it is known she walked over a drawbridge, where some of the more sympathetic guards knelt before her.

Held in her mother’s former apartments, Elizabeth was comfortable, but under severe psychological strain. Eventually lack of evidence meant Elizabeth was released into house arrest on 19 May, the anniversary of her mother Anne Boleyn's execution. In January 1559 she returned under happier circumstances - to prepare for her coronation procession.

Image: Elizabeth I when a Princess, c1546. Attributed to William Scrots (active 1537-53), Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Lady Jane Grey (1537 - 1554) is guided towards the execution block by Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower.  The executioner stands impassive to the right and two ladies in attendance are shown grieving to the left.  National Gallery, N1909

Royal blood

Other prisoners of noble birth fared less well, however. Among the seven prisoners executed on Tower Green were three queens of England: Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII; Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife and Lady Jane Grey.

The others beheaded on the orders of the monarch, during the bloody century of Tudor rule were Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochester (sister-in-law to Anne), Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

In 1483 William Lord Hastings was beheaded, probably on the orders of Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III. In 1743, Black Watch mutiny leaders Farquhar Shaw and cousins Samuel and Malcolm Macpherson were shot at dawn on the Green in front of their regiment.

Image: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, © National Gallery London 2017

George Cruikshank's illustration of Guy Fawkes

Gunpowder and treason

Guy Fawkes was brought to the Tower to be interrogated in November 1605. After an anonymous tip off that the James I would be in terrible danger during the forthcoming State Opening of Parliament, guards searched the building.

Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars, surrounded by along with 36 poorly hidden barrels of gunpowder.

Image: How satirical cartoonist George Cruikshank imagined Guy Fawkes in 1841 – less sinister and more bored with waiting!



Guy Fawkes signature before and after he was questioned about his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

A terrible end

Fawkes was interrogated and possibly tortured in the Queen’s House at the Tower of London. He held out for several days before naming his co-conspirators, most of whom who were quickly rounded up and joined him at the Tower.

They had planned to blow up the King and his parliament, hoping to end the persecution of Catholics by the Protestant regime, and to start an armed rebellion.

Instead Fawkes and the other plotters suffered a grisly traitor’s death: they were dragged behind a horse along the streets of London to Westminster Yard where they were hanged, drawn and quartered, with their body parts then displayed throughout London as a warning to others.

Image: Guy Fawkes’s signature before and after his interrogation seems to show that he was tortured, possibly hanged in manacles by the wrists.

Remember, remember...

Strange as it may seem, the names of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholic traitors are set in stone at the Tower of London.  One of the most interesting, and possibly the earliest, permanent commemorations of the Gunpowder Plot survives in the Queen’s House at the Tower, a 16th-century timber-framed building that overlooks Tower Green.

It was once home to the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad, and it was here that he oversaw the questioning of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators.

Image: The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605 by Crispijn de Passe the Elder, National Portrait Gallery, London

A monument to the plot

In an upper room of the Queen’s House, known as the Council Chamber, there is a large marble and alabaster memorial. This records the names of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, alongside those of the Privy Councillors who conducted their interrogation.

The monument was commissioned by Sir William Waad in 1608, only a few years after the plotters had been put to death. Much of the interrogation happened in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House. We can be certain that Guy Fawkes was taken into the house to be questioned by Waad and others, although if he was tortured this probably happened elsewhere in the White Tower dungeons.

Did you know?

Next to it is an extraordinary portrait bust of James I carved from stone and painted in lifelike colours.

Stone cold warning

It may seem strange to have made a monument to traitors, but Waad’s reasons were two-fold. It recorded his own role in foiling a national disaster, and it acted as a dire warning to other prisoners who were being interrogated in the Queen’s House. A reminder of the terrible fate that awaited traitors must have loosened some tongues!

The Old Testament text is in Hebrew, and repeated in Latin below.  It translates as ‘He discovererth deep things out of darkness and bringeth out to light the shadow of death.’  Job XII.22. This may refer to the capture and questioning of the plotters.

Image: Detail of the marble monument to the Gunpowder Plot, erected by Lieutenant, Sir William Waad in 1608, © Historic Royal Palaces

Torture and execution

Physical torture was used at the Tower of London, but only a small number of cases were recorded. It was used mainly during the 16th and 17th centuries.

It was predominantly used to elicit information rather than a punishment, but the pain was real.

Sometimes, even just the threat of the agony to come was enough to break a prisoner’s resolve.

Did you know?

Although prisoners in the Tower could be kept in solitary confinement and deprived of food or sleep, actual physical torture was used as a deliberate programme of interrogation.

A True Description of the Racking and Cruell Handling of Cuthbert Simson in the Tower, from 'Acts and Monuments' by John Foxe (1516-87).  Woodcut print.

The Rack

This was the principle instrument of torture at the Tower. It was a device upon which victims were laid and then pulled slowly by ropes attached to hands and feet. Repeated racking increased the agony.

The only woman reputedly tortured at the Tower during the 16th century was Anne Askew. Twenty-five-year-old Anne was accused of being a Protestant heretic. When Anne refused to name others who shared her faith, she was racked repeatedly. She was carried, as she was unable to walk after torture, to be burnt at the stake.

View of Traitors' Gate taken from within the Tower of London.

‘ And because I lay still and did not cry, my Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands till I was nigh dead …The Lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack: incontinently I swooned, and they recovered me again…

Anne Askew, 1546. The only woman reputedly tortured at the Tower

A sinister legend

Of all the roles that the Tower of London has played, torture has attracted the most myth and legend. A potent mixture of fiction and fact has created a fearsome reputation. Torture was used, but for a relatively short period - the 16th and 17th centuries - and especially during the Tudor period, a time of great political turmoil.

Eventually the Tower became used principally as a secure store for documents, armaments and jewels, instead of prisoners. However, it still remained best known as a dark place of execution and torture. This is largely because of the Tower’s growing popularity as a tourist attraction in the 19th century. But this popular image is only part of the story.

Did you know?

Victorian crowds, entranced by the gothic tales and exaggerated accounts of torture and suffering, flocked to the fortress to enjoy the chill of the ‘dungeons’.

Browse more history and stories


The Wakefield Tower and the Bloody Tower Arches with visitors walking towards the Torture at the Tower exhibition.
Things to see

Prepare to be shocked by stories of the unfortunate prisoners who were tortured within the walls of the Tower of London.

Open daily

Tower Green and scaffold site with the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula and the Beauchamp Tower in the background
Things to see

Walk in the footsteps of those condemned to execution at the Tower of London on Tower Green and the Scaffold Site.

Open daily

A medieval character in red emerges from the structure of the Tower of London

Meet characters from the Tower of London's history, complete challenges and win badges on your Digital Mission.



Delightful children's guide book packed full of fascinating stories and amusing illustrations.

Tower Power: Children's guide to the Tower of London

Delightful children's guide book packed full of fascinating stories and amusing illustrations.


Prisoners of the Tower uncovers the unpublished the history of the Tower of London as a place of torture and state prison.

Prisoners of the Tower

Prisoners of the Tower uncovers the unpublished the history of the Tower of London as a place of torture and state prison.


Henry VIII luxury embroidered tree decoration

Henry VIII luxury embroidered tree decoration

This stunning Henry VIII tree decoration is double-sided and is beautifully handmade using metal and silk threads on a satin background with a foam filling.