Although the Tower wasn’t built as a prison, hundreds of people were incarcerated here
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
Next to it is an extraordinary portrait bust of James I carved from stone and painted in lifelike colours.
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
George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence
The Duke’s death in the 1470s was perhaps one of the most bizarre at the Tower – if legend is to be believed. Official records state that he was put to death privately at the Tower for high treason against this brother Edward IV. But other contemporary sources allege he was drowned head first in a barrel of his favourite Malmsey wine.
The Princes in the Tower (oil on canvas), Northcote, James (1746-1831) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images
In 1483, 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother Richard were sent to the Tower ‘for safety’ by their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. They vanished, apparently without trace and the Duke claimed the throne as Richard III. In 1674 two small skeletons were discovered by workmen at the Tower. Assumed to be those of the missing Princes, Charles II had them reburied in Westminster. Then in 1933, a re-examination proved they were of two boys aged about 10 and 12 – the same ages as the Princes when they disappeared. Was Richard III, often thought to be the most likely culprit, really responsible? The debate goes on.
Anne Boleyn by Unknown English Artist, late 16th century. Primary collection of National Portrait Gallery, NPG 668
Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, arrived at the Tower of London in May 1536, accused of adultery and incest. She asked, ‘Shall I go into a dungeon?’ ‘No madam’, came the reply, ‘you shall go into the lodging you lay in at your coronation’. Only three years before, Anne had enjoyed apartments lavishly refurbished by her then adoring husband and king. Anne was found guilty and sentenced to death. As a small mercy, Henry granted her a skilled French swordsman, rather than an axeman. Anne was executed on 19 May with a single blow, and was buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower.
The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey by Hendrik Jacobus Scholten.
Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen in July 1553. She was an innocent pawn in a failed military coup by her father- in-law, the Duke of Northumberland. Instead, rightful heir Mary I was crowned, while would-be queen Jane and her young husband Lord Guildford were condemned as traitors and sent to the Tower. They were initially granted a reprieve, but further rebellion made Jane’s existence more of a threat. Mary could not afford to let her live. On 12 February 1554 Jane’s husband was publicly executed on Tower Hill. Jane, as one of the privileged few, was beheaded within the Tower walls. She was 17 years old.
Image: Royal Collection Trust/© HM Queen Elizabeth II
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Prepare to be shocked by terrifying instruments of pain and learn more about the unfortunate prisoners who experienced torture at the Tower of London.
Executions at the Tower of London took place at Tower Green and the Scaffold Site. Walk in the footsteps of those condemned to death by order of the state.