The Tower was used to contain people who posed a serious threat to national security. Wealthy prisoners were often treated well, while others got gloomy dungeons. Despite its fearsome reputation, not all of the Tower’s prisoners at the Tower suffered terrible conditions.
The very first prisoner, Ranulf Flambard, escaped the ‘terrifying’ Tower within a few months of his capture in 1100!
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. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were subjected to close imprisonment and torture.
Left: Prisoner graffiti, the Beauchamp Tower. 'Jane' inscription carved into the walls of the upper chamber, probably by a supporter of Lady Jane Grey.
King John Balliol of Scotland was imprisoned at the Tower in 1296, after his capture at the Battle of Dunbar by the English armies of Edward I. He spent three years in the Salt Tower, but he was allowed out to go hunting. Space had to be found for the Scottish king’s servants, who included two squires, a huntsman, a barber, a tailor, a laundress, and three pages. He also had two greyhounds and a pack of hunting dogs.
Image: John Balliol, King of Scotland (1292-6), Royal Collection Trust
The fireplace that still survives in the Salt Tower reveals the relative luxury of warmth for those imprisoned there. As well as Scottish King John Balliol, prisoners ‘Hew Draper, a Bristol innkeeper accused of sorcery, and Giovanni Battista Castiglione, an Italian tutor who took Princess Elizabeth's letters to her when she was imprisoned in the Tower by her sister Mary I.
Sir Walter Ralegh was imprisoned in the Bloody Tower for a total of 13 years, accused of plotting against James I. The Bloody Tower was not the gruesome cell of popular imagination (it was previously called the Garden Tower). , but only acquired this name from the 16th century, commemorating the alleged murder of the two Princes in the Tower in 1483. . It ‘housed’ rich and high ranking prisoners who enjoyed many privileges. Ralegh himself he found time for conducting scientific experiments in the Tower gardens and writing 'a History of the World', using his Tower library of over 500 books
Ralegh was imprisoned in a suite of room in the Bloody Tower that were well furnished and provided living space for his family and servants. This image shows the Bloody Tower displayed as it may have looked during his imprisonment from 1603-16
Three queens of England were among those executed: 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.
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, the most likely culprit, 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
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. In January 1559 she returned under happier circumstances - to prepare for her coronation procession.
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, actual physical torture was used as deliberate programme of interrogation.
This was the principle instrument of torture at the Tower. It was a device on which victims were laid and then pulled slowly by ropes attached to hands and feet. Repeated racking increased the agony.
In the early hour of 5 November, 1605, Guy Fawkes was found in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament. He was discovered with 36 barrels of gunpowder and matches. Fawkes and his co-conspirators wanted to end the persecution of Catholics and planned to start an armed rebellion, but details of the plot were leaked. Fawkes was taken to the Tower and interrogated. He stood up to questioning for several days, then tortured, probably on the rack. He eventually confessed and was sentenced to a traitor’s horrible death of hanging drawing and quartering on 31 January 1606.
The only woman reputedly tortured at the Tower during the 16th century, 25 year old Anne was accused of being a Protestant heretic. She was tortured on the Rack-a bed on which victims were laid and then their limbs pulled to breaking point by ropes from hands and feet. . Repeated sessions increased the agony. 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. 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’. But this popular image is only part of the story.
Prepare to be shocked by terrifying torture instruments 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.