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 and place of execution

The Tower of London was built as a secure fortress and a symbol of royal power. Behind the castle's walls were storehouses for weapons and the Royal Mint produced the nation's coins. It was also a royal palace with luxuriously furnished apartments and a menagerie of royal beasts. But the Tower was also used to contain people who posed a serious threat to national security.

Despite its fearsome reputation the story of imprisonment at the Tower is not just one of traitors and gruesome executions. It is also a tale of luxury, banquets and daring escapes. Many prisoners did not end their lives there but were released after paying a ransom or when they no longer posed a threat to security. Like the story of the Tower itself, its role as a prison is a varied one.   

Did you know?

Over the centuries, the Tower was a potent symbol of state authority and an object of fear.

Sent to the Tower

The first prisoner of the Tower, Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham was also the Tower's first escapee. In 1101 he climbed through one of the White Tower's windows using a rope smuggled to him in a gallon of wine. 

Over 800 years later, on 15 August 1941, Josef Jakobs was the last person to be executed by firing squad at the Tower, having been found guilty of spying for Germany during the Second World War.

In between, the Tower has held in custody Scottish Kings and French Dukes, young princes and princesses and lords, ladies and archbishops, alongside common thieves, religious conspirators and even a few politicians.

Portrait of John Balliol, King of Scotland by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II

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.

By the Tudor period, the Tower had secured a reputation as the foremost state prison in the country and the Tower itself sought to reinforce its image as an unbreakable prison. 

John Balliol, King of Scotland (1292-6), by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II ©Royal Collection Trust

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 executionIn 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 prisoners

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 Rochford (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 and the gunpowder plot

Guy Fawkes was brought to the Tower to be interrogated in November 1605 after guards found him hiding in the cellars beneath Parliament, surrounded by  barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was part of a group of conspirators who intended to assassinate James I during the State Opening of Parliament. He was imprisoned and tortured in the Queen’s House at the Tower of London.

Fawkes and the other plotters suffered a grisly traitor’s death: they were hanged, drawn and quartered, with their body parts then displayed throughout London as a warning to others.

Image by artist Sue Kerr, Courtesy of St Peter's Foundation, reproduced by kind permission

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’.

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.


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