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Prisoners of the Tower

Although the Tower wasn’t built as a prison, over 8000 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 got gloomy dungeons. Despite its fearsome reputation, not all of the Tower’s prisoners at the Tower suffered terrible conditions. 

Escape...

The very first prisoner, Ranulf Flambard, escaped the ‘terrifying’ Tower within a few months of his capture in 1100!

The Beauchamp Tower. 'Jane' inscription carved into the walls of the upper chamber, probably by a supporter of Lady Jane Grey.

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. 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.

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

Ten prisoners were executed on Tower Green

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.

Torture and execution

Physical torture was used at the Tower of London, but the recorded number of cases is small. It was used mainly during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was essentially a way to elicit information than as a punishment, but it was real enough. 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.

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 on which victims were laid and then pulled slowly by ropes attached to hands and feet. Repeated racking increased the agony.

Iron spikes descending from a stone arch, a portcullis

‘First to cry a little, then a little more, then say “In the honour of God be good to me and will say to you what you will have me say”.’

Prisoner’s advice; how to avoid excessive pain on the rack.

'The Bloody Tower'

Guy Fawkes and Anne Askew were two prisoners who were interrogated and tortured at the tower.

Guy Fawkes

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.

Anne Askew

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, as she later described:

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. 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.

More stories

Explore

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