Tower of London: A Palace, a Prison and a Place of Execution
The White Tower, most commonly known as the Tower of London, is situated on the north bank of the river Thames in central London and is one of the oldest, long-standing edifices in England. It is believed that after the Norman invasion of England and victory over the city of London, William the Conqueror ordered an architect by the name Gundulf to design this massive fortress in order to deter retaliation and rebellion from his newly conquered subjects and to strike fear into advancing armies wanting to invade England’s borders. Although, the Tower of London was initially built as a fortress, it has served many purposes over the years. It has been used as a prison, a menagerie, a palace, a mint, and a repository for the crown jewels. One of the Tower’s most renown uses was as a place of execution to get rid of Britain’s undesirables among the royal class.
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Tower of London seen from the opposite bank of river Thames (London, England). Image Credit: Carlos Delgado ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Tower of London isn’t one of England’s most aesthetically pleasing structures as William insisted that this building exude military power and domination. Throughout the centuries it towered over all other buildings; however, modernity has seen the construction of much larger buildings whose size trump the Tower of London. It has always been a well-protected building and even today, the Queen’s personal guards perform various secret ceremonies that the public is not allowed to witness. Each year millions of tourists converge upon the establishment to marvel at the building’s enormity and history. Several ravens that are unable to fly are kept within its courtyard, a ritual believed to be a part of a superstition that has survived through many generations. The ravens are considered a source of power and wealth and the groundkeeper usually keeps 6-8 of them on the grounds at any given time. The myth endures that “If the ravens leave the tower, London will fall.”
Jubilee and Munin, Ravens of the Tower of London. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Tower of London’s Prisoners
The Tower of London has an extensive history of imprisonment. Both people and animals alike have been victims within this enormous tower. Ranulf Flambard was one of the first recorded prisoners in the tower. He worked for the financial administration of the kingdom but was jailed for embezzlement. Ranulf managed to escape from the tower and resumed his life in the financial arena. The fate of successive prisoners wasn’t as lucky. William de Marescis, who was implicated in the murder of Henry III’s messenger, Henry Clement, was captured and later executed. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was one of the first to reject Henry VIII’s authority. He did not accept the validity of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Thus, he was sentenced to prison in the Tower for treason and later faced his demise at the hand of an executioner’s axe. Henry VIII Chief minister, Sir Thomas More, fell victim to a similar fate as John Fisher. He refused Henry’s new position as leader of the Church and this infuriated the king. Thomas More was imprisoned and later executed as a traitor, freeing Henry VIII from any interference from the Vatican as exclusive sovereign over England and its people.
The meeting of Sir Thomas More with his daughter after his sentence of death, (by William Yeames) ( Public Domain )
Another of the famous and intriguing stories of the prisoners of the Tower is that of the two young sons of Edward IV in 1483. These young princes, Edward aged 12, the would-be King and Richard aged 9, were housed in the Tower by their uncle Richard, supposedly in preparation for Edward’s coronation. However, Richard took the throne for himself and the boys were never seen again. Their true fate is unknown but it is popularly thought that they were killed by Richard II to make sure they never challenged his claim to the throne.
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878 ( Public Doman
There is probably no prisoner more famous than Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Despite Hollywood’s depictions of a very public humiliation and annihilation of Anne Boleyn , she in fact was executed within the walls of the Tower of London, a cruel yet discreet demise for a member of the royal establishment. Henry VIII accused his wife of adultery and charged her with treason. For her crimes, she was sent to the Tower to await her demise at the axe. Anne’s moods ranged from “resignation to hope to anxiety” as she awaited her fate. Her hope stemmed from the belief that her husband would show mercy and pardon her since no queen prior had ever been executed. Henry did indeed show mercy for Anne by bringing in a master swordsman from France who would at least spare her in the beheading process, making it swift and clean. Countless other people of the noble class were tortured or executed over the centuries within the Tower until 1749 when the last execution took place.
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Portrait of Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London by Edouard Cibot ( Public Domain )
With so much death that took place within the walls of the Tower of London, including people and animals alike, there is no wonder that many tales of ghost sightings have arisen over the years. The Tower of London is considered to be one of the most haunted places in London. One of the first reported ghost sightings was that of Thomas Beckett, the archbishop martyred at Canterbury. Another sighting is that of Henry VI who was martyred as he knelt in prayer in 1471. It is also believed that Sir Walter Raleigh’s ghost has been seen sitting at a desk in one of the studies. By far one of the most famous executions in the Tower is also one of the most popular ghost sightings. Anne Boleyn is one of the most often seen ghosts in the tower – seen by many as a headless grey or white spirit lady. Another apparition that has been sighted is not that of a human but instead a bear that was killed on the grounds of the Tower.
This building is riddled with a history of death and tragedy; so, ghost tales are undoubtedly the Tower of London’s greatest lure for tourists. Today, the Tower still dominates the banks of the Thames as a testament to the dynamic history of England, leaving its observers in awe as was originally intended by its builder.
Top image: Tower of London as viewed from across the River Thames. ( CC BY 2.0 )
By ML Childs
C. Hibbert, Tower of London. New York: Newsweek Book Division, 1971.
S. Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
N. Jones, Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
Secrets of the Tower of London: Unlock the Mysteries of this Ancient Fortress. Directed by Vicky Matthews. Boston: PBS Distribution, 2013.