The Tower of London(63670)
Credit: public domain image

The Tower of London: The huge medieval fortress has a history as a place of long-term confinement, torture and execution.

The Tower of London is a famous British landmark with an intriguingly gruesome past.  It is a large castle consisting of several towers situated on the north bank of the River Thames.  These days the Tower is one of London's most popular tourist attractions although in the past it served a variety of functions, including a royal residence, armoury and treasury.  However in the public imagination it is most widely perceived as having been a prison and place of torture and execution.  The following article explores some of the darker episodes in the Tower's grisly history.

Building commenced on the central keep, known as the White Tower, in 1078, on the orders of William the Conqueror.  His intention was to consolidate his reputation over the recently conquered Anglo-Saxons by erecting a fearsome fortress.  The complex was considerably expanded during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199), Henry III (1216-1272), and Henry's son Edward I (1272-1307).  A notable edition of Edward I is St Thomas's Tower, which used to house the king's bedchamber.  Built in the 1270s, this tower features the water-gate which subsequently became notorious as Traitors' Gate.  State prisoners would be conveyed up the Thames and enter the Tower via Traitors' Gate.

Traitors' Gate

Traitors' Gate
Credit: Photograph by Fluous - Public Domain Image - Source:

The infamous Traitors' Gate, where many famous prisoners entered the Tower of London.

The reign of Edward I was characterized by wars with Wales and Scotland.  During the Welsh Wars of the early 1280s, the Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was ambushed and killed.  The prince's head was struck off and sent to the capital on Edward's orders.  It was displayed at the Tower, remaining there for 15 years.  Llywelyn's younger brother Dafydd was executed on Edward's orders, being the first major historical figure to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  He was executed at Shrewsbury on 3 October 1283, his severed head exhibited with Llywelyn's at the Tower.  Several of Edward's enemies from his Scottish campaigns were captured and imprisoned in the Tower.  These included the famous Scottish patriot William Wallace, who was held at the Tower prior to being hanged, drawn and quartered, at Smithfield on 23 August 1305.  His head was displayed on a spike on London Bridge, thus inaugurating a longstanding tradition of exhibiting the severed heads of so-called traitors on the bridge, a gruesome practice that lasted well into the 17th century.  

The majority of executions at the Tower were carried out in public on Tower Hill, an elevated area of land northwest of the castle.  The first official execution to occur there was that of Simon de Burley, a Knight of the Garter who was beheaded there in 1388 during the Merciless Parliament.  Richard II was the reigning monarch throughout this turbulent period which saw many other beheadings at Tower Hill.  In 1399 Richard was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and forced to sign his notice of abdication in the Tower.  The following year Richard met a mysterious end whilst imprisoned at Pontefract Castle.

Tower Hill

Tower Hill
Credit: Photograph by Mike Peel - Public Domain Image - Source:

The site of the scaffold at Tower Hill - where many well-known prisoners lost their heads,
including the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Lovat.

Other notable heads which fell from the chopping block at Tower Hill include that of John Tiptoft, beheaded on 18 October 1470. Tiptoft was known by the unprepossessing sobriquet 'The Butcher of England' and was executed for killing his victims with extreme cruelty in his position as Lord High Constable.  He requested the headsman take three blows to strike his head off, in reference to the Holy Trinity.  It took five blows to get the Duke of Monmouth's head off after he attempted to usurp the throne from his uncle James II.  The duke was the illegitimate son of Charles II and was beheaded on 15 July 1685, by the infamous Jack Ketch, who was known for bungling executions.  The Jacobite Lord Lovat was the last man to be beheaded in England.  He died at Tower Hill on 9 April 1747.

The Lancastrian monarch Henry VI was prone to bouts of mental illness and was imprisoned in the Tower after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.  Henry was incarcerated in the Wakefield Tower and subsequently murdered there on 21 May 1471, probably on the orders of his Yorkist rival Edward IV.  Tradition has it that he was killed at midnight whilst praying in the chapel of the Wakefield Tower.  In 1478 the brother of Edward IV, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was apparently drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine in the Bowyer Tower.

When Edward IV died in 1483, his fourth child acceded as Edward V.  However he and his younger brother, Richard of York, were imprisoned in the Tower by their uncle Richard of Gloucester, who was subsequently crowned Richard III of England.  No one knows what became of Edward and Richard, who were never seen alive again after 1483.  They were presumably murdered, possibly on the orders of Richard III, although some historians consider Henry Tudor to be another potential suspect.  Their ghosts are said to haunt the Bloody Tower in which they were imprisoned.  During the reign of Charles II, many years later in 1674, two skeletons were found in a chest in the White Tower.  Could these be the remains of Edward V and Richard of York?       

Although the Tower had been used as a prison since the early 1100s, it was in the 16th century that it acquired its grim reputation as a place of incarceration, suffering and death.  Two of Henry VIII's six wives were executed on Tower Green, within the confines of the castle's walls.  Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn was charged with treason and beheaded with a sword as opposed to the customary axe on 19 May 1536.  The King's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was executed for adultery on 13 February 1542.  A particularly brutal execution during the reign of Henry VIII was the beheading of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and daughter of the 1st Duke of Clarence.  Margaret was aged 67 at the time of her death on Tower Green in 1541.  It apparently took eleven blows of the axe to sever her head from her body.

Tower Green

Tower Green
Credit: Photograph by Cum Deo - Public Domain Image - Source:

Tower Green, where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard - the second and fifth wives of Henry VIII - were beheaded.

The Countess of Salisbury had been the governess of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's daughter with his first wife Catherine of Aragon.  Mary acceded the throne in 1553 and promptly imposed her Catholic faith on a Protestant England, ordering the executions of many religious dissenters by burning at the stake.  A Protestant deacon of London called Cuthbert Symson was one of Mary's 280 victims.  Symson was sent to the Tower and interrogated.  His torture was overseen by Bishop Edmund Bonner, also known as 'Bloody Bonner' on account of the ferocity he employed when seeking out Protestants.

Symson was a victim of the rack, arguably the most well known implement of torture used at the Tower.  The rack was introduced into England in the 15th century and involved the victim being laid out on a rectangular wooden frame with their wrists and ankles chained to rollers.  By manipulating these rollers, the torturer was able to stretch their victim causing horrendous pain through joint dislocation.  The Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes is one of the most famous victims of the rack.  He could barely write his name legibly after being stretched on the device.  Of the numerous other torture instruments employed at the Tower, the Scavenger's Daughter was also well known.  It was introduced in the reign of Henry VIII and consisted of a metal frame which worked on the opposite principle of the rack in that it slowly crushed the victim.

The Rack

The Rack
Credit: Photograph by Steve Collis - Public Domain Image - Source:

The rack at the Tower of London, victims of this fearsome torture device include Cuthbert Symson and Guy Fawkes.

Prisoners could be held in the Tower for years, many of them dying there.  High-ranking prisoners such as Sir Walter Raleigh enjoyed reasonably comfortable quarters whilst incarcerated there but others weren't so fortunate.  Beneath the White Tower were several infamous chambers, including 'Little Ease' and the 'Dungeon of the Rats'.  Little Ease was a tiny cell so small that there wasn't enough room to stand up or lie down in it.  The unfortunate prisoner would therefore be forced to adopt a crouching position which would result in extreme discomfort.  In the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, a Catholic priest called Stephen Rowsham spent eighteen months imprisoned in Little Ease.  The Dungeon of the Rats was so-called because it was located below the high-water mark of the River Thames so when the tide flowed in, rats would enter the chamber and gnaw on anyone unlucky enough to be locked into this pitch black and bitterly cold cell.  In 1577, a Catholic layman called Thomas Sherwood spent three months in this dungeon.

As the 17th century progressed, the use of judicial torture gradually began to decline in England.  Concerns were being raised over the legality of such terrifying devices as the rack and the shameful conditions in which some prisoners were kept in the Tower.  In the 19th century, the more macabre aspects of the castle were celebrated in novels like William Harrison Ainsworth's The Tower of London (1840).  With its long history of murders, prisoners, tortures and executions, the Tower of London presents its contemporary visitors with a grimly fascinating past. 




Bellamy, John (1979) The Tudor Law of Treason: An Introduction, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Innes, Brian (1999) The History of Torture, Armadillo Books.

Williamson, David (1991) Kings and Queens of Britain, The Promotional Reprint Co Ltd.