Category: royal castles and palaces

Death and terror: executions at the Tower of London

By , May 29, 2009 1:26 am

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Introduction to the Tower of London

The Tower of London is a frequently-visited tourist attraction.  It’s nearly 1,000 years old, at the centre of London, and it is a beautiful, majestic, and lovable building.

Standing on the River Thames, next to Tower Bridge,  it is now part musuem, part strongbox for the Crown Jewels, and part historic, fascinating and elegant architecture. It is clad in Caen stone, and looks white, innocent, and historic.

The Tower of London, shown from the River Thames

The Tower of London, shown from the River Thames The Tower of London, showing Traitors' Gate. Copyright Viki Male

But the Tower of London has a dark and bloody history.  It was built by the Norman invader, William the Conqueror, to help him hold and subdue the vital city of London, and has been not only a royal palace, but a place of execution for those who offended the Crown, for almost all its existence.

And social rank was no guarantee of protection, Kings, Queens, Prince and Dukes died within the Tower’s walls.

The last execution at the Tower was, remarkably, during living memory. A German spy was shot there in 1941.

This article looks at the history of execution at the Tower of London, and a few of the most well-known people to meet their ends on Tower Hill or Tower Green.

A 14th century illustration of the Tower of London, by a French noble imprisoned there.

A 14th century illustration of the Tower of London, by a French noble imprisoned there.


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The Tower as a prison

The Tower was used to hold important people as prisoners from very early on.

William the Conqueror began to build the Tower in about 1086, replacing a previous wooden building on the same site, and in 1100 came the first high-status prisoner – Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham.

He had been convicted of fraud, and escaped by climbing down a rope smuggled into the Tower for him.

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Methods of execution

Prisoners sentenced to death at the Tower of London over the centuries have been executed by hanging, firing squad, beheading with an axe, beheading with a sword, and the punishment for treason, been hanged, drawn and quartered.

In medieval and Tudor times, it was partly a matter of status – those from high social classes were entitled to being beheaded, thought to be a faster and easier death, so long as they were not being executed for treason.

The punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered was a fearsome one. It was a sentence only passed for the crime of high treason, and only for men – women convicted of high treason were, instead, burned at the stake.

Traitors' Gate on the side of the Tower of London by the River Thames

Traitors' Gate on the side of the Tower of London by the River Thames

The sentence was carried out by the prisoner being dragged on a hurdle to the execution place, which was usually a public event. He would then be hanged by the neck from a gallows until nearly (but not quite) dead. He was then cut down, his genitals cut off and bowels cut out, and put on a fire in front of him.

His body was then cut into four pieces, and finally death was certain when his head was cut off.

The different parts of the body were then put on stakes (heads were often on London Bridge) for some months, to remind other people of the risks of high treason.

The judge sentencing the prisoner made all this quite clear to him – a judgment in the 1680s was:

That they should return to the place from whence they came, from thence be drawn to the Common place of Execution upon Hurdles, and there to be Hanged by the Necks, then cut down alive, their Privy-Members cut off, and Bowels taken out to be burned before their Faces, their Heads to be severed from their Bodies, and their Bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of as the King should think fit.

The punishment was first used against Dafydd ap Gruffydd (a Welsh prince) and William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) by Edward I. The last such sentence was in 1803, in Ireland. After this, the quartering of the body was done after death.

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Famous prisoners executed or killed at the Tower of London – Kings, Queens, Princes, royalty, and the odd spy

Henry VI

Original parchment record of the trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, for incest, adultery, and treason.

Original parchment record of the trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, for incest, adultery, and treason.

Henry VI, King of England during the Wars of the Roses, in the troubled 15th century, died in the Tower. He was King twice; he was deposed by Edward IV in 1461. He spent some time in hiding, then many years in captivity, before becoming King again for 5 months in 1470. A few weeks after Edward IV won the throne back (and Henry’s son was killed in battle) Henry died in the Tower – officially of “grief”, but he almost certainly had some help along the way to his eternal rest.

George, Duke of Clarence

George was the younger brother of Edward IV, and older brother of the future Richard III. In the complicated politics of the Wars of the Roses, he abandoned his brother’s cause when Henry VI regained his throne in 1470, and supported his brother’s being exiled and de-throned.

After Edward IV recovered his throne, George was, remarkably, forgiven for a while, but plotted against Edward again, and was put in the Tower of London, and charged and convicted of high treason. He was executed in February 1474, privately, and according to some accounts (such as Shakespeare) was drowned in a butt of Malmsey – a sweet, fortified wine of which he was particularly fond.

Both Clarence’s children were executed in the Tower of London too, as adults, under Henry VII and Henry VIII.

His daughter, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was executed in the Tower in 1541, when she was 67 years old. Her crime was, in essence, that of having too much royal blood for Henry VIII’s liking. Her execution was botched, and the axe missed her head and struck her round the shoulders and body. It took several blows before she died.

The Princes in the Tower

King Edward V, son of Edward IV, inherited the throne at the age of 12 in April 1483. He was never crowned, and reigned for only a couple of months before he was declared illegitimate, and the throne was taken by his uncle, younger brother of Edward IV, Richard III.

Edward V, and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, were sent to the Tower, while their mother and sisters remained in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. The two boys became the “Princes in the Tower”, and disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again. It is widely supposed that they were killed in the Tower, but the culprit isn’t known (there are a lot of theories, of course…)

The Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London

The Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London

Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor

Sir Thomas More was born and brought up in London, and became a lawyer in the King’s service. He was a writer, (his most famous work being Utopia) historian, and very religious man, who had seriously considered becoming a monk. He was a loyal and clever assistant to Henry VIII, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor in 1529.

He was fiercely Roman Catholic, and refused to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533,and opposed the creation of the Church of England and the break with Rome. He further refused to swear the anti-Papal oath under the Act of Succession 1534. He was charged with treason, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His original sentence was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but Henry VIII reduced this to beheading. He was executed at the Tower of London in 1535, and his severed head put on a pole on London Bridge.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn as Queen of England, painted about 1534.

Anne Boleyn as Queen of England, painted about 1534.

Queen Anne Boleyn has the dubious honour of being the first spouse of an English King to be executed. Following her marriage to Henry VIII in 1533, and her disastrous production of only a feeble daughter, and no sons to be heir to the English throne, she was accused of committing adultery with 5 men, including her own brother, George Boleyn.

All the accused were tried for treason, by Anne and George’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and convicted and sentenced to death.

Four of the men, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, and William Bereton, were tried together in early May 1536 at Westminster, and convicted. Smeaton had been tortured in the Tower, and confessed, the others proclaimed innocence.

The Boleyns were tried separately, 3 days later, in the Tower of London.

The men were executed by being beheaded with an axe on 17th May 1536, on Tower Green and Anne Boleyn was executed by being beheaded with a sword on 19th May at the back of the White Tower. She was buried in the chapel of the Tower of London, St. Peter ad Vincula, in an arrow chest. Her body remains there to this day.

Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII

Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII

Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII, and was first cousin to Anne Boleyn. She married Henry VIII in 1540, when she was in her teens, and he was in his 50s.

In 1541, she embarked on an ill-advised flirtation with Thomas Culpepper, and was accused of adultery. She is more likely to have been guilty of this than Anne Boleyn. The King was also horrified to learn that she had had a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham before she married him, and therefore had not been a virgin bride.

All three were arrested. In December 1541, Culpepper was beheaded, and Dereham hanged, drawn and quartered.

Catherine did not even get a trial; she was found guilty by an Act of Parliament in early 1542, instead. She was beheaded by axe on 13th February 1542, and buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, near her cousin, Anne Boleyn.

Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, was executed immediately after Catherine. She had been Catherine Howard’s lady-in-waiting, and was the widow of George Boleyn, and the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn. Not a lucky family, by any means!

The people executed in the Tower of London during the reign of Henry VIII were not alone. During his reign as a whole (1509 to 1547) an estimated 72,000 people were executed in England and Wales.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey, in a 1620 painting by Willem van de Passe

Lady Jane Grey, in a 1620 painting by Willem van de Passe

After the death of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, the throne was claimed by the protestant Lady Jane Grey, great-niece of Henry VIII. She was Queen for 9 days, and lost the throne to Edward’s half-sister, the Roman Catholic Mary I.

She was imprisoned in the Tower of London for some months, with her husband Guildford Dudley, and then they were both executed after a further protestant revolt in 1554.

At the time of her execution, Lady Jane Grey was still only 17 years old.

Corporal Joseph Jakobs

The last person to be executed in the Tower of London was Joseph Jakobs. He jumped from a plane over Essex on 31st January 1941, descended by parachute, and was captured by the local Home Guard. Jakobs broke his ankle when he landed, and was found equipped with forged British identity papers.

He was taken to the Tower of London, and tried there as a spy. Having been convicted, he was executed by firing squad at the Tower in August 1941, the last man to be executed there. He wasn’t the only German spy to be executed during the Second World War, but the only one in the Tower – the others were hanged in Wandsworth Prison, in south London.

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