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.

Trooping the Colour: the pagentry of the Queen’s official birthday

By , May 26, 2009 1:20 am

What is Trooping the Colour?

The Welsh Guards standing to attention during the Queen's inspection of her troops

The Welsh Guards standing to attention during the Queen's inspection of her troops

Trooping the Colour is an event held on one of the first three Saturdays in June every year in London to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday.

The Colour in question is the Colours of a regiment. This was the flag of a regiment which was held at the centre of a regiment while they were fighting.

The Colours were trooped in front of the soldiers of the regiment everyday, to make sure that in battle individual soldiers were sure which their regiment was.

The Queen was actually born on the 21st April, her real birthday. Since the time of Edward VII, the Monarch has had an official birthday in June (in the hope that the British weather will be better in June than whenever an individual King or Queen happened to be born).

There are five Household Regiments, the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards and Welsh Guards; each takes its turn year by year.

The actual ceremony is a large one. Army regiments take it in turns to take part. Approximately 1400 officers and other ranks are on parade in the Trooping of the Colour, and 200 horses as well. The music is provided by approximately 400 musicians.

In 2009, the Trooping of the Colour the Queen’s Birthday Parade is on 13th June 2009, the Colonel’s Review is on Saturday June 6th, and the Major General’s Review on 30th May.

History of Trooping the Colour

The Massed Band, drawn from different regiments, shown at the June 2007 Trooping the Colour

The Massed Band, drawn from different regiments, shown at the June 2007 Trooping the Colour

Armies and regiments have had identifying symbols in the English army since early medieval times.

A standard bearer would hold the flag or symbol of the regiment near to the leader of it, for example, the “Sunne in Splendour” of the Yorkist troops during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century.

The current ceremony of Trooping the Colour goes back to the time of King Charles II, in the 17th century. The foot guards in London, guarding the Sovereign and royal buildings, trooped their Colour daily from 1755 as part of their daily guard rituals.

The Trooping the Colour parade was held for the first time to celebrate the King’s birthday in 1805.

The embroidered regimental Colours now mark battles and engagements in which a regiment has fought, and in which men from the regiment have fallen for the country.

Each Regiment’s Own Colours

Guard holding the Colours

From 1751 infantry regiments have been allowed to carry two Colours, the King’s or Queen’s Colours and the regimental Colours.

At the Trooping of the Colour, the Colours paraded are the Queen’s Colours.

Apart from the Second King Edward VII’s Own Ghurkha Rifles, rifle regiments don’t carry Colours. Cavalry regiments carry either guidons or standards.

Before being used, the Colours are consecrated in a special church service, and when an individual set of Colours is retired, they are given an honourable retirement in public often church building.

What happens at the Trooping the Colour parade

Events begin at about 10 o’clock in the morning. The Queen, and other members of the royal family who attend in two mid Victorian horse drawn carriages parade from Buckingham Palace, along the Mall, to Horse Guard’s Parade and Whitehall.

The royal carriages arrive at precisely 11 o’clock, and the Royal Salute is offered to the Queen. Then comes the inspection of the line, when the Queen drives in her carriage down the ranks of all the guards and then pass the Household Cavalry.

The Queen inspecting her troops from her carriage, June 2007

The Queen inspecting her troops from her carriage, June 2007

The Queen’s royal horses, which she uses on ceremonial occasions, are kept at the Royal Mews, and she has about 30 of them.

In addition to driving the Queen around on ceremonial occasions, the horses are also used in other state processions and some represent Great Britain in national and international carriage driving competitions.

The Queen arrives at her post and dismounts from the carriage, standing to receive the Royal Salute as guards present arms and the assembled military band play the National Anthem.

As the Queen and other members of the royal family inspect the guards and the cavalry, the bands continue to play various patriotic and relevant tunes.

The Queen is accompanied not only by members of the royal family but her Master of the Horse, the Crown Equerry, the Equerries in Waiting, and the General Officer commanding the London district.

The Queen attending Trooping the Colour on horseback, riding side saddle, in 1986.

The Queen attending Trooping the Colour on horseback, riding side saddle, in 1986.

After inspecting all her troops the Queen arrives back at her platform and stays there for the rest of the ceremony.

After some marching about by the massed bands, the Escort for the Colour marches in quick time to the British Grenadier’s tune.

The Ensign for the Colour and the Regimental Sergeant Major salute the Colours and receive it from the Sergeant of the Colour party.

After the Regimental Sergeant Major has done his saluting, he receives the Colour, and the Ensign then salutes it, sheaths his sword, and puts the Colour in his Colour belt.

The Escort for the Colour is now the Escort to the Colour, as it is safely received, and the Escort marches in slow time through the ranks of the assembled guards, trooping it all of the ranks.

Each regiment of the Foot Guards then march in slow time along the parade ground. Led by the Escort to the Colour, who flourishes (lowers) the Colour as he passes the Queen, and raises it again afterwards. The band continue playing songs such as Men of Harlech.



The massed mounted bands of the Household Cavalry then have their turn of marching passed the saluting point.

The Queen and other members of the Royal Family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the Trooping the Colour

The Queen and other members of the Royal Family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the Trooping the Colour

After all the marching passed has been done, the Queen gets in her carriage again and goes back down The Mall, leading her soldiers, to Buckingham Palace.

The parade ground markers march from Horse Guard’s Parade back to their barracks.

With the troops following, the Queen waits after she gets out of her carriage at the gates of Buckingham Palace and the whole parade marches passed her again and salutes.

All members of the royal family in attendance then go into Buckingham Palace and onto the balcony for an RAF flypast.

In Green Park, opposite Buckingham Palace, the King’s Troops, Royal Horse Artillery, fire a 41 gun salute.

The Royal Standard flies from Buckingham Palace, showing that the Queen is in residence.

From her accession to the throne in 1952 until 1987, the Queen attending the Trooping of the Colour riding in a side saddle. Since 1987, she has taken the Trooping of the Colour in a horse drawn carriage.

For more information about every march, twist and turn of the Guards, see this article. The official Army’s website about Trooping the Colour can be found here.




The Berlin Airlift and the Royal Air Force

By , May 13, 2009 5:15 pm

A plane landing at Templehof Airfield in late 1948Yesterday, 12th May, was the 60th anniversary of the ending of the Berlin blockade by Stalin, and therefore the end of the absolutely incredible Berlin airlift.

Stalin blockaded Berlin in June 1948, after Winston Churchill had already spoken with misgiving of the “Iron Curtain falling across Europe”.

After the end of the Second World War, Germany was occupied by the Allied Power – the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the USSR.  Each power had a chunk of Germany, and also a chunk of Berlin – but Berlin was cut off from the rest of what would become West Germany by the future East Germany – it was surrounded.

Stalin got unco-operative.  His aim from VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) in 1945 was to encourage, push and oblige the other Allied powers out of the whole of Germany. He wanted to have a united country, which was Communist and under his control, much as Poland and Czechoslovakia were.

In the first major crisis of the Cold War, therefore,  Berlin was targeted. Communist candidates in the elections of 1946 were overwhelmingly voted against – Berliners had only too recent memories of the sustained campaign of rape and theft carried out by the USSR’s Red Army.

Starting in March 1948, the USSR began to insist on prior clearance and permits for any barges, trains or lorries crossing the Soviet Zone, including those in Berlin.  They also started searching all Allied transport, checking passports, and generally making themselves as awkward as possible.

Berlin was the first stage in Stalin’s plan to grab all of Germany. USSR foreign minister Molotov (who had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Hitler in August 1939) said, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

The crisis came to a head in June 1948, when the USSR stopped all land-based transport into and out of Berlin, from and to the other Allied sectors.

The Allied forces were in trouble. British officers had calculated that Berlin needed 1,500 tonnes of food and 3,500 tons of coal, petrol and oil a day to keep it alive, a total of 5,000 tonnes per day. The  Royal Air Force had, at the time, a daily airlift capacity of 400 tonnes, which could be upped to 800 tonnes fairly easily with the transfer of additional planes from the UK,  and the US airforce 300 tonnes per day.

The Berlin airlift started on 28th June 1948. The first week, only 90 tonnes was flown in, and the second week, 900 tonnes. But the operation built up steam fast – by the end of July, 3,400 tonnes a day was being flown in, and by September, the necessary 5,000 tonnes a day.

The Soviets tried their best to derail the operation. They shot near (but not at) Allied planes, and flew their own planes in the way (a couple of crashes were caused when they got too close). They also initiated a sustained programme of radio propaganda, trying to persuade Berliners that the airlift was hopeless and offering incentives for the people to move to Soviet areas.

The original 5,000 tonnes per day depended on a very limited diet, intended to be short-term, and summer weather. By the winter, the daily lift necessary was 11,000 tonnes. The Allied powers, joined now by France, were determined not to back down, and more planes and crews were brought in.

By April 1949, the daily supply into Berlin was actually greater than had arrived by train before the start of the blockade.

The Soviets had been embarrassed, and on 12th May 1949, lifted the blockade. The airlift continued for some time, however, as the Allied Powers didn’t trust Stalin further than they could throw him, and wanted to build up large reserves of food and fuel in Berlin.

100 people died during the airlift, including 40 RAF pilots.

The scale of the operation was absolutely amazing. At the height of the airlift,  a plane landed every 90 seconds, and near misses were alarmingly common.

It was a real achievement, and prevented a significant expansion of Soviet power throughout Europe.

You can read a fascinating account of RAF pilots’ experiences of the Berlin Airlift here, in this BBC article, “Bitter-sweet memories of Berlin Airlift

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