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Famous Executions in the Tower of London

Updated on January 6, 2014
Scaffold Site at the Tower of London
Scaffold Site at the Tower of London | Source

About the Tower of London

Have you ever thought about what it must have felt like to be executed in front of a crowd in the Tower of London? The Tower of London is known as one of the most notorious prisons and a place where many famous executions were carried out in history. Yet the building of this now famous landmark was started by William the Conqueror in the 1080’s as a fortress and royal palace, not as a prison. Succeeding generations of monarchs added to the fortifications and buildings and there was also a menagerie of exotic wild animals, such as lions, established at the Tower of London and the Royal Mint was also held there. The Tower of London was also the royal palace that English monarchs stayed in just before their coronations; and Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, who later became known as the Princes in the Tower, were staying in the Tower in preparation for Edward V’s coronation before Richard III seized the throne.

The White Tower, The Tower of London
The White Tower, The Tower of London

Prisoners and Executions at The Tower of London

The first prisoner known to have been held at the Tower was Ranulph Flambard in 1100, and the Tower of London went on to house many notorious traitors and powerful political prisoners. Most of the prisoners were executed just outside of the Tower on Tower Hill, in full view of a large crowd. Noble prisoners were generally beheaded, but those of the lower classes who were unfortunate enough to be condemned for treason were hung, drawn and quatered. This barbaric form of execution was not abolished in Great Britain until 1821 and was last carried out in 1753. It should also be remembered that until the 19th century, executions were regarded as a public entertainment and large crowds would gather to enjoy the spectacle. Some of the most famous executions however took place within the walls of the fortress, on Tower Green, but even then there would have been many official onlookers gathered around the scaffold.

Many of the prisoners who were executed within the Tower itself or on Tower Hill were buried beneath the flagstones in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, and around 1500 bodies were discovered there during excavations undertaken in the time of Queen Victoria. It is believed that the headless corpses were covered in quicklime to make them decay faster and it was common practice to parboil the heads and then display them on spikes on London Bridge as a warning to any who were considering opposing the might of the crown of England.

Tower Green and the Beauchamp Tower
Tower Green and the Beauchamp Tower | Source

John Tiptoft, George Duke of Clarence, Lord Hastings

So who were some of the poor unfortunates who were beheaded or executed in the Tower of London? During the War of the Roses, there was John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester. John Tiptoft had enjoyed a glittering early career. He was created Earl of Worcester in 1449 and then served as Lord High Treasurer and subsequently as Lord Deputy of Ireland. He undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and on his way back spent two years in Italy studying. On his return to England in 1461 he was welcomed by the Yorkist King Edward IV, and he received the Order of the Garter from Edward and also the post of Lord High Constable. It was in this role that he undertook the task of dealing with the attainders and executions of Lancastrian rebels. He was exceptionally cruel in the way these executions were carried out; beheading the prisoners then quartering them and impaling their heads on spikes and this cruelty earned him the name ‘Butcher of England’. He also had the two infant sons of the Earl of Desmond killed in 1467 and in 1470 he had twenty followers of the Earl of Warwick impaled. When Henry VI was returned to the throne in 1470, Tiptoft failed to make good his escape and was executed on Tower Hill. His claim to fame is that he requested the executioner to lop his head off in three strikes in honour of the Holy Trinity.

Another prisoner who was executed during the War of the Roses was George, Duke of Clarence. Clarence was the brother of Edward IV, but he was married to Isobel Neville who was the daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Clarence joined forces with Warwick when he rebelled against Edward and reconciled with Marguerite D’Anjou in order to restore Henry VI to the throne. Clarence then switched sides again and rejoined his brothers, but was not trusted by many in Edward’s court. He was taken to the Tower of London on a charge of treason and condemned to die. He was executed in the Tower in private, and a tradition has grown up that, rather than the usual beheading for a man of his rank, he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine at his own request. A butt of malmsey would have been more than enough wine to drown a grown man and a body has been exhumed that is believed to be Clarence’s that shows no signs of being decapitated.

One of the most rushed executions to ever take place in the Tower of London was probably that of William, Lord Hastings. Hastings had been a follower and close friend of Edward IV, and on his death was ostensibly supporting Richard III’s claim to the throne. During a Council Meeting held in the Tower of London, Hastings was hastily accused of conspiracy and without even being given a trial was dragged into the courtyard and hastily beheaded.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn
Scaffold Site, Tower of London
Scaffold Site, Tower of London | Source

Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard

Henry VIII was one of the most enthusiastic of the English monarchs when it came to the matter of capital punishment, and it has been estimated that around 72,000 people were executed during his reign. His most famous victims were probably two of his six wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. After Catherine of Aragon became too old to bear Henry a male heir, Henry determined to put her aside and marry Anne Boleyn in order to get the son he so desired. This put him into conflict with the Catholic Church and led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the formation of the Church of England. When Anne also failed to produce the desired male heir, she was accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower. She was accused of betraying the King by having carnal knowledge of several other men, including her own brother George Boleyn. The other men accused with her were William Brereton, Thomas Wyatt, Henry Norris, Francis Bryan and Mark Smeaton. George Boleyn, Brereton, Norris and Bryan were all beheaded, while poor Mark Smeaton, who had confessed after being brutally tortured, was hung, drawn and quartered. Anne herself was originally condemned to be burned at the stake, but Henry VIII consented to her being beheaded. Anne was reputedly terrified of the executioner’s axe and, in a very rare move, was executed by a swordsman who had been brought over from France. He managed to sever her head in one blow and display it to the crowd that had been assembled on Tower Green to witness the event.

Ironically, the other queen that was executed by Henry VIII was a cousin of Anne Boleyn. Katherine Howard was hurriedly married to Henry, after the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves. She was very soon accused of having had affairs before her marriage to Henry and a liaison with Thomas Culpeper while she was queen. Legend has it that after she was arrested, she managed to give her guards the slip and ran along the corridor at Hampton Court to the chapel where Henry VIII was hearing mass, where she banged on the chapel doors screaming and pleading for mercy. She was taken to the Tower of London and was beheaded in February 1542. She is supposed to have spent the evening before her execution practising how to lay her head on the block.

The Tower of London

Margaret Pole

One of the cruellest executions that Henry VIII ordered in the Tower of London was that of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Margaret was the only daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isobel Neville and the reasons for her arrest and execution were that her son Cardinal Pole was denouncing Henry’s policies from his exile in France and that she and her sons represented the last of the Plantagenet’s and therefore were a possible threat to Henry’s claim to the throne. She was a frail 67 year old when she was sent to the scaffold on Tower Green, and as she declared that she was no traitor she refused to lay her head on the block. She was pursued round the scaffold by the executioner and eventually forced down. The first blow of the axe slashed her shoulder and it reputedly took a further ten blows to dispatch her to her maker.

So this is the story of some of the famous executions in the Tower of London. There were many more notable executions, such as those of Sir Thomas More, Lady Jane Grey, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and therefore it is perhaps not surprising that there are many ghost stories and hauntings attached to this forbidding, old fortress.

Tower Green Image Pam Fray Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Scaffold Site Image Chris Nyborg Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic


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    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading the hub Richard and leaving a comment

    • profile image

      Richard Dey 

      6 years ago

      Anne Boleyn's preferred weapon was her tongue; Henry Tudor's was the vicarious ax. It was really no contest. I can't defend Henry VIII the Defender of the Faith, but he must have found it annoying when the queen tells the palace that the king is bad in bed.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Sue, thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment. I don't think people got much of a chance to run away back then, as places like the Tower of London were very secure prisons. Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, and although it seems barbaric to us, beheading was considered to be a merciful punishment reserved for the upper classes. Lower class traitors got hung drawn and quartered!

    • profile image

      sue thomas 

      8 years ago

      great to get an insight in to british history,as a scot i was horrified at how barbaric the execution was of our mary queen of scots, although not in the tower of london. as someone who is terrified of the dentist i fail to understand why few people going to be executed tried to run away.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Happy that they let you out of the Tower of London, Don! Whenever I pass the Tower of London, I always think of how small it looks compared to the modern buildings of the City, and yet for centuries it dominated London as a symbol of the power of the State. I think that we need these reminders from the past, so that we can avoid sliding back to those practices and barbarities

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for the compliments on the hub on Executions in the Tower of London, James and for leaving a great comment

    • Don Simkovich profile image

      Don Simkovich 

      9 years ago from Pasadena, CA

      I was at the Tower of London in '05 . . . as a tourist mind you! I can't say this Hub creates holiday cheer but it is fascinating . . . it serves as an important reminder of the fleeting nature of power, too.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      This Hub is awesome! I enjoyed it thoroughly. I learned an extraordinary amount of knowledge from it too. Thank you very much for this pleasure.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Ron, I don't think that medieval rulers regarded themselves as cruel. They fought to protect their throne and capital punishment and torture were pretty much accepted forms of punishment in those days. Any medieval administration who tried things like community service would have been perceived as weak and destroyed in 5 minutes. It was very much survival of the fittest and citizens at that time wanted strong leaders who would protect them. Hopefully things have changed

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is some interesting and gruesome history. Kings of that era were often so unnecessarily cruel.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for the read and the great comment mquee. Yes, people can be very cruel, especially if they think that they are in the 'right', and I think that we are kidding ourselves if we think that the world is any different today than it was at the time of those executions in the Tower of London.

    • mquee profile image


      9 years ago from Columbia, SC

      This is all very interesting history. It is amazing how cruel people can be . Thanks for an excellent hub.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      The Tower of London is very well known for it's ghosts and hauntingss loveofnight. Thanks for the read and the great coment

    • loveofnight profile image


      9 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      i wonder if ghost hunters went there if they would find any lingering spirits hanging around. interesting hub......thx

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      History is an endlessly facinating topic to me De Greek, there is always something new to learn and find out about. Stories like these of the executions in the Tower of London just make me grateful that I don't live in a country where they still have capital punishment. Thanks for the read and the great comment.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      9 years ago from UK

      No matter how many times one hears of these historical event, one always finds something fresh in a new telling. Great stuff!

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Hello, hello, how Henry VIII ever slept at night is a mystery to me. But then he believed he was right, and none are so cruel as the righteous. Thanks for reading the Hub and leaving a great comment.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      The last one must have been traumatic. That poor woman. At least Henry suffered at the end. Some justice. Thank you for an informative hub.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you enjoyed reading about the Tower of London and the executions, gramarye. Thanks for the read and the comment.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Trish_M, they were indeed terrible times, and that is why we all must ensure that our countries do not slip back into these barbaric ways.

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Nell, it is really sad when you try to put yourself in the shoes of the poor souls who were condemned. Anne Boleyn wrote some very sad poetry and there is also various bits of graffiti scratched on some of the walls of the rooms where the prisoners were kept. Thanks for the read and the great comment

    • CMHypno profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Sandyspider, glad you enjoyed reading about the executions in the Tower of London

    • gramarye profile image


      9 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      The Tower of London is a really interesting topic, and a fascinating place!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Terrible times!

      But great hub! :)

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      9 years ago from England

      Hi, this was really interesting. I remember reading Philippa Gregorys book about Katherine Howard, she is a great historical writer, and the way she told about the night before the execution, poor Katherine practising how to put her head on the block, in the right position was so tugging, that it left a me thinking about it all night. it was so real, the way that she wrote made her sound just like any teenager caught up in a horrifying situation. thanks for this, I knew about some of them, but not all. Nell

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Thanks for the history lesson.


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