Famous Executions in the Tower of London
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.
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.
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 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
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.