Unusual prisoners of the Tower

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 12th April 2017

Speaker: Tony Strafford

The Tower of London has held enemies and heroes as prisoners. Life inside could be quite comfortable for those in “open confine”: in return for payment prisoners could eat well, have servants and visitors. Sir Walter Raleigh lived here with his wife and children (his second son was born in the Tower), and he also worked there as tutor to Henry, Prince of Wales. Even open-confine prisoners, however, had to observe the curfew bell each evening.

         “Close confine” was much less pleasant. Cardinal Pole escaped to France, having opposed Henry VIII, so his mother Margaret was executed on Tower Hill instead. Henry Cavendish, imprisoned at the age of 12 for writing in support of Cardinal Pole, was kept in solitary for 38 years until freed by Queen Mary.

         Gifts to the sovereign of animals led to the creation of a menagerie in the Lion Tower. An elephant in Henry II’s time was succeeded by a polar bear (which fished in the Thames) tigers, apes and monkeys. The menagerie was a popular tourist attraction until it became too big, and moved to Regent’s Park to become London Zoo.

         The Royal Mint was in the Tower. Coin-clipping was a serious offence, for which the Jews were blamed and expelled in Edward I’s time. They did not return until invited back by Oliver Cromwell.

         The Knights Templar were imprisoned in the Tower in Edward II’s time. The Pope’s inquisitors arrived to interrogate them under torture. After disbandment their wealth was given to the Knights of St John, predecessors of today’s St John’s Ambulance. Their lands, between the Strand and the Thames, were taken over by lawyers, and became the Inner and Middle Temple, still containing the round Temple church typical of the order.

         When the Catholic James II succeeded his brother in 1685, his illegitimate nephew the Duke of Monmouth raised a rebellion in the West Country, and was defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor. The Bloody Assizes, over which the notorious Judge Jeffreys presided, put 1,300 on trial in the West Country, but Monmouth himself was executed on Tower Hill in a badly botched beheading. His severed head and body were later reunited for a portrait, still held by the National Portrait Gallery.

         When Philip Howard, Duke of Norfolk died in the Tower in 1587 his family alleged that it was suicide, thus depriving the Crown of his “tainted” estate. Murder was more likely.

         Most executions took place not in the Tower itself but on Tower Hill outside. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, beheaded for high treason in 1601, was the only man to be legally executed in the Tower.

         The ceremony of the Queen’s keys has taken place every evening since 1326, by candlelight, with two Yeoman warders and four soldiers. It concludes with the cry of “God save Queen Elizabeth”, to which the spectators reply “Amen”. Their tickets entitle them to return for the opening ceremony at six am the next morning, but none do.

Additional information