Much has been written about the Tower of London, which began life in 1078 at the request of William the Conqueror. It has over 900 years of history; it is home to the crown jewels, and infamous as the site of a number of executions.
In this post, I want to try to tell you about some of the fascinating stories in the Towers history that may not be common knowledge.
Martin the bear-
The Tower of London has 21 towers, each with its own name, usually relating to either what it housed or named after someone relating to the Tower. Some, such as the Bloody Tower, have changed names due to what we think happened within their walls. The Bloody Tower was originally the Garden Tower and became known as the Bloody Tower.
The Tower I would like to tell you about is the Martin Tower. It was originally known as the Irish Tower. Martin was, infact, the name of a grizzly bear, which was once part of the Royal Menagerie at the Tower[i]. Martin the bear was given to King George III in 1811. He would be the first grizzly bear to be in the country, although King George did not seem too impressed. It is said that he commented upon seeing Martin that he would had preferred a pair of socks! Martin would live until 1838 but by 1831, all the animals at the Tower including Martin had been moved to what is now the London Zoo in Regents Park.
The Murder of King Henry VI and William Hastings
Moving on from Martin, the Tower of London in the last few centuries is often associated as being a place of execution. It is alsothe supposed site of the murder of the two young Princes in the Tower. We do know there were at least two confirmed murders within the Tower walls which both have links to King Richard III before he was officially crowned King. These being the murders of King Henry VI while imprisoned in the Tower and the beheading of William Hastings on the orders of Richard III himself (who was not King at that point in time).
King Henry VI was held in the Wakefield Tower after he was caught in 1465. Although it’s reported he had some issues of mania and it was felt he was unable to rule and was unfit for duty, he was still an anointed monarch. King Edward IV, who took the throne from Henry, took the view that while he was alive, even as a prisoner, he was a risk. People, including his wife who was still at large, used him as a rallying point to reclaim the throne. Another concern for Edward was that Henry VI’s only son had just been killed in battle, so he had no direct heir. A choice was taken to get him out of the picture for good.
On the night of the 21st/22nd May 1471, Henry VI was praying in his small chapel (or so legend tells us) within the royal apartments in the Wakefield Tower when he was struck and murdered. The small chapel is still in existence today and a plaque marks the supposed spot of his death. He is buried at Windsor Castle.
Although we will never know who dealt the blow, what we can be sure of was that it would have been on the orders of King Edward and most likely overseen by his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, who was Constable of the Tower at that time. Anything that happened within its walls, he would have been aware of. He was also at the Tower on that fateful night.
Not long after, another murder took place in the Towers walls, this time it was William Hastings. He had been a close companion of King Edward IV and had helped his brother Richard take control of the young king from Edward’s wife, Elizabeth and her Woodville family. William, who had the new young king’s best interest at heart, began to suspect that Richard wanted the throne for himself. It’s believed he started to conspire against Richard to stop him taking the throne, but it seems someone in his confidence betrayed him to Richard.
At the Tower on Friday 13th June 1483, William, Richard and a few others were in a meeting. Richard left to apparently get some strawberries. When he arrived back, his whole demeanour had changed and he asked William what should be done with traitors to the country. William replied that Richard needed to take action against such people. Richard then accused those in the room of treason against him (which was incorrect at this time, as he was not King). William was dragged out of the room and out onto the Tower grounds where he was swiftly executed with his head forced onto a block of wood.
Some of the others with him were imprisoned but were not killed. What Richard had done was completely against the law – it was not treason and even if it was, William and the others should have been placed on trial by their peers. To execute him so swiftly and brutally illustrates to me that Richard felt insecure and wanted to get rid of those who stood in his way.
Anne Boleyn and Queens House
Before, during and after working at the Tower of London, there is an untrue ‘fact’ some people commonly believe about the Tower which still frustrates me. That is the story that Anne Bolyen, the infamous second wife of King Henry VIII was held at the Queens House during her final days in 1536. She was not. The Queens house was not built until 4 years after her execution!
So where was she actually held? Anne was kept in a building that no longer exists. It was actually specially built for her to stay in on the days before her coronation. What a feeling that must have been, to be housed in the same place where she once most likely felt on top of the world, to face her death! The building was used for her daughter Elizabeth a few years later, but even by this point, it was very run down. In the 18th Century, the site was pulled down, as it was uninhabitable. The foundations of her suite of rooms can still be seen in the front of the White Tower today.
“Anne’s new suite of rooms was palatial, consisting of six chambers, including a 70-foot by 30-foot great watching chamber, a presence chamber, privy chamber, closet/oratory, bedchamber and another large chamber (possibly a dining chamber). All rooms were decorated in the most fashionable Renaissance style. A flight of stairs led down directly from Anne’s privy rooms into the courtyard.” (Morris. Online)
Escapes from the Tower
The Tower, as we have seen and know, is the location of imprisonment and death but not all of those who were imprisoned there met their end within the Tower or even on Tower Hill. Some were eventually released. Others did not want to wait to see what fate had in store and would try to escape. In total 40 prisoners managed to escape their prison there. I want to tell you about two of those escapes.
The first was by a man named Ranulf Flambard. He would be the first person to escape the Tower , and was also its first prisoner. Before his imprisonment, Flambard was the Bishop of Durham and the King’s (William the Conqueror) chief tax collector, plus he was the construction manager of the Tower of London’s curtain wall! He was put in prison in 1100 for financial extortion.
So how did he escape? By using a rope which had been smuggled in to him in a gallon of wine by his friends. On the evening of his escape, he got the guards drunk so that when he fled they did not notice him missing. He was met outside by a boat and fled to Normandy. Eventually the King forgave him, allowed him back into the country, and even restored his Bishopric.
The other escape I want to tell you about was much later in 1716, by Lord Nithsdale. He had been imprisoned for being involved in the Jacobite uprisings and was sentenced to death. Although his wife pleaded with the King for her husband’s life, he would not change his mind. And so the she hatched a plan.
On the eve of his execution, Lord Nithsdale’s wife and three other women accompanying her, visited him in the Lieutenant’s lodgings at the Tower. When entering the cell one of the women, Mrs Mills, had her face in a handkerchief, and appeared distraught at the fate awaiting the prisoner. Once the guards had left, the woman who was sobbing stood upright and ceased to cry. She and Lady Nithsdale now had to act quickly. The other two women, a Miss Hilton and Lady Nithsdale’s maid Cecilia, were waiting outside. Lord Nithsdale, on hearing their plan, put on a set of smuggled in woman’s clothes. During this time, Mrs Mills snuck out the cell.
Now came the most daring part of their plan. Lady Nithsdale and her now disguised husband, complete with false ringlets in his hair, left his cell and walked towards the exit of the building. Lady Nithsdale chatted to her ‘distraught’ friend who was still, it seems, burying her sobbing face into her handkerchief. Once out in the courtyard Cecilia took Lord Nithsdale by the arm and led him outside of the Tower to hide.
Lady Nithsdale, meanwhile, re-entered the cell and continued a conversation with her husband, who was no longer present. She did his voice as best she could; she wanted to try to hide his escape for as long as possible. Eventually she too left his cell and reportedly said to the guards “I pray you – do not disturb my Lord. He is at his prayers.” The guards agreed, and only realised he had escaped the following morning!
By this time Nithsdale was well on the way to leaving the country. He fled to Rome, disguised as a servant, where his wife eventually joined him. They would live on for another 33 years.
To the last story I want to share with you this week. Within the Tower lies the Bell Tower. As with the other Towers it has been used to imprison people, the most famous being Thomas More and Princess Elizabeth. Today it is not accessible to the general public, to access it one has to go through the Queens House which is where the governor of the Tower lives (I do not think he would want thousands of tourist going through his home on a daily basis!). It is unfortunate as the Tower is very interesting to see.
I think the most fascinating item within the walls of the Bell Tower, and the whole of the Tower, is a toilet. Yes, I said a toilet. Not a medieval garderobe or seat but a 20th century (and possible still flushable) toilet! It sits at the end of a corridor to the side of the main room in the upper chamber of the Bell Tower.
Why is it there? The reason it was installed is why I find it the most interesting item in the Tower. It was installed especially for Adolf Hitler! The plans were, apparently, that if he was ever caught by the British he was to be imprisoned at the Tower of London, within the Bell Tower. As we know this never happened and we will never know if the generals in charge would have actually placed him in such a high profile spot, but it was certainly the plan. So yes people, there is a modern toilet set in a tower built over 900 years ago for a war criminal!
That brings me to the end of this week’s blog. I hope you have enjoyed the tales I have chosen about the Tower’s history. If you have not visited the Tower I would really recommend it, especially the Beefeater Tours as they have lots more exciting stories to tell (it is included in the ticket price). For more information, please visit www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london
Diehl, D and Donnelly, M (2004) Tales from the Tower of London. Stroud: Sutton
Jerome, F (2006) Tales from the Tower: secrets and stories from a gory and glorious past. London:Think.
Jones, N (2011) Tower: an epic history of the Tower of London. London: Hutchinson
Impey, E and Parnell, G (2000) The Tower of London: An illustrated guide London: Merell
Wier, A (1995) The Princes in the Tower. London: Arrow
Anon (1968) The Famous escape of Lod Nithsdale from the Tower of London. Avalble from: https://www.lookandlearn.com/blog/25947/the-famous-escape-of-lord-nithsdale-from-the-tower-of-london/. [Accessed 26/09/2018]
Anon (2018) The Tower of London – Anne Boleyn returns to her lost palace! Avalble from: http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/tower_london_11.html [Accessed 25/09/2018]
Morris, S (2018) Anne Bolyen returns to her lost palace at the tower Avalible from: https://thetudortravelguide.com/2018/04/29/anne-boleyn-returns-to-her-lost-palace-at-the-tower/ [Accessed 25/09/2018]
[i] For more information on the Menagerie please visit https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/the-tower-of-london-menagerie/#gs.GgLtpfk