by Lauren Johnson
July, 1533: In the cool relief of a summer evening, two oars broke the inky surface of the River Thames. A woman’s laughter echoed across the quiet riverbanks as a small boat approached the Turning Tree. The oarsmen bent to their task while the two passengers – men whose clothes revealed them to be wealthy as well as foreign – did not let their eyes drift from the woman opposite.
As the Tree came into view the woman shifted in her seat and suddenly, from beneath a leather covering in the stern a man emerged, clutching a dagger. Before he could cry out, one of the foreign passengers was dead. The other pleaded for mercy, but his shouts went unheard. Once both men were dead the murderer, the oarsmen and the woman bound the foreigners face to face and threw their bodies in the river. There, it was hoped, they would remain.
Rebecca Todd, interpreting
Alice Wolf at the Tower of London (2013)
The authorities, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Cromwell, moved quickly to prevent the killers escaping. A ‘Kolener born’ by the name of John Wolf was widely believed to be the chief actor in the crime, and it was not long before both he and his accomplices were in custody. One of these accomplices, the woman who had enticed the foreigners out onto the river that evening, was to go down in history as a notorious ‘pirate’ and the only woman ever to escape the Tower of London. This is the extraordinary story of Alice Wolf.
Alice, it seems, was a native Londoner. Wolf was her married name, although exactly how married she and John Wolf were is still a matter of debate. Her maiden name was Tankerville or Tankerfelde, but more than that we do not know. It was only with the murderous events of 1533 that she forced her way into the record of Henry VIII’s reign. She may have been a prostitute, and the chronicler Edward Hall, who was a lawyer of Gray’s Inn and acted as counsel in the Wolf case, certainly believed Alice to be ‘a harlot’ who ‘haunted strangers’ chambers’. Hall may simply have been expressing his moral disapprobation for Wolf and Alice’s common law marriage, but Alice clearly knew how to use her charms to her advantage.
Of John Wolf we can say slightly more. He was a merchant of the Steelyard, that area inside the walls of the City of London near modern-day Blackfriars. There, Hanseatic merchants operated and were governed by their own law. John Wolf first appears in documents on his arrival in London in 1531, rather suspiciously mentioned alongside the theft of 366 crowns from Cologne. If he really was a ‘Kolener born’ had he fled his birth city laden with bags of stolen gold? He was certainly considered a criminal, and in 1532 was consigned to the Tower of London as a prisoner, apparently at the instigation of the Hanseatic merchants.
He and Alice were already involved at this point, and she regularly visited him in the Tower to provide him with the comforts a prisoner had to pay for out of his own pockets. A later prisoner, Father John Gerard, recorded that all prisoners had food provided by the Crown: ‘six small rolls of very good bread’ daily, but ‘the prisoner must find his own bed and any other furniture he wants’ otherwise your ‘bed’ would be a pile of straw on the floor. Clothes also had to be brought in from outside.
Still, Wolf was comparatively lucky – his gaoler, John Bawde, was clearly not an unkind man and during Wolf’s incarceration he, Bawde and Alice became friends. When Wolf was released from the Tower he fled to Ireland and left Alice in Bawde’s care during his absence.
On his return a year later, John Wolf found that Alice had made the acquaintance of two foreign merchants: Jerome de George and Charles Benche. The pair were wealthy, and Alice knew enough of the inside of the men’s chambers to tell her husband that even more riches were hidden there. It was then, in summer 1533, that Alice and John hatched the plan that was to be their undoing: they would lure the men onto the river, with two trusted associates in the guise of oarsmen, and Wolf himself concealed in the stern of the boat. When they were far enough from watching eyes, Wolf would emerge, kill the men, then they would strip them both of their goods – and, crucially, of the keys to the chamber where the rest of their wealth was kept.
At first, they seemed to have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Wolfs and their accomplices were so voracious in their hunting that they secured goods to the value of £100. This sum was considerable. William Warham, Archdeacon of Canterbury, retired on an annual pension of £80.
But the bodies of the merchants were not lost. And when they were discovered, Wolf found himself once more a prisoner of the Tower – and this time Alice was there with him. The authorities were particularly concerned that Alice not escape justice. In a letter to Cromwell one prosecutor pleaded for his superior to intercede, fearing that ‘if the diabolic woman escape, we shall be in great jeopardy’.
|Alice Wolf's escape route, over St Thomas's Tower|
In late January 1534 the Wolfs’ fate was sealed. They were condemned to death by an act of attainder. As they had committed their crime on water they were pirates in the eyes of the law and their death would be a particularly unpleasant one. They would ‘hang upon Thames at low water mark in chains’, and the rising tide would drown them.
It was a death that Alice was determined not to meet. Mistress Wolf clearly had a way of playing on the sympathy of those around her. The chief official in the Tower was the Lieutenant, a respectable gentleman who sometimes lived within the walls of the fortress with his family. Perhaps this is how the Lieutenant’s daughter came to meet Alice Wolf.
Prisoners would often be given the liberty of the Tower to take the air either on the leads above their cell (literally the roof of a tower) or even walk around inside the walls. It is conceivable that during one of these walks Alice met the Lieutenant’s daughter and pleaded with her for her chains to be removed when she was in her cell. Or perhaps it was William Denys, the Lieutenant’s servant, who grew so close to Alice that he was allegedly plotting a way to help her escape, who conveyed a message to the Lieutenant’s daughter. Either way, by early 1534, although still a prisoner, Alice’s chains had been removed and she could move freely inside her cell.
But Denys’s friendship with Alice had not gone unnoticed. The Lieutenant could not allow his servants to aid and abet criminals, and when it was revealed that Denys knew of a secret route out of the Tower he was dismissed, and with him one possible escape route was closed to Alice.
However, she still had a crucial ally in the Tower, her old friend John Bawde. She begged him to help her escape, and – considering the end she would otherwise make – he could not refuse.
|Traitors Gate, towards the old wharf of the Tower|
This was part of the outer walls of the Tower of London, and only the fortress’s moat separated it from the wharf beyond. On the opposite side of the wharf was the open River Thames, and with it, freedom.
Reaching the roof of St Thomas’s Tower as the bells across London tolled ten o’clock, Alice found John Bawde waiting. He had secured an iron hook to the ropes and threw it over the moat to the wharf opposite. Together, they slid down to the wharf, where they slipped into a lighter – a flat-bottomed barge used to transfer goods along the river – and crept along it until they found a boat at Vaughan’s Stair.
Escape was tantalizingly close. Bawde steered their boat out of the precinct of the Tower and around to one of the weed-slick steps running from the river up towards St Katherine’s Dock, east of the Tower. Somewhere not far from where Tower Bridge now stands, they stepped back onto dry land and walked as confidently as they could in the direction of St Katherine’s Dock, where two horses awaited them in the house of one Jeffrey Haryson. Even in her ill-fitting men’s clothing, Alice must have felt a thrill of triumph as they mounted the hill. They had done it. Once they were on horseback they could flee the country – take a ship to the Continent, perhaps find Wolf’s friends there.
|The White Tower, Tower of London|
The story, of course, does not end there. Alice returned to her cell with death now a certainty. But for John Bawde, death was not enough – he was placed in ‘Little Ease’, a small dark cell where you could neither stand up nor sit down. And having endured those cramped conditions he was racked to discover if any outside forces had compelled him to free Alice. He repeatedly told his questioners that he had acted only out of ‘the love and affection he bare to her’.
The Lieutenant had publicly lost face by allowing not only his dismissed servant to plot with Alice, but also a gaoler and – by her well-meant intercession – his own daughter. He was no doubt keen to make Bawde say as much as possible to throw blame further from his own door. Once it was clear he would reveal no new information, Bawde was hanged.
Both Alice and John Wolf met the fate she had tried to avoid. Edward Hall records their ends:
‘And at the last she and her husband as they deserved, were apprehended, arraigned and hanged at the foresaid Turnyng Tree, where she hanged still and was not cut down, until such time as it is known that beastly and filthy wretches had most shamefully abused her while being dead.’
So ended the life of Alice Wolf: murderess, pirate, prostitute perhaps – but brave all the same, and worthy of being better remembered in the history of the Tower of London. She may not have got far, but her daring escape is still the only one we know of by a woman. Whatever other crimes we can accuse her of, she certainly cannot be called a coward.
Philip Caraman (trans.), John Gerard: The Autobiography of an Elizabethan (Longmans, Green and Co, 1951)
Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle: Containing the History of England (London, 1809)
Journal of the House of Lords: volume 1: 1509-1577 (1802).
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volumes 4-10 (at British History Online)
John Charlton, The Tower of London: Its Buildings and Institutions (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1978)
Alan Neame, The Holy Maid of Kent: The Life of Elizabeth Barton, 1506-1534 (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)
Derek Wilson, The Tower: 1078-1978 (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1978)
Her debut novel, The Arrow of Sherwood is an origin story of Robin Hood, rooting the myth in the brutal, complex reality of the twelfth century. It is published by Pen & Sword Fiction.