Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Tower of London~ Its Prisoners

by Debra Brown

See also The Tower of London, Part One

The Tower of London is the oldest fortified building still in occupation. It was built to protect the Norman William the Conqueror from the angry people he had conquered, starting in 1066. For many centuries there were many people living therein. These included archers, men-at-arms, groomsmen, masons, carpenters, warders, gaolers, the executive and administrative staff, roadmenders, domestic servants, cooks, barmaids, tradesmen, messengers, and prisoners (who at times exceeded a thousand in number).

The First Known Prisoner

The first known prisoner was also a Norman, Rannulf Flambard, chief minister to William II (Rufus). He was a churchman whom Rufus later appointed Bishop of Durham. He was of humble origins, but worked his way up to his positions by flattery and treachery. He was dishonest, unscrupulous and arrogant. Londoners cried out against him for his practice of extortion, an endless succession of taxes and heavy fines. Clergy learned that he was selling church appointments to the highest bidder, and they joined in against him. Rufus was benefiting from the money brought in and did not listen. His successor Henry I, however, wanted to allay the people and charged him with simony. He was imprisoned in the White Tower, and all England rejoiced greatly.

Flambard was allowed great privileges as a prisoner, including chaplains, servants and a plentiful supply of food. Many casks of wine were brought in. Interestingly, he was imprisoned in the Banqueting Hall. One night he invited his guards to dine with him. In one of the casks, rope had been hidden by his friends. He made sure that the warders drank plenty, and as they slept it off, he tied the rope to a pillar by a window. Though he barely could squeeze his great girth through it, he managed. The rope was short and he fell part of the way to the ground, but merely bruised, he succeeded in escaping. Friends took him by boat and then ship to Normandy.

Jewish Prisoners

Because the Church did not allow its followers to loan money on interest, the Jews came to be the country's sole moneylenders. Traders, craftsmen, landowners, noblemen and even the King himself would borrow from them. Often the interest was high, goods and land were given as surety, and the Jews inevitably profited. Resentment began to develop against them. The Jews were regarded as aliens who dressed differently, talked with accents and took no part in Christendom's ceremonies. Soon growing anti-Semitism was fanned over the killing of Jesus, and the Jews were accused of ritually slaughtering Christian children. A massacre of Jewish elders occurred when they brought gifts for the coronation of Richard the Lionhearted. To prevent such incidents, the Jews were made to live in separate walled sections of towns. A part of the city of London is Old Jewry. This picture is looking eastward from Frederick Place into Old Jewry.

Richard greatly disapproved of the outbreaks, for the Jews brought considerable profit to the Crown in taxes and fines. Henry III allowed them to move into the Tower of London to escape persecution. However, his son had a different viewpoint. Edward I had borrowed heavily from Italian bankers, who later moved into England. The Jews were no longer indispensable. In 1278 Edward arrested them all on the charge that they were clipping precious metals off the coins of the realm. He moved the Mint into the Tower, and he imprisoned six hundred Jews in its rat-infested vaults. After some months, 267 of them were taken out and hanged. In 1290, they were banished from the country and did not return for four centuries.

Welsh and Scottish Kings

Welsh chieftain Llewellyn the Great took two-thirds of Wales back from the Norman Marchers. His son, Griffith, was captured and taken to the tower along with his own son, also named Llewellyn. Though Griffith died in an attempt to escape, his son was allowed to rule the northwest corner of Wales on the condition that he did homage to the English King. Llewellyn, titling himself Prince of Wales, declined to pay homage to Edward and even married Simon de Montfort's daughter. His head was impaled upon a pike above the White Tower. His brother David was also executed and the title Prince of Wales was bestowed upon Edward's eldest son, who was born at Caernarvon. The title, ever since, has been given to the eldest son of the monarch.

In 1295, John Baliol, King of Scotland, allied himself with France and marched his troops across the border into England. Edward retaliated. Baliol's rivals for the throne, the father and son both named Robert Bruce, supported Edward. Edward captured Edinburgh Castle and Baliol surrendered. He and his son went to the Tower along with other Scottish prisoners. His life there was luxurious, paid for by the English King, who now had Baliol's personal estate. At the Pope's intercession, Baliol was pardoned and given a home in England and a pension. A second Scottish leader, William Wallace, crossed the border to fight and was executed at the Tower.

The Princes in the Tower

Edward IV died at the age of forty, and his elder son was proclaimed King Edward V at only twelve. His uncle, Richard of Gloucester, was to be Protector during his minority. Richard, however, ordered the postponement of the coronation. Edward V was moved to the Tower, where he could have a comfortable residence and be 'adequately protected' by guards under Richard's control.

The boy's mother, the Queen, was persuaded to give up her other son, the nine-year-old Duke of York, to be a companion to Edward in the Tower. The Queen had no option, and he went. Richard now moved to have the boys declared bastards. The marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville was attacked. Edward had previously been betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler and so was not free to marry Elizabeth, it was claimed, and the marriage ceremony was performed in an unconsecrated place. The declaration that the children were illegitimate and that Richard was king by right was made by Dr. Ralph Shaw at St. Paul's Cross just outside the cathedral, and Richard rode past on cue. The congregation looked at him, astonished. Two days later, the Duke of Buckingham entered the Guildhall and called on the assembly and Mayor to call on Richard to assume the crown. There was no response except from the Duke's own retainers, who threw up their caps, crying 'King Richard!'. Parliament met the next day, proclaiming the children illegitimate and Richard was enthroned on the third day in Westminster Hall. Many of those who supported him as Protector now turned against him, including the Duke of Buckingham. Spies informed Richard that a rescue of the boys from the Tower was planned, and he lost no time in getting rid of them. A month after the coronation, the Princes were seen for the last time. One, possibly two, of those who played a part in the murder later confessed. Two centuries later, in the reign of Charles II, the skeletons of two boys of their ages were found amid the rubble on the collapse of the staircase leading to St. John's Chapel. Upon examination, Charles determined that these were the boys and had them reburied in Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, with a Latin inscription that lays blame upon their Uncle Richard III. A further investigation in 1933 corroborates the report of Charles' authorities.

Of course, you know of other famous prisoners in the Tower of London. Some of those will be discussed in my next post.

Resource: The Tower of London by R.J. Minney

Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, an early Victorian novel inspired by the stories of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.


  1. Great stories of the Tower. Thanks for the interesting post, Debra.

  2. The Tower is a morbidly fascinating place and the ghosts still linger. How convenient to lock up those who are inconvenient or interfere with your designs. We really have nothing like it in America. I'm looking forward to your next blog about other people who were confined here!

  3. The Tower was built, as were all castles in the 11th century, as a secure dwelling for the kings and their families and retainers. So the Royal family lived there, on and off, for a long time--just like any other mediaeval fortress across Europe really. Winchester was the capital of England, at the time, not London. And, like any mediaeval fortress-dwelling, the place had dungeons--there's nothing particularly remarkable about that for the time. During the Peasants' Revolt, the whole Royal family holed up there--it was safe, impregnable even, so it would have been, not stark and 'prisonish' as we think of it, but decorated with tapestries, rushes on the floor, the best furniture--that kind of thing. Just like Stirling Castle in Scotland, for example.

    Richard II, having been kept safe there as a child, was immured there prior to his murder. The poet and later Dean of St. Paul's, John Donne, was imprisoned here in the 16th century--by which time, its position as super-jail was established. Elizabeth I was also a prisoner, during her sister's reign. As was the poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt...

  4. All by itself the Tower is a core sample of English history from its inception to the present. I was enjoying and thinking of all the time periods as you mentioned prisoners or those who used it for safety. Look forward to the next installment.

    Thanks for posting, Debbie!

  5. Fascinating post, Debra.

    In the 13th century, when King Henry III was residing in the Tower and summoned his lords, one by one, to visit him there, they refused saying it was like the fox inviting the hare to his den.

    As for the Church banning money lending, there was a striking exception: the Knights Templars and Hospitallers were major money lenders. It had begun as a means of financing the crusades but became a major international banking business. The Jews, however, gave lower interest rates.

  6. I highly recommend the series on the Tower that can be seen streaming on Netfix. It is as close to being there as you can get from my side of the pond. It shows some of the tapestries that hang there still, which belonged to Henry VIII!

    Even some of the high ranking prisoners had it pretty good there while living. They could stroll the grounds and so on.

    My source, The Tower of London by RJ Minney, said that it was just the Jews that loaned money until the Italian bankers came, but Katherine has promised us a post on moneylending in the day. I know the Knights Templars and Hospitallers will be of great interest to everyone.

  7. I feel a perfect numpty: it was Pontefract Castle where Richard II was murdered, not in the Tower.

    There's been a lot of archaeological digging about the place in the last decade and there was at least one documentary on the rather large parts of the Tower which are no longer standing. They were there in Henry VIII's day though--there was a vast banqueting hall, for starters. They've done cyber reconstructions and it's all quite eye-popping. Whitehall, of course, didn't look like it does now either--most of London for that matter.

    But they were quite clear that the Tower was only one part of the 'court' in London...and then you could go down the river to hunt in Richmond Park...I believe it was during the fall of Anne Boleyn and all that had to do with that kangaroo trial, that the reputation of the place really started to alter. Henry didn't want to be there either any longer--he associated it with Anne. That's at least what I recall from this documentary.

    Another very famous inhabitant was of course the alchemist, John Dee. A Catholic, and probably in cahoots with the Spanish. But he lived there, and played with his chemicals and his astrological charts and all that for years. And in some comfort too.

  8. Wonderful post! Of course you know you are calling down the thunder when you criticize Richard III. The man has a rabid following. I love your courage!

  9. Nancy, I don't know if there is a faction that doesn't believe this, and I was not there as an eyewitness, but I have certainly found enough sources that have this view point. Who else would have disposed of these two boys after Richard had them sent there and then became King himself? Let them rail against me. :D

  10. To say the very least against him, he was their Protector! That he did not do well.


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