Thursday, September 5, 2019

Little Ease and the Tower of London

by Nancy Bilyeau

In 1534, a man and woman hurried past a row of cottages on the outer grounds of the Tower of London. They had almost reached the gateway to Tower Hill and, not far beyond it, the city of London, when a group of yeomen warders on night watch appeared in their path.

In response the young couple turned toward each other, in what seemed a lover’s embrace. But something about the man caught the attention of a yeoman warder. He held his lantern higher and within seconds recognized the pair. The man was a fellow yeoman warder, John Bawd, and the woman was Alice Tankerville, a condemned thief and prisoner.

So ended the Tower’s first known escape attempt by a woman. But Alice’s accomplice and admirer, the guard John Bawd, was destined to enter the Tower record books too, and for the grimmest of reasons—he is the first known occupant of a peculiar torture cell used during the reigns of the Tudors and early Stuarts. The windowless cell measured 1.2m (4 square feet) and bore the faintly prim name of Little Ease. The prisoner within it could not stand nor sit nor lie down but crouched over, in increasing agony, until freed from the suffocating, dark space.

In 1215 England outlawed torture through the passage of Magna Carta, except by royal warrant. The first king to authorize it, reluctantly, was Edward II. He submitted to intense pressure from the Pope to follow the lead of the king of France and demolish the Order of the Knights Templar, part of a tradition begun during the Crusades. King Philip IV of France, jealous of the Templars’ wealth and power, charged them with heresy, obscene rituals, idolatry and other offenses. The French knights denied all, and were duly tortured. Some who broke down and “confessed” were released; all who denied wrongdoing were burned at the stake.

Once Edward II had ordered imprisonment of members of the English chapter, French monks arrived in London bearing their instruments of torture. In 1311 the Knights Templar “were questioned and examined in the presence of notaries while suffering under the torments of the rack” within the Tower of London as well as prisons of Aldgate, Ludgate, Newgate and Bishopgate, according to The History of the Knights Templar, the Temple Church, and the Temple, by Charles G. Addison. And so the Tower—principally a royal residence, military stronghold, armory, and menagerie up until that time—was baptized in torture.

Did the instruments remain after the Knights Templars were crushed, to be used on other prisoners? We cannot be certain, although there is no record of it. The next mention of a rack within the Tower is a startling one—an unsavory nobleman made Constable of the Tower pushed for one to be installed. John Holland, third duke of Exeter, arranged for a rack to be brought into the Tower. It is not known if men were stretched upon it or if it was merely used to frighten. In any case, this rack is known to history as the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter.

It was in the 16th century that prisoners were unquestionably tortured in the Tower of London. The royal family rarely used the fortress on the Thames as a residence; more and more, its stone buildings contained prisoners. And while the Tudor monarchs seem glittering successes to us now, in their own time they were beset by insecurities: rebellions, conspiracies and other threats both domestic and foreign. There was a willingness at the top of the government to override the law to obtain certain ends. This created a perfect storm for torture.

“It was during the time of the Tudors that the use of torture reached its height,” wrote historian L.A. Parry in his 1933 book The History of Torture in England. “Under Henry VIII it was frequently employed; it was only used in a small number of cases in the reigns of Edward VI and of Mary. It was whilst Elizabeth sat on the throne that it was made use of more than in any other period of history.”

Yeoman Warder John Bawd admitted he had planned the escape of Alice Tankerville “for the love and affection he bore her.” Unmoved, the Lieutenant of the Tower ordered Bawd into Little Ease, where he crouched, in growing agony. The lovers were condemned to horrible deaths for trying to escape. According to a letter in the State Papers of Lord Lisle, written on March 28, Alice Tankerville was “hanged in chains at low water mark upon the Thames on Tuesday. John Bawd is in Little Ease cell in the Tower and is to be racked and hanged.”

Today no one knows exactly where Little Ease was located. One theory: within the nooks and crannies of the White Tower. Another: in the basement of the old Flint Tower. No visitor sees it today; it was torn down or walled up long ago. Besides Little Ease, the most-used torture devices were the rack, manacles, and a horrific creation called the Scavenger’s Daughter. For many prisoners, solitary confinement, repeated interrogation, and the threat of physical pain were enough to make them tell their tormentors anything they wanted to know.

Often the victims ended up in the Tower for religious reasons. Anne Askew was tortured and killed for her Protestant beliefs; Edmund Campion for his Catholic ones. But the crimes varied. “The majority of the prisoners were charged with high treason, but murder, robbery, embezzling the Queen’s plate, and failure to carry out proclamations against state players were among the offenses,” wrote Parry. The monarch did not need to sign off on torture requests, although sometime he or she did. Elizabeth I personally directed that torture be used on the members of the Babington Conspiracy, a group that plotted to depose her and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. But usually these initiatives went through the Privy Council or tapped the powers of the Star Chamber. It is believed that in some cases, permission was never sought at all.

Over and over, names pop up in state papers of those confined to Little Ease:

“On 3 May 1555: Stephen Happes, for his lewd behavior and obstinacy, committed this day to the Tower to remain in Little Ease for two or three days till he may be further examined.”
“10 January 1591: Richard Topcliffe is to take part in an examination in the Tower of George Beesley, seminary priest, and Robert Humberson, his companion. And if you shall see good cause by their obstinate refusal to declare the truth of such things as shall be laid to their charge in Her Majesty’s behalf, then shall you by authority hereof commit them to the prison called Little Ease or to such other ordinary place of punishment as hath been accustomed to be used in those cases, and to certify proceedings from time to time.”

After the death of Elizabeth and succession of James I came the most famous prisoner of them all to be held in Little Ease, Guy Fawkes. Charged with plotting to blow up the king and Parliament, Fawkes was subjected to both manacles and rack to obtain his confession and the names of his fellow conspirators. After he had told his questioners everything they asked, Fawkes was still shackled hand and foot in Little Ease and left there for a number of days.

And after that final burst of savagery, Little Ease was no more. A House of Commons committee reported the same year as Fawkes’ execution that the room was “disused.” In 1640, during the reign of Charles I, torture was abolished forever; there would be no more forcing prisoners to crouch for days in dark airless rooms, no more rack or hanging from chains.

And so, mercifully, closed one of the darkest chapters in England’s history.

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally posted May 7, 2012. 


Nancy Bilyeau has written five novels of historical suspense. She is the author of the best-selling art and porcelain thriller “The Blue,” set in 18th century England, and the Tudor trilogy “The Crown,” “The Chalice,” and “The Tapestry,” on sale in nine countries. Nancy is a magazine editor who has lived in the United States and Canada and worked on the staffs of “InStyle,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Rolling Stone.” She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the Research Foundation of CUNY and a regular contributing writer to “Town & Country" and "Mystery Scene Magazine."

Nancy’s mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in Forest Hills in the borough of Queens. "Dreamland," coming out in January 2020, is her first novel set in her adopted hometown of New York City. For more info on "Dreamland," go to


  1. A fascinating article, Nancy. When I was at the tower, the warden said that when they pulled up the flooring in the little church, there were over a thousand bodies buried there, most of them not recorded. I don't think we'll ever know what really went on in that place.

  2. That's a very interesting article. I'd never heard of 'Little Ease' - who on earth came up with these ideas?

    I've often thought I should visit the Tower when in London, but its story puts me off - sad, that eh?

  3. Thank you for your comments.
    Esmeraldamac, the Tower of London is a fantastic place to visit. The crown jewels and armor are definitely worth seeing, and they're not a bit sad.

  4. There are a number of witnesses who claimed that James I oversaw at least some of the torture of Fawkes, and certainly that of the Jesuit priest, Barnet, either by being in the room, or peering through a peep-hole. Also, during the later uprising in the Midlands about the Enclosures, he authorised the use of it on the ring-leaders.

    Subsequently, although torture was outlawed in England, it was not outlawed in Scotland, and James II was known to have participated in it in Edinburgh--applying a thing called the Boot, himself.

  5. The Boot is soooooo horrible. Happier than ever they elevated the daughters

  6. I'd be interested to know the source for Guy Fawkes' imprisonment in Little Ease. Could you share?

  7. DaintyBallerina: Many sources refer to Fawkes' being held in Little Ease:

    I used the book The History of Torture in England as source, as well as the curatorial staff at the Tower of London.

    Antonia Fraser wrote a detailed book about the conspiracy called "Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot." I highly recommend it.

  8. Thanks Nancy! I've just finished a PhD on the plot and haven't come across any primary sources which refer to his being held in Little Ease, hence my curiosity. I'll have a look at the sources you mention. Great piece by the way!

  9. Fawkes' signature before and after the racking was chilling

  10. Great piece, Nancy! Thanks! This is Anne B.

  11. Fascinating post! Incidentally, there is a specific reference to torture being used in the Tower in 1468, when the chronicler known as the pseudo-William Worcester reported that a suspected Lancastrian agent named Cornelius was sent to the Tower "and tortured by burning in the feet until he confessed many things." The Great Chronicle of London also reports that during this time, a Hawkins was "sett upon the Brake callyed the duke of Excetyrs dowghtyr."

  12. Oh thanks for the note from the historical record, Susan! I had a feeling that the Duke of Exeter's Daughter wasn't there just to frighten people. The Scavenger's Daughter was named after his Tudor-era "creator." I think someone with a psychiatric background could study why these men wanted their torture devices called their daughters. It's beyond me.

  13. Gruesome but wonderful read! I visited the Tower of London when my son was little and can still remember the tingles I felt staring at Traitor's Gate. Shiver.

  14. Fascinating! It seems to me, once you were accused, it was all over. If they tortured you, you were lost whether you "confessed" or not. I saw the Tower (funny they still call it "the" tower when it's a whole complex of buildings) when in London, and it was fascinating! A Yeoman Warder told me the half-timbered Tudor buildings within the walls were some of the oldest in London as the Great Fire didn't quite reach them. I'm reading a Edward IV and Richard III era novel now, and the Tower figures prominently.

  15. Carmen: Criminal trials were very very short. One day. So yes, it was over pretty quickly whether you were in the Tower or out.
    And how I love the Tower of London. On my last visit to London, I was in the last group of the day, so the sun was low as I walked the grounds. Gave it a bit more edge. :)

  16. Wonderful post. Torture devices and practices somehow fascinate me, because they seem so alien to the world we live in. I had never heard of the Little Ease, so glad to have come across this post.

  17. I believe that visiting the cells where these dreadful deeds were practiced is too indifferent to the plight of the victims. The extreme cruelty truly is offensive to me. I can only appreciate Charles I for ending these deeds in 1640. Can't say I like learning this at all. I know that when I saw a real guillotine I did not fully appreciate its cruelty either. It is just an instrument unless your head is on the block.

  18. Thank you for such a well written article. I always enjoy reading about the history of this period.

  19. Great article Nancy. When I was in London I enjoyed touring The Tower. I ensured that I went back a few times to absorb the complete essence of the place. I was fortunate to sit in the garden outside the church and write a bit, I do indeed believe the many ghosts were assisting me. I felt very creative!!!

  20. I read about the little-ease in Albert Camus' "The Fall" and this was the first hit. Really informative - thanks so much!

  21. Nice note. I'm not fully sure about the Templars beign wiped upon the Rome bishop's request; as a matter of fact, when the king of Francs attacked the Templars, who had developed a network of banking services, among it: 'Promissory notes', that made the order very rich, the sucessor of saint Peter warned the king that any action on a religious order was his sole responsibility, and bitterly regretted and critized that this happened. The issue is discussed in the work about Spanish Inquisiton, by the Catalunya based historian: Ricardo Garcia-Carcel. Court-related torture seems having been quite constant in some periods of German history, and Francisco Tomas y Valiente, murdered by the baske revolutionnaires of ETA, wrote about: 'Judicial Torture in Spain'


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