Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London

Stephanie Schoppert - May 6, 2017

For centuries, the Tower of London held some of the highest profile prisoners in British history. From deposed royals to kidnapped royals to Nazi spies the intrigue surrounding the famous prison is almost unmatched. The Tower of London was founded in 1066 and the White Tower was built in 1078, 22 years later the castle would begin its long and sordid history as a prison. However, the Tower was never intended to just be a prison, it was also meant to be a royal residence and therefore it has all the lavish accommodations one would expect for medieval royalty.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Guy Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes was a revolutionary who was born in 1570 and was raised by a recusant Catholic father after his biological father died when he was just 8 years old. He converted to Catholicism and grew up to fight in the Eighty Years’ War on the side of Spain. He hoped that by fighting in Spain he would be able to raise support for Catholic rebellion in England in order to put a Catholic monarch back on the throne.

In 1604 he became involved with a group of Catholics who sought to assassinate King James and replace him with his Catholic daughter Princess Elizabeth who was third in line of succession. They hatched the now famous Gunpower Plot in which barrels of gunpower were hidden in a cellar underneath the House of Lords. The plotters leased the room and on November 5, Guy Fawkes waited in the room to light the gunpower in order to kill the King and his supporters.

The plot was discovered when some men feared for the Catholics who were at risk from the blast. They sent a letter of warning which reached King James. The King ordered a search and Guy Fawkes was found with a match and gunpower. He was captured and gave the name John Johnson. He was sent to Tower of London where he was tortured in increasingly painful degrees until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators.

The room of his torture and interrogation is now known as the Guy Fawkes room. Over several days of torture, he finally gave his real name and the names of several of his conspirators. He was put in trial in January 1606 and found guilty. On January 31, he and three others were dragged from the Tower to the Old Palace Yard in Westminster where they were hanged. His body was quartered and sent to the four corners of the Kingdom to be displayed as a warning.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London

Rudolf Hess

Rudolf Hess was one of the last people to be held prisoner in the Tower of London and his stay would prove to be much shorter than many of the other prisoners that were held there. Rudolf Hess was born in 1894 and grew up to be a part of the Nazi party from the very beginning. He part of the march to Beer Hall and he was imprisoned with Adolf Hitler. While in prison Hitler dictated Mein Kampf to Hess who was the personal secretary to Hitler while in prison and considered to be one of his most loyal followers.

After their release from prison, Hitler and Hess were often together with Hitler believing him to be a devoted follower. In 1934, Hess became the deputy leader of the party and then in 1939 he was second in line after Goering to be Head of State. He gave speeches that loudly proclaimed Hitler to be the best thing for Germany and that Hitler was “pure reason incarnate.”

However, it seemed Hess had something as a change of heart in 1941 when he took a Messerschmidt 110 and flew it by himself to Scotland where he crash landed it. He had the plan to negotiate peace between Germany and Britain as long as Churchill was not involved. Hess was captured and spent time in several different prisons. He spent four days at the Tower of London where he signed autographs for the wardens and was remarkably calm and polite. One of the autographs still remains in the warders bar.

After his time at the Tower of London he was put on trial in 1946 and was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Spandau Prison to spend the rest of his life. In 1966, he was the only prisoner left. He died in 1987 by hanging. It was believed to be a suicide but others claimed that he was too frail to hang himself and must have had help. After Hess’ death, the prison was demolished.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Depiction of Flambard’s escape from the Tower of London. WordPress

Ranulf Flambard

Ranulf Flambard was a medieval Normal Bishop of Durham and he was a government minister of King William Rufus of England. He was born in 1060 and joined the chancery of King William I. He had a mixed reputation with some resenting how a man of low birth ordered nobles around but in other circles he was proven financier and administrator and managed to increase the royal revenues.

In 1085 he became the keeper of the King’s seal and when he was beset by pirates he protected the seal by throwing it into the ocean. He served William the Conqueror and upon his death his lands were split between Robert Curthose and William Rufus. Ranulf decided to serve under Rufus. He served Rufus well as an administrator, financial adviser and supervisor of construction projects. After the death of Rufus and the succession of Henry I, Ranulf was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Ranulf was charged with embezzlement and he became the first known person to be held in the Tower of London. He was not only the first prisoner of the Tower of London but he was also the first person to escape from the Tower. The rumors suggest that he was able to get his friends to smuggle him wine and rope. He used the wine to get his guards drunk and the rope to escape the Tower. A ship was arranged that contained some of his treasure and his mother and it sailed him to straight to Normandy.

Once he arrived in Normandy he entered into the service of Robert Curthouse. Ranulf convinced Robert to make a play for the English throne which ended in the Treaty of Alton. As part of the treaty Ranulf was pardoned and his bishopric was restored. He stayed with Robert for a time before returning to England and making peace with Henry. He lived out the rest of his days peacefully dying in September of 1128. His chroniclers were largely unkind but he had a substantial influence in politics and religion of the period.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
King John II. Wikipedia

John II

John II was born in 1319 and was a member of the House of Valois. He was crowned King of France in 1350 at a time when France was in crisis. The country was facing the Black Death, revolts, companies of mercenary soldiers that would plunder the country and there was the constant threat of English aggression. It was that English aggression that would have John II on the wrong side of the wall in the Tower of London.

In 1355 the Hundred Years’ War flared up and Edward the Black Prince led his army through France. John followed with his army and in September 1356 the two armies met. During the Battle of Poitiers, John and 19 of his knights dressed identically in the hopes of preventing John’s capture. The plan failed and John was captured and eventually taken to England. It was decided that the King would best be kept at the Tower of London.

While he was prisoner John II enjoyed a lifestyle that in some ways was better than if he were back home in France. He was allowed to travel and he was given the means to enjoy a very regal lifestyle. His son Charles became regent and had to put down rebellions and find a way to raise money to maintain the army that was needed to defend France. John was busy buying pets, clothes and enjoying his personal court band and astrologer.

In 1360 the Treat of Bretigny finally set the terms for John II’s freedom. He was to pay 3 million crowns and he was allowed to return to France in order to raise the funds. To guarantee he would pay, he left his son Louis of Anjou as a replacement hostage. Louis of Anjou got tired of waiting and escaped in 1363. John saw his son’s escape as a matter of dishonor and decided that he would return to England as a prisoner. He arrived in London in 1364 but a few months later he became ill. He died in April and his body was sent back to France.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
King James I of Scotland. BBC

James I

James I was born in 1394 as the son of King Robert III of Scotland. James was the youngest of three sons but by the time he was 8 years old both of his brothers had died. His middle brother died of suspicious causes while in the care of his uncle, which led to fears for James’ safety. In order to protect the future King, it was decided that James would live in France. In 1406 he was sailing for France when the boat he was on was attacked by pirates. The pirates delivered the prince to Henry IV of England.

Just two weeks after his capture, James I’s father died, making the 12-year-old the new King. The English put a price on the King’s head, but as it was his uncle who took the throne in his absence, there was no desire to pay to the ransom. For 18 years, James I remained a prisoner of the English. He was given a good education and developed a sense of respect for Henry IV. In 1413, Henry IV died and his son Henry V sought to end the lavish lifestyle of James I and had him imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Eventually James I got himself into the good graces of Henry V and he became less of a prisoner and more of a guest. He even helped Henry V in his battles against the French and his desires to take the French crown. A group of Scots fighting for the French who fought against the English found themselves hanged for treason against their King when they fought the English troops that James I was with.

After Henry V died, his infant son Henry VI took the throne. The regency decided that it was time to end the captivity of James I and sent a group to negotiate the release. In 1424, James I married Joan Beaufort while still officially a prisoner of the English. A few months later he was released and finally able to take his throne.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Edward V and his brother Richard in the Tower of London.

Edward V

Edward V remains as one of the most famous prisoners ever held in the Tower of London, largely became of the mystery that surrounds him and his younger brother. They were held together in the Tower of London by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. After his father’s death in 1483, Edward V became the heir to the throne at the young age of 12. His younger brother, Richard was 9 and second in line to the throne.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester was named Lord Protector of Edward V and placed him in the Tower of London where he was to await his coronation. Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, took his sisters and younger brother into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey after Gloucester took possession of Edward. Eventually Elizabeth was convinced to allow Richard, Duke of York to join his older brother at the Tower of London.

In June, just a few months after the death of the King, the coronation was still being pushed back until finally a group of nobles petitioned for Gloucester to take the throne. Both princes were deemed to be illegitimate to rule by Parliament due to the marriage arrangement that had existed between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Butler. Since the King married Elizabeth Woodville instead it was decided that her children were not eligible for the throne. Most consider this argument to just be an excuse for Richard, Duke of Gloucester to take the throne.

After being crowned Richard III, the boys were taken to the inner apartments of the Tower of London and all sightings of them ceased. While there was a report that Edward V was being seen by a doctor, the doctor said that Edward V sought remission of his sins believing that death was upon him. An attempt was made in July to rescue the boys but it failed and they were never seen again. To this day there is no proof that definitively states whether the boys lived out their lives or if they were murdered.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Anne Boleyn. Daily Mail

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn 1st Earl of Wiltshire and Lady Elizabeth Howard. She eventually became maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. In 1524, she was pursued by Henry VIII but she had no plans of being a mistress to the King as her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Henry VIII then decided to annul his marriage to Catherine so that he could wed Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII refused and the Catholic Church steadily began losing power in England as Henry sought to do whatever it took to marry Anne.

In 1533, the pair married publicly and a newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s married to Catherine invalid while his marriage to Anne was valid. In response, the Pope had both Henry and Cranmer excommunicated. This separated the Church of England from Rome and placed it under the control of Henry. Anne gave birth to a daughter in 1533 which disappointed Henry. After three subsequent miscarriages, Henry began courting Jane Seymour and sought to find a way to marry her.

In 1536 he had Anne investigated for high treason. She was arrested on May 2, 1536 and send to the Tower of London. She was put on trial before a jury of her peers (including her former betrothed and her uncle) and she was found guilty. Her time in the Tower of London was quite brief as the trial was short and she was found guilty on May 15th. Four days after her guilty verdict she was beheaded.

Today it is largely believed that the charges against her were not convincing. She was accused of adultery, incest and plots against the King but there is little evidence to suggest she was guilty of any of these. However, her daughter Elizabeth would eventually take the throne as Queen and Anne would be venerated as a martyr and heroine of the English Reformation.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Henry Laurens. Youtube

Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens was born in Charleston, Province of South Carolina in 1724. His father sent him to England to further his business education in 1744 but after the death of his father in 1747, Henry Laurens returned home to Charleston. He married Eleanor Ball and the pair had 13 children many of whom did not survive childhood. He was a member of the militia and rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel during the Seven Years’ War.

In 1757 he elected to the colonial assembly. He was elected every year until 1773 when he traveled to England to arrange for the education of his sons. When it became clear that an American Revolution was likely, Laurens was initially in favor of reconciling with the British Crown. As time passed and the relationship between the Americans and the British deteriorated, Laurens decided to support the American cause.

He became an active member of the revolution serving as Vice President of South Carolina and then named a delegate to the Continental Congress. In 1780 the Congress made him minister to the Netherlands and he was able to negotiate Dutch support for the war. When he was sailing to Amsterdam his ship was intercepted by the British. He was captured and charged with treason. His subsequent imprisonment was largely protested by the Americans.

He was held in the Tower of London and assisted by a former business partner by the name of Richard Oswald. Oswald argued on Laurens’ behalf and in 1781, Laurens was exchanged for General Lord Cornwallis and finally finished his voyage to Amsterdam. He was able to raise funds for the American effort and he returned home and retired from public life in 1784. However, he did serve on the state convention in 1788 and voted to ratify the United States Constitution.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Sir Robert Walpole.

Sir Robert Walpole

Sir Robert Walpole is largely regarded as one of the most able and accomplished politicians in British history. He was a member of the Whig Party and was appointed by Queen Anne in 1705 to be a member of the council for her husband, Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral. In 1708, he was made Secretary at War and in 1710 he was simultaneously Treasurer of the Navy.

In 1710 the Whig Party fell out of favor and a Tory ministry formed under the leadership of Robert Harley. Sir. Robert Walpole was removed from Secretary of War but stayed as Treasurer of the Navy until 1711. In 1712, Walpole faced charges of venality and corruption regarding two forage contracts for Scotland. He proved that kept none of the money but he was still found guilty by the House of Lords and impeached by the House of Commons. He was then imprisoned in the Tower of London.

During his imprisonment, he was largely seen as a martyr for the Whig party and was visited by all of the Whig leaders. He was released after six months and then spent his time creating anonymous pamphlets that spoke out against the Harley ministry. After a change in government he became a prominent member in the administration. He was made First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons in 1721. It is at this point that his de facto tenure as “Prime Minister” is said to begin. His brother-in-law Lord Townshend became Secretary of State.

As the political power of the monarchy declined, the power of Parliament under the leadership of Walpole grew. Even when George II took the throne both Walpole and Townshend remained in power though Walpole became the dominant leader in the government. When Townshend retired in 1730, Walpole was in complete control. He remained in office until 1742 and he is considered today to be the longest serving Prime Minister in British history.

Prisoners of the Palace: 10 Famous Prisoners of the Tower of London
Sir Walter Raleigh. Wikipedia

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the few prisoners to be sent to the Tower of London more than once. He was raised Protestant and therefore spent much of his early life trying to avoid death and persecution by Queen Mary I. He took part the in the suppression of the Desmond Rebellions between 1579 and 1583. He was given 40,000 acres upon the seizure and distribution of land following the rebellion and he became one of the principal landowners in Munster.

In 1584, Queen Elizabeth gave him a royal charter to explore, colonize and rule any heathen lands not possessed by any Christians. In 1585 he was knighted by the Queen and made Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall and vice-admiral for Cornwall and Devon. In 1591, he secretly married one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting and when the marriage was discovered the following year, both of them were imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was released two months later in order to organize and divide the spoils of a captured merchant ship.

Afterward he was returned to the Tower of London but was released in early 1593 and he became a member of Parliament. He slowly rose back to favor and still remained loyal to his wife who bore him two sons. He regained the favor of Queen Elizabeth by 1600 but the Queen died in March of 1603. It was after her death that Sir. Walter Raleigh was arrested in July 1603 for being involved with the Main Plot against James I. He was again imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He was found guilty and was imprisoned until 1616. He had a very productive prison time writing several treatises and the first volume of The Historie of the World, as well as conceiving a son with his wife. He was pardoned in 1617 in order to conduct a mission to Venezuela to find El Dorado. During the expedition, some of his men attacked a Spanish outpost, which was against the conditions of his pardon. The Spanish ambassador demanded Raleigh’s original death sentence be reinstated and the King complied. Raleigh was beheaded in 1618.