The Tower of London: The Most Famous Medieval Prison

After invading England in 1066, William the Conqueror built a stone fortress to celebrate his victory and defend the city against any uprising. The fortress was 27 meters tall and it struck fear in the hearts of the defeated English. Many kings and queens used the tower for different events and purposes. The Tower of London served as a place of entertainment, protection, hiding, and even as a safe for the valuables of the royals. However, the most infamous purpose of the Tower of London was to be a prison that no one dare escape.

a painting of tower of london
Joseph Martin Kronheim

Illustration of how the Tower may have looked, c1300 by Ivan Lapper

Using the Tower of London as a prison began in the 12th century and lasted until the 20th century. Hundreds of people were prisoners of the tower for years. The tower was a place of horrible tortures, executions, and tragedy for a lot of them.

tower of london from thames
Alex Graham

During the War of Roses, the English civil war in the late 15th century, Richard III, ordered his brother’s, and his two nephews’ deaths in the Tower of London to secure his position as king.

tower of london
Curtis Himstedt

The experiences of the prisoners varied according to their status and crime. While they allowed some prisoners to walk in the tower, some did not see the light of day for months. While some were in their cells, some waited for their deaths in the dungeons.

tower of london from behind thames
Santi Man

The tower’s first prisoner was the Norman bishop and minister Ranulf Flambard. Henry I imprisoned Flambard due to embezzlement and selling church artifacts. However, because he was rich and a high-ranking official, Flambard led a comfortable life in the tower. What is more peculiar is that Flambard, the first prisoner of the Tower of London, managed to escape by a rope he secretly had smuggled inside and even tried to invade London years later.

tower of london from ground level
Jaimie Jones

Over the years, many famous figures made their way to the tower for various reasons. One of them was the wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. Although Henry broke away from Catholic Church and established a new church just to marry Boleyn, after some time he became bored and unhappy. Boleyn had multiple miscarriages for which Henry blamed her. When Henry fell in love with Jane Seymour, he sent Boleyn to the tower for treason, adultery and even having a relationship with her own brother. Although these charges were not true, she was executed in 1536.

anne boleyn at tower of london
Édouard Cibot

Another famous prisoner of the tower was Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth I. After Henry VIII died without having a son, his oldest daughter Mary took the throne. However, people were not happy. She was so cruel and gruesome that people called her the Bloody Mary. Mary began to believe that Elizabeth was plotting against her. Therefore, she sent her sister to the Tower of London but Elizabeth proved her innocence and got out two months later.

tower of london from ground level
Iwona Dlugozs

Maybe the most infamous prisoner of the tower was Guy Fawkes who was the mastermind of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes and his conspirator friends tried to kill the King and the Parliament members by igniting barrels of gunpowder. They were caught and Fawkes was sent to the tower to be executed. After his execution, King James I declared the 5th of November a holiday to celebrate the failure of Fawkes.