Tower of London prisoners
The Tower of London has served as everything from a royal residence to a zoo for exotic animals, but it remains best known as a fearsome prison and torture chamber. First constructed in the wake of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Tower has held some of Great Britain’s most prominent inmates, including disgraced royals, would-be revolutionaries and even Nazi officers. Find out more about six of these famous captives of one of history’s most forbidding prisons.
The second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was twice a resident of the Tower of London—once as a queen-in-waiting and once as a condemned prisoner. Boleyn married Henry in 1533 after the English king defied the Roman Catholic Church and annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Housed in the Tower of London prior to her coronation in June 1533, Boleyn would reign as queen of England for nearly three years.
Coupled with courtly intrigue and accusations of infidelity, Boleyn’s failure to give birth to a male heir ultimately proved to be her undoing. Accused of seducing the king into a cursed marriage, in May 1536 she was arrested on trumped-up charges of adultery, treason and even an alleged incestuous affair with her brother. Boleyn was confined to the Lieutenant’s Lodgings of the Tower of London, where she was tried and found guilty. She was beheaded by a French swordsman on a scaffold at the Tower on May 19, 1536. Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, would meet a similar fate when she was imprisoned and then executed at the Tower of London in 1542.
Sir Walter Raleigh
One of the longest-serving prisoners of the Tower of London was the famed Sir Walter Raleigh, who was confined to the citadel for some 13 years. A soldier and explorer who engineered the ill-fated English colony at Roanoke Island, Raleigh was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1585 and became one of the queen’s favorite courtiers. Despite his influential position, Raleigh was briefly imprisoned in the Tower in 1592 when it was revealed that he had secretly wed Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the queen’s maids of honor.
Raleigh was confined to the Tower a second time in 1603 after he was accused of plotting against King James I. Stripped of most of his wealth, he would spend nearly 13 years detained in a part of the castle known as the Bloody Tower. While he was ostensibly a prisoner, Raleigh’s high social standing ensured that he had comfortable lodgings, and he was even joined in the Tower by his family. During this time he devoted himself to science and writing—composing his “History of the World” in 1614—and also fathered a son. Raleigh was released in 1616 and dispatched to Central America in search of the mythical gold city of El Dorado. The mission proved unsuccessful, and Raleigh was arrested and executed at the block after his forces attacked a Spanish outpost against the orders of the king.
The Princes in the Tower
Twelve-year-old Prince Edward V and 10-year-old Prince Richard of Shrewsbury—better known as “the Princes in the Tower”—are among the most famous prisoners to have disappeared within the bowels of the Tower of London. The two boys first arrived at the castle in 1483 after the death of their father, King Edward IV. The princes were originally housed in the Tower on the orders of their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but were stripped of their royal titles after the duke invalidated their father’s marriage, declared them illegitimate and claimed the throne for himself as King Richard III. Moved from their opulent royal apartments to the confines of the Garden Tower (later known as the Bloody Tower), the boys effectively became prisoners of the crown.