The ghosts of Tower Hill

Tower Hill is an open area of raised land just north of the Tower of London.   During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was the execution site for those incarcerated in the Tower in London.  It’s believed around 125 people were executed, mostly by beheading.   At this time, only a few people (with Royal or noble blood) were ‘privileged’ to be executed privately inside the Tower.

Here is a list of the most notable executions and something of their story:

1381: Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury; dragged to Tower Hill by the mob during the ‘Peoples Revolt’ and beheaded. The mob broke into the Tower of London and sought out Sudbury, who was praying in St John’s Chapel. The mob were upset with King Richard II’s taxation policies. They dared not attack the King, so his leading spiritual advisor acted as the unfortunate ‘proxy’ for their wrath

Tower Hill execution site
The marked off execution site on Tower Hill

1535: Sir Thomas More, ex-Lord Chancellor; after twelve months imprisonment in the Tower of London, More was executed on Tower Hill.   Executed for refusing to sign the 1533 Act of Succession (recognising Anne Boleyn as the valid Queen) and taking the oath required by the 1535 Act of Supremacy (recognising King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the English Church).   More was canonised in 1935 by Pope Pius XI

1536: George Boleyn, brother of Anne Boleyn; caught up in King Henry VIII’s desire to ‘move on’ from Queen Anne Boleyn, George and four others were executed on Tower Hill; most probably falsely accused of having carnal relations with the Queen.  (George Boleyn, Queen Catherine Howard and Henry Howard (see 1547) were all cousins and grandchildren of Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk)

1540: Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex; Chief Minister and briefly the Lord Chamberlain to King Henry VIII.   A man who flew high before falling spectacularly out of favour with the King; principally for marginalising the King in affairs of state and marrying him off to Anne of Cleves

Tower Hill execution site
The marked off execution site on Tower Hill (left). (On the right is the Tower Hill Memorial to civilian and merchant sailors and fisherman lost at sea with no grave in both world wars)

1547: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; executed for antagonising King Henry VIII on a variety of matters – and for feeding his paranoia that Surrey would usurp the King’s son (Edward VI) upon King Henry’s death.   It didn’t help that Surrey added the arms of King Edward the Confessor to his own coat of arms.   (The Howard family had little regard for the ‘new men’ at Court; Cromwell and the Seymours, Edward and Thomas)

1552: Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset; the elder brother of Jane Seymour was the leading political figure in the land rising to the position of Lord Admiral under King Henry VIII.   Upon the death of the King, Seymour became Lord Protector to his young nephew; King Edward VI.   Whilst Seymour’s policies, mismanagement and character antagonised the public, his downfall was his betrayal by his old friend John Dudley (see 1554 below).   Dudley worked behind the scenes for Seymour’s removal and replacement by himself.   False charges of conspiracy were trumped up and Seymour’s currency was so low, that he was sentenced to death

1554: Sir Thomas Wyatt; leader of a failed protestant rebellion to replace Queen Mary I with her younger half-sister; Elisabeth. (Elisabeth was cleared of complicity after interrogation in the Tower of London)

Tower Hill execution site
Tower Hill, looking west. The church of All Hallows by the Tower is right of centre. It is the oldest church in the City of London. Europe’s tallest building, The Shard, is difficult to miss.

1554: Lord Guildford Dudley; the unlucky young man who married Lady Jane Grey and for a brief period (nine days) became the Queen’s Consort following the death of King Edward VI.   Soon after the hastily arranged coronation of Lady Jane Grey at the Tower of London, the ‘people’ called for the rightful Princess Mary (daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon) to rise.  The peoples choice, Mary, was pronounced the rightful sovereign by Parliament.  (After the early death of the boy King Edward VI his protector (John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland) promoted the protestant Jane Grey (a great-granddaughter of King Henry VIII) to be Queen with his son, Guildford, her Consort.   Jane’s father (Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk) supported the idea).   Queen Mary I was forced (by her catholic advisors) to execute Guildford Dudley and Lady Jane Grey (inside the Tower) in order to remove the threat of a protestant uprising.   Both John Dudley (d1553) and Henry Grey (d1554) also got the chop.

Tower Hill execution site
Tower Hill, looking south. The proximity of the execution site and The Tower of London made it a convenient location

1572: Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk; during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Howard was found guilty of participating in the Ridolfi plot (with King Philip II of Spain) to place Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne and restore Catholicism in England.   The plot was revealed to the Queen’s minister Lord Burghley and after a trial, Norfolk was executed for treason

1641: Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford; the story of Wentworth shows how ambition, greed and ruthlessness can rebound.  Through opportunism, Wentworth became the leading advisor and faithful servant to King Charles I.   In charge of forces in North England and the Lord Deputy of Ireland he led a disastrous military campaign against the Scots (resisting the introduction of episcopacy in Scotland). It resulted in the Scots overrunning the northern counties and the English army being unpaid for their efforts.   As troops and the country grew restless Wentworth was impeached in Parliament and accused of planning to bring over Irish troops to restore the order.   A Bill for his execution was passed by Parliament and signed by the King (an act he would regret forever)

Tower Hill
The execution site at Tower Hill

1645: William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury; being the leader of the Church of England during the English Civil War would require a high degree of sensitivity.   But Laud pursued a policy ‘high church’, enhancing the role of priests as intermediaries in worship – and punishing any non-conformists.   The puritan-led Commons charged Laud with treason and, in the midst of civil war, the Lords were unable to save him

1685: James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth; the illegitimate son of King Charles II and Lucy Walter executed for leading a rebellion against his uncle, King James II.   Monmouth was to suffer the ‘barbarous inefficiency’ of Jack Ketch the executioner; who took seven blows and a knife to separate head from body

The marked off execution site on Tower Hill
The execution site at Tower Hill
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Memorial plaques at the execution site on Tower Hill
Memorial plaques at the execution site on Tower Hill
Memorial plaques at the execution site on Tower Hill

Other notable executions on Tower Hill:

1381: Sir Robert Hales;  1388: Sir Simon de Burley;  1397: Richard Fitzalan, 11th Earl of Arundel;  1440: Rev. Richard Wyche, Vicar of Deptford;  1462: John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford;  1470: John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester;  1495: Sir William Stanley;  1497: James Tuchet, a commander of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497;  1499: Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick; 1510: Edmund Dudley;  1510: Sir Richard Empson;  1521: Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham;  1535: John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester;  1537: Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy de Darcy;  1538: Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon;  1552: Sir Ralph Vane;  1615: Sir Gervase Helwys;  1631: Mervyn Tuchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven;  1662: Sir Henry Vane; 1683: Col. Algernon Sidney;  1716: James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater; Jacobite rising;  1746: William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock; Jacobite supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart;  1747: Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat; Jacobite supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart

From the 1750’s most executions moved to Tyburn, at the west-end of Oxford Street.   The efficient man-made ‘Tyburn tree’, capable of hanging nine people at one time had opened a new chapter of executions in London.

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