The Tower of London was not originally intended to be used as a prison, but by the time Elizabeth I came into power, it had become the country’s main state prison and stood as an example of the country’s power. It was used as a place to house only those who had committed high profile crimes such as helping foreign enemies and rebels, counterfeiting coins and trying to kill or speak against the monarch. A fair amount of these “criminals” were well-known members of the court, so many are still known to us today.
Although many people still believe the Tower of London was a place of torture, misery and death, there are also interesting stories of luxury living, daring escapes, literary achievements and scientific experiments that happened within those walls. For the most part, your treatment at the Tower depended on your status.
Many prisoners were given opportunities to take on various pursuits to help them pass their time in the Tower. Many works of philosophy and poetry, such as Sir Walter Ralegh’s The History of the World (1614), were written during imprisonments there. For example, on the walls of the building’s Salt Tower we can still see an amazingly intricate astronomical clock which was carved by Hew Draper of Bristol, who was convicted of sorcery in 1561.
Evidence of life in the Tower of London comes to us in the form of diaries, letters and carvings left in the prison walls. In the aftermath of Edward VI’s death, there was a long battle for succession during which a good few prisoners found themselves in the Tower, having been deemed a political threat by whoever was reigning monarch at the time. One of these prisoners was Lady Jane Grey, whose name can be found carved throughout the prison, seemingly by other prisoners in a bid to show support for the Nine-day Queen. One such carving can be seen in the Beauchamp Tower, which just so happens to be where her husband, Guildford Dudley, was imprisoned.
Although some prisoners, such as Sir Walter Ralegh, got to enjoy a fairly comfortable stay at the Tower, this could not be said for everyone. Some unlucky prisoners underwent horrific torture, both mental and physical. Among these prisoners was the Earl of Arundel, whose name can be found scrawled above a fireplace in the Tower. Arundel was ordered to renounce his Catholic faith if he wanted to see his son, and is believed to have suffered a mental breakdown as a result. He kept his faith, and ended up dying in the tower without ever seeing his son.
Other prisoners, including the famous Guy Fawkes, underwent extreme physical torture. Another prisoner, a priest by the name of John Gerard, wrote in his autobiography of a large, dark underground chamber where he was left hanging by the wrists and tortured. Afterwards, Gerard claimed, he was unable to move his fingers for three weeks.