The Tower of London is one of the oldest buildings in the English capitol. There is so much to tell about this place that I even thought about splitting it up in several smaller pieces. But eventually I didn’t, because I think it’s important to leave it in one piece. Be warned: it’s a long read, but I think you’ll like it because it’s haunted by many interesting ghosts.
The history of the Tower of London
The White Tower, the oldest part of The Tower of London, was first built in 1078 commissioned by King William I, better known as William the Conqueror. The purpose of this fortress was to protect the city against invading Vikings. It was constructed with white limestone. King Richard Lionheart (King Richard I), had a moat dug around it filled with water from the River Thames. Later, defensive walls and more and more towers and buildings were added. The whole complex was simply named The Tower. The Tower of London was the royal residence for centuries until King Henry VIII reigned England. He preferred Hampton Court Palace to live in. Perhaps he feared the ghosts of the past that roamed the cold corridors at night?
One of the main functions of The Tower of London was that of a royal prison even though it was never intended to be. Hundreds of people were incarcerated here. The prisoners who were kept here were mainly people from the higher classes. People who were found guilty of high treason were often executed outside the Tower’s grounds on a place called Tower Hill. But, when high placed people, such as royalty, was to be executed, that usually happened on the grounds itself. This place of execution was called Tower Green. The only good thing about being executed on Tower Green was that it was more private. Some invited spectators got to watch, but the commoners were not allowed in. Back then, executions were a family’s day out. Yes, people would bring their children along to watch a decapitation. There was not much entertainment in those days.
Those who lost their head inside the Tower’s walls, eventually ended up in the royal chapel named “St. Peter ad Vincula”, which is Latin for St. Peter in Chains. It’s part of the complex of The Tower of London. You’d say many lost their lives on Tower Green, but the numbers are quite low. Only seven people were executed here. They were: William Hastings (1483), Mark Smeaton (1536), Anne Boleyn (1536), Thomas Cromwell (1540), Margaret Pole (1541), Catherine Howard (1542), Jane Boleyn (1542), Jane Grey (1554) and Robert Devereux (1601). This proves that being executed here only happened to some privileged people. Including two queens, but we’ll get to that later.
Not many people know there has been a royal menagerie on The Tower’s complex. It was opened in the 13th century. Several exotic animals were kept inside the menagerie, animals gifted to the royal family. King John had an impressive collection in 1204, mainly with animals coming from King Henry I’s legacy. Henry III was given three lions as a gift for his marriage by Emperor Frederik II. In 1264, the animals were relocated to what is now known as the Lion’s Tower. When Queen Elizabeth I reigned England, the menagerie was opened to the public. It was eventually closed in 1843. There are still animals guarding the Tower of London. These seven ravens are very important and well looked after by the Yeoman Warders. It is said that when all the ravens fly away or die at once, the Kingdom will die along with them.
Torture at The Tower of London
As I said before, torture was a common way to get someone to speak. Torture methods were especially caried out during the 16th and 17th century, the Tudor period. Devices such as The Rack were used. There are not many records of people being tortured on The Rack, but one of them was a young woman named Anne Askew. This 25-year-old was accused of being a Protestant heretic. When she refused to give names of others who shared her faith, she was racked repeatedly. She never gave up the names, but was so severely tortured she had to be carried to the stake where she was eventually burned. The Tower of London still has the reputation of being a place of torture and death, but the number of tortured people are quite low.
Famous executed people
The last person to be executed at The Tower was a man named Josef Jakobs in 1941. He was executed by firing squad after having been found guilty of spying for the Germans during WWII. Most of the people executed on Tower Hill and Tower Green were decapitated, although some were hanged, drawn and quartered: the penalty for people accused of high treason. Some people’s executions left their mark on The Tower. We will take a closer look at them.
Perhaps the best known executed person at The Tower of London is Anne Boleyn. She was King Henry VIII’s second wife. He had gone through a huge amount of trouble to marry her. He had already been married when Anne got his attention. But the Church didn’t allow his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon be annulled. He then made sure he became the head of the church. But, when they finally were married, the first cracks came to surface. Anne bore him a daughter, Elizabeth I, but after that she had at least three miscarriages. Henry, who already had a daughter from his first marriage, desired a son so desperately, he had to get rid of Anne. He claimed she had multiple lovers, including her own brother.
The alleged men she had had were heavily tortured and all confessed. They were all executed by beheading. Mark Smeaton, a common musician who served the court, was one of the accused. It is very strange he was beheaded on Tower Green, while this was reserved for nobles and royals. Anne was imprisoned at The Tower awaiting her execution. She was brought into The Tower via Traiter’s Gate. She had witnessed executions before and feared the axe. Some weren’t sharp and some executioners missed. Henry VIII granted her a famous and specialised executioner from France, who would decapitate her with his sword. Problem was that the man was delayed and Anne had to wait and wait before she was finally killed. Poor Anne was eventually killed May 19, 1536 with one clean swing with the sword. A canon was shot when it was done.
Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s right hand and counselor. But, somehow he managed to fall out of favor with the king. He was accused of high treason and heresy and executed on July 28, 1540. Henry VIII deliberately asked for an inexperienced executioner and the axe landed in Cromwell’s shoulders a few times before finally losing his head. Henry later regretted his action.
One of the saddest executions must be the execution of Margaret Pole. She was the Countess of Salisbury and was 67 years old when she was accused of treason by, guess who, Henry VIII. She kept insisting she was innocent, she even carved it in the wall of her cell. When she was ordered to be executed on May 27, 1541, she refused to place her head on the block. Her executioner was very young and inexperienced and he had no clue what to do. She was eventually forced to the ground but she kept on struggling. It was hard for the executioner to aim the axe while she kept moving the way she did. So he missed. Ten times to be precise. People later claimed her head and shoulders were beaten to a pulp.
Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn
Henry’s fifth wife also met her end on the block. Catherine Howard was a niece of Anne Boleyn and she was in her teens when she caught Henry’s eye. Catherine had been madly in love with Thomas Culpepper, who served Henry’s court. Henry VIII had already been in his 50’s and had an injury on his leg which didn’t seem to heal. This made him limp, but worse, the wound would have smelled terribly. Not very attractive to an 18-year-old. Henry, on the other hand, was completely blown away by the young, flirty girl.
Her affair with Culpepper was known by at least one other person at court. Lady Rochford – Jane Boleyn – even arranged the many secret rendezvous between the two. But, her affair with Culpepper came to light and both Catherine and Jane were decapitated February 13, 1542. Funny detail: it was Jane who accused Anne Boleyn of having had sex with her very own brother. Jane had been married to Anne’s brother George. George spent a lot of time with his younger sister. Jane was jealous and made up the incestious lie.
Jane Grey is also known as the Nine Days’ Queen. Poor Jane didn’t even want to become queen of England, but after Henry VIII died, she was a legit heir to the throne. She was the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister. Catherine Parr, Henry’s surviving wife, became her regent, for the girl was only 15 years old when she was crowned. She was to marry Edward VI, Henry’s son by Jane Seymour, but her father wanted her to marry Guilford Dudley. Edward died that same year at the age of 15, and Jane inherited the crown.
Nine days later, Jane abdicated the throne already. She felt she had been used as an instrument. Mary I – Bloody Mary- Henry’s first daughter, took the crown instead. Mary was a fierce Catholic and wanted Jane to become a Catholic as well. She refused. This was one of the reasons why Mary ordered for Jane to be executed. She was beheaded on Tower Green on February 12, 1554. She was only 17 years old.
The ghosts of The Tower of London
The Tower of London is notoriously haunted by many different spirits. To keep an overview, I will walk you through some of the most haunted towers and spaces of The Tower. So, sit back and enjoy.
The White Tower
Visitors and staff report hearing screams of pain and agony and the hideous grinding sounds of The Rack coming from the basement. The screaming is sometimes so loud that the sentries can hear them through the door. A strange, white glowing light has been seen on the first floor window. A blue-white light has been seen floating in the windows of the third floor. People claim this light resembles Queen Anne Boleyn, for she was held prisoner on this floor. Sentries have reported seeing the shadow of a huge axe across the stone wall near Tower Green. Strange mistlike apparitions have been seen here on various moments witnessed by various people.
The Bloody Tower
This tower is located near Tower Green. Sir Walter Raleigh had been imprisoned here for 13 years! Sir Walter Raleigh was a writer who fell in disgrace with King Jacob I, who succeeded Elizabeth I. During his imprisonment, he wrote his book “A history of the World”. His apparition is seen here, walking the “Raleigh Walk” as it is called today. He used to walk up and down the same walkway each day. He has been seen in the Byward Tower as well. The Bloody Tower is the place where the poor Two Princes were murdered. And this is also the tower where Henry Percy, the Duke of Northumberland committed suicide.
In 1928, a sentry saw a white formless apparition walking in front of this tower. It started forming into a clearer form: that of a headless woman. The sentry was shocked and just when his bayonet touched her, she disappeared. The same apparition was seen in 1933. In 1970, a tourist saw a woman standing in front of one of the windows. She had long hair and she was wearing a long black velvet dress. She had a long golden medaillon around her neck. The tourist thought she was part of the tour, but suddenly the figure started to fade away. The incident happened again a few weeks later.
A malevolent presence has been encountered here on several occasions. The “Black Cloud” as it is referred to has been seen by two patrolling sentries in 1978. It had been a warm day, but when they got to the archway the temperature suddenly dropped. They felt and saw the evil presence and a strange gust of wind blew their coats over their heads. One of the sentries even had a nervous breakdown after the incident. A similar presence has been encountered on the nearby walkway between the St. Thomas Tower and the Wakefield Tower.
The Two Princes in The Tower
The story of The Two Princes is a sad one. When Edward IV died in 1483, his two sons Edward V of England (aged 12) and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York (aged 9), were left in their uncle’s custody. Their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, acted as regent for the two boys. One night, the two boys disappeared from their beds. They were nowhere to be found. Their uncle was crowned as King Richard III. Much later in 1674, workmen dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons at the foot of the stairs.
It’s widely accepted that these remains belong to the Two Princes in The Tower. People claim the boys have been murdered by Richard so he could claim the throne for himself. The boys were buried at Westminster Abbey, but their spirits has still lingered in The Bloody Tower. They are often seen holding hands in the hallway in front of the room where they used to sleep. They always look frightened.
The Queen’s House
The Queen’s House is the most haunted building of The Tower of London. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howards awaited their fate here. Guy Fawkes, a conspirator in the “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the English parliament in 1605, qas tortured and tried here. Rudolph Hess, one of Hitler’s closest advisors, was imprisoned here as well. The upstairs room was used for torture and screams can be heard from up here. A phantom monk has been heard chanting in the basement and spectral footsteps have been heard climbing the stairs.
A man dressed in medieval clothing has been floating through the corridors and a veiled grey lady, whom only women can see, has appeared throughout the entire building. Anne Boleyn haunts the room where she awaited her execution. She’s often seen leaning out of the window. The scent of a peculiar perfume is often smelled here and some people feel as if they are being suffocated. Arabella Stuart haunts this building as well. She was a lady in waiting at the court of Elizabeth I. She wanted to marry William Seymour, but was not allowed to. They wanted to elope but were caught. Arabella was imprisoned at The Tower and died of a broken heart five years later. Her ghost is often seen here.
Several sentries have seen the apparition of a headless woman walking around Tower Green. They think this is Anne Boleyn, but more women lost their head here. Margaret Pole’s dreadful final moments are witnessed by many on the anniversary of her death each year. On several nights in 1975, Yeoman Warders heard loud piercing screams coming from Tower Green. When they investigated, nothing was there.
The Martin Tower
The Martin Tower is said to be the most haunted tower. Edmund Swifte, the keeper of the crown jewels, had a bizarre encounter while having dinner here with his wife. One evening in 1817, a small cylindrical object filled with bubbling white and blue liquid suddenly materialized in the air. It moved around the room for quite some time before it abruptly stopped right behind Mrs. Swifte. She started screaming that it had touched her. Mr. Swifte took his chair and threw it at the cylinder, but it went right through it. Then the cylinder disappeared.
The 9th Earl of Northumberland was held captive in this tower and he used to take the same walk every day. This is now called Northumberland’s Walk. At least three Beefeaters spotted his ghost walking the walk on separate occasions. In 1815, a sentry patrolling the Martin Tower saw a huge bear with grey fur appear and rise up his hind legs near the door. The sentry thrust his bayonet into the bear, but the weapon went right through it. The sentry died two days later, probably due to fright. In 1864, the bear re-appeared. Perhaps he’d been living in the menagerie?
The Thomas Tower
Thomas A. Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was not murdered at The Tower but in his own Canterbury Cathedral. Henry II didn’t agree with Thomas A. Becket and several of his knights assumed that he had meant that he wanted the bishop dead. They went to the cathedral and murdered the Archbishop in cold blood on the altar. Henry tried to prevend the murder, but he was too late. Henry felt so guilty he even let monks whip him in the cathedral crypt. Thomas A. Becket still wanders around in the Thomas Tower because he interfered with the construction of it. He’s not too happy about the alterations. Eyewitnesses saw his apparition hacking a wall with his crucifix. The wall later collapsed. Woah, he must have really hated the alterations.
The Wakefield Tower
The ghost of Henry VI has been seen kneeling in prayer outside the small oratory where he was murdered. In 1968, a sentry guard was surprised to see a figure in a black cloak who suddenly appeared in front of him. This was on Water Lane, the narrow walkway between the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower. The cloaked figure walked right up to him and when the startled sentry looked closer, he saw the figure was headless. The intruder vanished right in front of him.
The Beauchamp Tower
This tower is located near Tower Green and many prisoners carbed personal messages into the walls. So did the 17-year-old Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen. She carved “Jane” into the wall right before being executed. Her spirit has not been seen here, but at the Salt Tower. It was witnessed by a sentry and when he went to get another sentry, the whole scene happened again.
The Bell Tower
Queen Elizabeth I had been held prisoner at the Bell Tower for a short period. Her apparition has been seen walking along the adjacent rampart between the Bell Tower and the Beauchamp Tower. A Phantom cavalier has been spotted here, too. Others claim to have heard the dragging sounds of chains. Like they are being dragged back and forth through the basement.
The Middle Tower
This tower is located near the main entrance. In the early 1940’s, a sentry witnessed a time slip here. He saw two men walking towards the gate carrying a decapitated corpse on a stretcher. The head was tucked away underneath the arm of the victim. They vanished as they approached the sentry. He could later describe what he had seen so clearly. Even the clothes the two men wore. A historian told him these clothes were typical clothes for medieval sheriffs, who were responsible for carrying away the executed.
The chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula
The bodies of Anne Boleyn and Chatherine Howard were taken here after being executed. A strange scene has unfolded here late at night. Several sentries witnessed a luminous procession of knights and ladies, led by a woman who resembled Anne Boleyn. They walked slowly down the aisle towards the altar where the crypts are. When the crowd arrived there, they simply vanished, turning the chapel pitch black again, as if someone turned off the lights.
The Tower of London today
I warned you this was going to be a long read! I do hope you enjoyed it. This place is huge and so much haunted, it’s every paranormal fan’s dream to investigate here. I hope to visit The Tower someday again. Let’s just hope Covid-19 will pass soon.
Cover photo: Danor_a via Getty Images
Sources: Wikipedia, hrp.org.uk, exploring-castles.com, haunted-rooms.co.uk, great-castles.com, the-line-up.com and haunted-britain.com
Books: Real ghosts, restless spirits, and haunted places 2nd edition – Brad Steiger, 2013, Visible Ink and A hidden history of The Tower of London – John Paul Davis, 2020, Pen & Sword History
Address: St Katharine’s & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB, United Kingdom