Posts Tagged ‘prisoners’

Guest post by London Historians member, the writer and illustrator Robin Reynolds.

The guardsman is approached by a lady in the grounds of the Tower, and he thinks, we can’t have that. So he jabs at her with his bayonet. But his blade swishes through thin air, the apparition vanishes, and the guardsman is so horrified NOT to see the lady’s innards spilling onto Tower Green that he swoons. And the next thing he knows he’s been arrested and charged with sleeping on duty.

But there’s a happy ending. He manages to persuade the court-martial that it was the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and he gets off.

True story.

Perhaps not so true (though who’s to say it isn’t?) is the tale of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, leader of the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion against King James II in 1685. Legend has it that after Monmouth’s head had been hacked off by the notoriously awful executioner Jack Ketch, it was arranged back on what was left of his neck so they could paint a picture of him. And for a long time this deathly painting, in the National Portrait Gallery collection, was said to have been the result. (Disappointingly, experts now believe it was painted before Monmouth’s time).

Just two of more than sixty irresistible episodes that I picked out from my graphic journey into the history of the Tower of London.
Many of these tales will be familiar to London Historians, but for me the journey from William the Conqueror to World War II was paved with revelation.

Needless to say the process helped straighten out, in my senior mind, much of the jigsaw of familiar English history in a sort of visual note-to-self. But so much was unfamiliar. No one told me about the man who tried to escape – unsuccessfully – down a toilet pipe, or the Black Watch mutiny, or the puritan who so angered the Archbishop of Canterbury that they cut off his ears. Or the murderess who couldn’t stop laughing, or the lady who was eaten by a lion, or the temptress who was chained to the riverbed, to drown when the tide came in. (Females do not fare well at the Tower, I find.)

Shakespeare called the Tower ‘the slaughterhouse’, but it was not always a place to dread. As both a palace and a functioning fortress, it celebrated coronations and other royal landmarks, and housed the Royal Mint, the first Astronomer Royal, and great stashes of bows and arrows and, later, gunpowder for the defence of the realm.

In some cases, even prisoners prospered here. The Duc D’Orleans, a prisoner for 25 years, established himself as a poet and penned what is said to be the first ever valentine message. Sir Walter Ralegh worked on his Historie of the World, studied science, and fathered his son Carew.

But mental health was, as ever, an issue. One prisoner killed himself by bashing his head against his cell wall, and even Sir Walter had his downs. One evening he stabbed himself in the chest with a dinner knife, and his dinner companion, the Tower Lieutenant Sir John Peyton, was so distressed that he resigned.

For me, the process offered lessons, and raised questions.

Lesson one, blood is thinner than water. People with even tenuous claims to the throne – sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins – were never safe, nor were they to be trusted.

Two, when it comes to the pursuit of power, don’t expect anyone to do the right thing.

Three, what goes round comes round. Henry VIII dished it to his catholic subjects, and his catholic daughter Mary dished it right back when her turn came. As did William Prynne, the persistent puritan. When the tide turned, the earless prosecutor saw to it that Archbishop Laud lost his head.

I am left amazed, as everyone is. Did all this, and much more, really happen here, in this eight-acre space in a town which, in Henry VIII’s time, was no bigger than modern-day Barnsley?

I am also left slightly worried by how much I enjoyed wallowing in this theatre of blood. What does that say about me, and perhaps all of us? Given the chance, how many of us might have joined the throng to watch the executions of Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Lord Lovat* and many, many others outside what is now Tower Hill tube station?

*Note to self: This was one to miss. The grandstand collapsed and nine people were killed.

The Image.
Robin created the image you see at the top of this article over several months starting November 2022. It has been turned into a booklet Drawn and Quartered which is for sale as are Giclée reproductions of the image, all at his website here. You can download a pdf version of Drawn and Quartered absolutely free.

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