Anne Boleyn died here in 1536 and, five years later, the last of the Plantagenets, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, aged 68. Protesting that “the block is for traitors,” she refused to kneel and dodged about the scaffold with her grey hair streaming and the headsman in pursuit.
The next three victims were also women: two together in 1542, Queen Catherine Howard and her confidante, Lady Rochford; then little Jane Grey, alone in 1554; and last came Elizabeth’s discarded favourite, the rebel Earl of Essex, in 1601. The lesser rest-75 in number had to accept public execution on near by Tower Hill.
A prisoner arrived at the Tower either overland or by the river. Overland, a causeway led across two moats and through two tower gates to the main entrance of the outer walls, the Byward Tower. From here he was channelled along to the Bloody Tower, where his path converged with that of prisoners arriving by the river entrance, Traitor’s Gate.
There are six towers in the outer ward. The inner ward has 13, of which four—Martin, Beauchamp, Bell and Bloody are theatres where high drama has played again and again.
One, the Martin Tower, is associated with blood of a special type : “Colonel” Thomas Blood, an Irish-born desperado who, in 1671, attempted to steal the State Crown and other royal regalia, then kept in a cupboard in Martin Tower. Caught on Tower Wharf, Blood demanded a private audience with the King. Astonishingly, the ever unpredictable Charles II not only granted the audience but forgave the persuasive rogue and awarded him a pension of 500 pounds a year!
Today the jewels and regalia, along with the silver-gilt plate used at state banquets, are kept in the Jewel House. Guards, grilles and thick glass protect the glittering treasure in Christopher Marlowe’s words “infinite riches in a little room.”
Of all the towers, the best named is the Bloody Tower. Its roll-call traditionally includes the little princes, Edward V and his brother Richard, in 1483; Archbishop Cranmer- and Bishops Ridley and Latimer, in 1553-54; Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603-16.
Raleigh – adventurer, poet, scientist, historian, gallant was the Elizabethan Age incarnate. Elizabeth herself first sent him to the Tower for having secretly married one of her maids of honour, but freed him a few weeks later. Elizabeth died in 1603, and James I almost at once flung Raleigh back, for his alleged part in a Catholic plot against the King.
This time he stayed for 13 years, writing his History of the World and other works, drawing maps, making ship models, dabbling in chemistry and medicine and receiving his friends. Among them was the young Prince of Wales. “Only my father,” he said bitterly, “would keep such a bird in a cage !”
James opened the cage door long enough to let Raleigh make one last expedition to South America. It failed, and he went back to the Tower, under sentence of death. On the scaffold at Westminster, he felt the axe edge and remarked, “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician that will cure all my diseases.” Then, as the headman hesitated, “Strike, man! Strike!” He struck, and a voice groaned, “We have not another such head to cut off !”
As England grew more civilized, public executions declined. Tower Green’s headsmen had already sheathed their swords and axes when, in 1780, the Gordon Rioters had the distinction of being the last to die on Tower Hill. A hundred years later, Queen Victoria paved the Green, where folklore says grass never grew, and chained it off.
The Queen also restored the little chapel at the corner of the Green, St. Peter ad Vincula, “St. Peter in Chains.” “There is no sadder spot on earth,” wrote Macaulay; and in the chapel were buried more than four-score high-ranking lords and ladies, all of them headless, most in unmarked graves. Known and unknown, they are all at rest now.