Daring Escapes from the Tower of London

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The Tower of London, located in the center of the city, is a fascinating place full of history and intrigue. In 2017 I spent hours touring the complex and learning its stories with my sisters, mother and niece. And, I discovered the “tower” is a series of towers and buildings that form an impressive fortress.

William the Conqueror built the White Tower that now forms the core of the complex in 1078. That tower, considered a symbol of oppression against London by the Norman ruler, served as a prison from 1100 until 1952.

Although the complex housed a royal residence early in its history and  contains many other buildings, the Tower became synonymous with the prison. The thought of imprisonment in the Tower created fear, for many who went into the Tower never came out. However, a few ingenious prisoners managed to break out of this formidable place.

These are the tales of some of the most daring escapes from the Tower of London.

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London title meme

Five of the Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London

During its 900 plus year history, more than 8,000 people experienced imprisonment in the Tower. About 400 died there, with many of those losing their heads. A few captives refused to remain within those seemingly impenetrable walls, preferring to escape or die trying.

These are five of the best escapes.

Ranulf Flambard

The first official escapee from the Tower was a Bishop, the king’s tax collector and a builder. Ranulf oversaw the construction of the stone London Bridge, Westminster Hall and the curtain wall around the Tower of London.

When Henry I ascended to the throne, he removed Ranulf from official duties, charged him with embezzlement and imprisoned him.

For six months Ranulf patiently built up trust with his jailers, entertaining them frequently with banquets. On February 2, 1101 Ranulf hosted another elaborate banquet, offering an abundance of wine to his guests.

As the jailers lay drunk, Ranulf used a rope he smuggled into his cell and rappelled down the curtain wall he built. Although the rope was too short, he dropped the last 20 feet to where a horse awaited him, left there by friends, and disappeared into the night.

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London white tower
Daring escapes from the Tower of London – the White Tower in the center of the complex

Alice Tankerville

Alice is the only woman who attempted to flee from the Tower. Imprisoned during the reign of Henry VIII, Alice faced a death sentence for stealing 366 gold crowns. Considered a charming woman, Alice befriended one of her jailers, John Bawde.

Bawde fell in love with Alice and agreed to help her escape. Planning their escape through the Traitor’s Gate, Bawde secured rope and cut a second key to one of the Tower’s outer doors.

On a dark night in 1524, Alice escaped with the help of Bawde. After tying the rope to an iron hook,  the pair of lovers lowered themselves down the parapets of St. Thomas’ Tower. Exiting through the gate, they rowed a small boat across the moat, then disembarked and crept down a road toward the spot where two horses waited.

Alas, their plan failed. Tower guards lived along the road they walked on. The night watch apprehended Alice and Bawde, returning them to the Tower. On March 31, 1534, Alice was left chained to the wall along the river during low tide, to meet her fate as the tide rose.  John Bawde experienced the rack and then suspended in chains over the outer walls of the Tower, he died of exposure and dehydration. Officials never found the gold pieces.

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London gate
Daring Escapes from the Tower of London – the Traitor’s Gate where prisoners were brought in via the Thames River

Edmund Neville

Edmund holds the distinction of making three attempts to escape from the Tower. Accused of plotting against Elizabeth I, he first experienced the Tower in 1584. Using a small file, he worked loose the bars of his cell window until he could squeeze through and climb down the wall.

Edmond actually fled London, however the odor clinging to him from his swim across the Tower moat alerted a horseman, who turned him in. After his capture, he returned to his Tower cell.

Two years later, the man attempted the same escape, through the same window. This time, using a rope smuggled in to him by his wife, Edmund carefully lowered himself down. However, his rope too short, Edmund dropped into the moat with a splash, alerting the guards.

Six years later, he made his third attempt. This time, he created a mannequin out of straw and dressed it in his own clothes. He then dressed as a blacksmith, complete with fake tools, and waited for his jailer to enter his cell. Unable to overcome his guard, the plan failed. Happily for him, he gained his release from the Tower two years later and was exiled.

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London tower
Daring escapes from the Tower of London – one of the towers in the complex

John Gerard

A Jesuit priest, John experienced imprisonment in the Tower in 1597 due to his Catholic faith. During the reign of Elizabeth I, those associated with the Catholic Church faced persecution.

Torture did not force John to denounce his faith. In spite of the torture, his jailers showed kindness to the priest, allowing his friends to send him gifts such as clothing and oranges. John shared his oranges with the guards…while using the juice to write secret message. The juice dries invisible but appears when heated.

After enlisting help through those secret messages, he escaped on October 4,  1597 using a rope strung across the Tower moat. John even arranged for the escape of one of his jailers because he knew the man would be held responsible for the escape.

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London bridge
Daring escapes from the Tower of London – Thames River near the Tower. That’s the Tower Bridge in the background.

William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale

This escape story is my favorite, told to us last year while we toured Traquair House in the Borders of Scotland.

Taken to the Tower for his part in the Jacobite rebellion in 1715, William might have died there if not for his wife, Lady Winifred. After trying to secure her husband’s release through legal means, and failing, Lady Winifred concocted an ingenious plan.

On the day before his scheduled execution, she and her maids visited William in his cell. Beneath their dresses they smuggled in layers of clothes. William walked out of the tower with the maids, wearing a dress and the “nithsdale cloak”, which is still held dear by his descendants.

Lady Winifred remained in the cell and pretended to talk to her husband, before making her own escape. She joined William in Paris and they lived out their days together.

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London Lady Winifred
Daring escapes from the Tower of London – Lady Winifred used ingenuity to help her husband escape. I took this photo while in Traquair House.

No Longer a Prison

After centuries of use as a prison, the Tower no longer serves that purpose. The drained moat is now the Tower ditch and the torture dungeon is a tourist attraction.

The stories live on though, and walking around the complex, one can easily imagine the life and death dramas that played out here within these intimidating walls. Of the 8,000 plus prisoners held captive here, only 40 successfully escaped.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, would you try to escape?

Daring Escapes from the Tower of London group photo
Group photo in the Tower. Fortunately, we could walk out of the complex!

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