For more than 900 years, the Tower of London has occupied its place at the heart of English life.
At various times a royal citadel, palace, menagerie, observatory, public records office, mint, arsenal and, even to this day, the home of the crown jewels of England, since 1100 it has famously served as a prison for notorious traitors, heretics, and even royalty.
Out of the more than 8,000 unfortunate souls, many who were imprisoned in the Tower never left. Those who did, often did so without their head. For a small number, however, the supposedly impenetrable walls proved merely a minor nuisance.
Here are 5 of the very best escapes from ‘The Tower’.
1. Ranulf Flambard, escaped 1101
Influential in establishing the Domesday Book, Ranulf Flambard was Bishop of Durham and a key supporter of the tyrannical William Rufus.
A keen builder, he oversaw the construction of Durham Cathedral, the first stone London Bridge, Westminster Hall and – most ironically – a curtain wall around the Tower of London.
The accession of William’s younger brother, Henry I, saw a dramatic downturn in Ranulf’s fortunes. Removed from all offices of state and charged with embezzlement, Flambard became the first official prisoner of the Tower.
For 6 months, he wiled his time away patiently.Renowned for his qualities as an entertainer, he frequently hosted banquets for his gaolers.
After slowly building their trust, on 2 February 1101 the canny cleric organised one such event, taking note to ensure extra quantities of wine.
Once his captors were inebriated, he used a rope that had been smuggled into his cell and abseiled down the walls. Despite the end of the rope being about 20 feet from the ground, he managed to scale the curtain wall to where a horse had been left for him by his allies.
2. Alice Tankerville, escaped 1534
The only escapee of Henry VIII’s reign, Alice Tankerville was the first and only woman to flee the Tower.
Condemned to death for stealing a shipment of 366 crowns and brought to the Tower, the reputedly charming woman managed to befriend two of the gaolers – William Denys and John Bawd.
Having fallen in love with his prisoner, Bawd agreed to help her escape. Buoyed by claims from Denys that the Coldharbour Gate had a plausible escape route, Bawd purchased two long pieces of rope and had a second key cut of the tower’s outer door.
On the night of the next new moon, Tankerville escaped with the help of her gaoler, whose securing of a rope to an iron hook ensured their way down the parapets from St Thomas’ Tower.
After sailing a small boat across the moat, they disembarked at the Iron Gate Steps and fled along a nearby road where Bawd had prepared two horses.
There, disaster struck. Posing as young lovers, the guise failed to fool the returning night watch.
On 31 March 1534, the hapless couple were carted to the walls that lined the river’s embankment and enchained at low tide, while Bawd was left above the walls to experience exposure and dehydration.
Guilty or innocent, the gold was never found.
3. Edmund Neville, escaped twice 1585-1610
In the Tower’s long history, only two of its prisoners are believed to have twice escaped.
Neville’s first experience of the Tower began in 1584 on suspicion of his involvement in the Parry Plot against Elizabeth I. Using a small file, he patiently worked away at the bars of his window until he managed to make his way out.
Despite managing to flee the city, an alert horseman took notice of his strange appearance and odour from swimming in the Tower moat, and he was returned to his cell.
Neville attempted the same escape a couple of years later, aided by a rope smuggled in by his wife. Making his way through the same window, he discovered that the rope was significantly too short and guards were alerted to the splashing noise of his drop into the moat.
Still undeterred, the thrice-shackled prisoner set about a third attempt. After 6 frustrating years, he succeeded brilliantly in tricking his gaoler by sitting practically motionless before, one night, creating a straw mannequin and dressing it in his own clothes.
Having also created fake tools and dressed himself up as a blacksmith, he waited for his gaoler to enter his cell only to be discovered trying to make his exit.
Within two years it was decided that Neville no longer posed a significant threat and was finally exiled to the Continent.
4. William Maxwell, escaped 1715
A Stuart loyalist, William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale was captured and taken to the Tower for his part in the Jacobite rebellion, after proclaiming the ‘old pretender’ James Edward Stuart king in the Scottish borders.
His wife, Lady Winifred, immediately set about securing his release, appealing to a Jacobean sympathiser and tricking her way inside St James’s Palace to seek an audience with the king – all unsuccessfully.
She then came up with an ingenious plan: to dress her husband up in women’s clothes so that he could stroll out unnoticed. On the day before his execution, she and several sympathisers smuggled in layers of garments worn below their dress.
Part one complete, Lady Nithsdale got frantically to work to add appropriate makeup before staging a mock conversation with herself as her heavily disguised husband walked free.
Nithsdale watched from an attic window the following day as two other Jacobean peers were executed for their role in the doomed rebellion. Inside the Tower, no less than 5 warders were dismissed on grounds of negligence.
Placing a guard at every road and gate leading out of the city failed to stop a magnificent coach bearing the arms of the Venetian ambassador with the errant lord on board.
Lady Winifred too passed safely by as she travelled north to secure the family papers before joining her husband overseas to end their lives happily in Rome.
5. Subaltern, escaped 1916
In 1916, a young officer was brought to the Tower and accommodated somewhere in the East Casemates. Unlike the POWs of the time, the man’s charges related to being unable to honour his cheques due to insufficient funds in his account.
The man was clearly attentive to everything around him, as was proved when he nonchalantly passed the distracted guard outside his quarters and marched through the main gate, honoured with the salutes of unsuspecting personnel.
Catching the Underground, the mystery man subsequently dined sumptuously in the West End, paying for his dinner with another fraudulent cheque.
Curiously, he decided to return to the Tower, discovering his actions had caused considerable consternation. Of his background, nothing is known. The only reference concerning the man is Subaltern.
John Paul Davis is the international bestselling author of 10 thriller novels and three historical biographies. A Hidden History of the Tower of London is his first book for Pen & Sword.
If you enjoyed this article, you can find more of John’s favourite escapes here.