Very few executions actually took place within the walls of the Tower of London. Most executions took place on the nearby Tower Hill, like those of Thomas Cromwell, Edward Stafford Duke of Buckingham, and Thomas More. These will be discussed in another post. Below are the notable executions that took place within the Tower during the reign of the Tudors. Lord Hastings was the first real execution in the Tower in 1483, although it is also suspected that the Princes in the Tower (Edward V and Richard Duke of York) were also secretly killed here around the same time.
Anne Boleyn 1536
Anne Boleyn was executed on 19th May 1536 on charges of adultery, incest and treason. I fully believe she was innocent and was actually executed because she failed to give Henry VIII a son and he had fallen in love with Jane Seymour who did eventually give him a son. Her so-called ‘accomplices’ had died two days earlier, including her brother and a court musician, Mark Smeaton. The other accused were William Brereton, Francis Weston and Henry Norris. All perished. Her execution was unusual because she was beheaded by a French swordsman with a sword rather than the more cumbersome axe.
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1541
Margaret Pole was executed on 27th May 1541. Her only real ‘crime’ was being too close to the throne, being the niece of both Richard III and Edward IV as the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence. Her loyalty was also questioned because of the actions of her son Reginald, Cardinal Pole, on the Continent. He was spreading damning information about Henry VIII and even plotting rebellion against him. Margaret was never officially accused of any crime. It is said that she had to be held down on the block and that it took ten strokes to sever her head from her body on the scaffold.
Katherine Howard 1542
Katherine Howard was executed on 13th February 1542. She was accused of adultery with one of the King’s servants, Thomas Culpeper, and an old flame, Francis Dereham. Another suspect was Henry Manox, Katherine’s old music teacher, but he escaped trial and punishment as they never consummated their relationship. Her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn helped to carry out the affair and was also executed alongside Katherine. It seems Katherine was certainly guilty with Culpeper at least, if not Dereham. If Katherine had claimed a pre-contract with Dereham then she could have possibly avoided death.
Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford 1542
Jane Boleyn was executed on 13th February 1542 alongside Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Katherine died first as she was the highest in rank, and Jane followed. She was accused of aiding and abetting Katherine’s adultery and treason. It has also been suggested that Jane gave evidence against her husband and sister-in-law, George and Anne Boleyn, nearly six years earlier and that she tried to atone for that on the scaffold. The authenticity is doubted. Allegedly there was also a question over Jane’s sanity before her execution, and a law was passed to allow mad people to be executed for treason.
Lady Jane Grey 1554
Jane Grey was executed 12th February 1554. She was initially to be spared, even though she had been Queen in the ‘rightful’ Queen’s (Mary I) place for nine days the previous year after the death of Edward VI. It was the rebellion co-ordinated by Thomas Wyatt the Younger in 1554 that changed everything, along with the influence of Philip II of Spain, who declared that he wouldn’t marry Mary until Jane was dead. Mary was so in love with her husband that she signed the death warrant. Jane’s husband and father were also both executed for their roles in the rebellion and nine-day reign.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex 1601
Robert Devereux was executed on 25th February 1601 on a charge of treason. His was the last execution of the Tudor dynasty and he was the last person to be beheaded within the Tower itself. Early in 1601 Essex planned a rebellion as he had become discontented after his first arrest which arose from misconduct in his position as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He surrendered when the Queen’s forces attacked his London home. Even before this, Elizabeth allegedly feared that Essex would be a problem for her, particularly after his secret marriage to Frances Sidney in 1590.