Very few executions actually took place within the walls of the Tower of London. Most executions took place on the nearby Tower Hill. This post will cover the latter executions. A different post covers the former executions in the Tower itself. The executions on Tower Hill were more of a spectator sport, whereas the Tower dealt with potentially dangerous or controversial executions like Queens of England and prominent nobles.
Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham 1521 – Edward Stafford was executed on 17th May 1521. Henry VIII knew that Stafford probably had a stronger legitimate claim to the throne than he did as the Tudor descended from the illegitimate Beaufort line. In 1520 Henry authorised an investigation against him and he was tried before a group of seventeen of his peers, as was customary for the nobility. It is suggested his opposition to the King stemmed from his hatred of Wolsey. He was attainted posthumously, disinheriting his children from his wealth and lands. His son later became Baron Stafford. The title didn’t come into being again until the seventeenth century.
Cardinal John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester 1535 – John Fisher was executed 22nd June 1535. He had been Katherine of aragon’s staunchest supporter during the tumultuous 1520s and the divorce up until his death. He continually promoted her interests to the King. Like More, he refused to accept the Act of Supremacy, but had been under house arrest for several years previously. Just a month before his execution, Fisher was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III, in hopes that it would deter the King from his execution. Obviously, it failed. Fisher was shortly followed to the scaffold by his close friend, Thomas More.
Sir Thomas More 1535 – Thomas More was executed on 6th July 1535 for opposing the Act of Supremacy which established Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church of England and finalised the Break with Rome. His faith meant more to him than his life. More had already refused to attend the coronation of Henry’s second Queen, Anne Boleyn, and he was accused of conspiring with the Nun of Kent, Elizabeth Barton. He refused to answer all questions on the issue, and on his beliefs in general and he was condemned on dubious testimony. However, to the last, he praised the King and died a good death.
George Boleyn, Lord Rochford 1536 – George Boleyn was executed on 17th May 1536, just two days before his sister, Anne. The charges were incest and treason. It is said that he slept with his sister, Queen Anne Boleyn, and that this resulted in a deformed child, although I don’t personally believe it. At his trial it is said that he defended himself so well that bets were being laid that he would get off. It is also said that his wife, Lady Rochford, gave evidence against him. He was executed alongside Anne’s other so-called lovers, although he was first as he was the highest in rank. The others were Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, and Mark Smeaton.
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex 1540 – Thomas Cromwell was executed on 28th July 1540 after being responsible for the deaths of Anne Boleyn and her so-called accomplices, as well as Thomas More. He also saw the fall of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. The disaster for Cromwell was arranging fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves, which was also intended to make an alliance with the Protestant princes. The marriage was a disaster, remained unconsummated and ended after just six months. Henry went on to marry her maid of honour, Katherine Howard. Cromwell was killed on the same day that Henry married Katherine.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey 1547 – Henry Howard was executed on 19th January 1547. He was the last execution of Henry VIII’s reign, although if the King hadn’t died, no doubt Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, would have followed him to the block. Norfolk only survived because Henry VIII died before the warrant could be affected. Surrey, along with Thomas Wyatt the Elder, was one of the founders of Renaissance poetry. Henry VIII was convinced that Surrey was plotting to usurp the crown from his son, or at least to take control of the Prince away from those Henry VIII had appointed to take care of him during his minority.
Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley 1549 – Thomas Seymour, brother of Queen Jane Seymour, was executed on 20th March 1549. His death warrant was signed by his own brother, the Lord Protector. He had tried to kidnap his nephew, King Edward VI, to take him out from his brother’s influence and have some power at court. However, the King’s pet spaniel alerted the guards and Thomas Seymour was arrested and accused of thirty-three charges of treason. Light was also shed on his supposed relationship with the future Elizabeth I when she lived under his roof during his marriage to Katherine Parr.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset 1552 – Edward Seymour, brother of Queen Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, was executed pm 22nd January 1552. He was Lord Protector over his nephew King Edward VI during his minority. When he was indicted in 1549 John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, took over his duties. Dudley became the father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey. Edward also signed the death warrant of his brother, Thomas, who resented his influence and tried to kidnap the young King. He was known as the ‘Good Duke’ in contrast with his successor, Northumberland, who upset a lot of people.
John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1553 – John Dudley was executed on 22nd August 1553. He was the father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey, and the father of Robert Dudley, who would later become the favourite of Elizabeth I. He was a central figure in Lady Jane Grey’s nine days on the throne. He was the second protector in the reign of Edward VI. Because he supported Jane over the rightful successor, Mary I, Mary accounted him a traitor and he was executed, tried by those who had been his colleagues, but who had deserted him as it became obvious that Mary would triumph. It was unlikely they really supported him in the first place.
Thomas Wyatt the Younger 1554 – Wyatt, the son of the poet of the same name supposedly once Anne Boleyn’s lover, was executed on 11th April 1554. He led a rising against Mary I of England and her proposed marriage to Philip II of Spain. He also implicated the Earl of Courtenay, Elizabeth I and the Lady Jane Grey. Elizabeth always denied she had anything to do with it, and Lady Jane was imprisoned in the Tower. Wyatt’s head was stolen when it was displayed and his limbs were hung in several towns in order to deter others who might think to rebel. His rebellion was the catalyst for the executions of Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley.