The Tower of London was once synonymous with terror, torture and execution. Learn all about the ghosts that lurk within its walls and the hauntings that took place over centuries
When William the Conqueror built the White Tower, the first of the great bastions collectively known as the Tower of London, it is said that he ordered bulls’ blood to be mixed with the mortar to symbolise ever-lasting strength and royal power. The Tower has stood for over 900 years, and to the modern visitor, it evokes a sense of tradition and stability amid the ever-changing high-rises of the city.
Yet for much of its history, this Norman castle was a place to be feared—a symbol of the king’s power, the instrument of his vengeance, and, occasionally, the scene of his deadliest intrigues.
"The Tower has stood for over 900 years, and evokes a sense of tradition and stability amid the ever-changing high-rises of the city"
The list of ghosts that have been seen in the building over the centuries reads like a Who’s Who of medieval English history. Almost all these people met a grisly fate—the majority within the confines of the Tower’s walls.
The first haunting
Credit: Walter Thornbury
Among the first of the famous historical ghosts to be spotted in the Tower was that of Thomas Becket, the pious Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the nave of his cathedral on the orders of his former friend, King Henry II, in 1170.
The sighting alarmed Henry’s grandson, Henry III, that he abandoned the construction of an inner curtain wall and ordered a chapel to be built in its place.
The two princes
Becket’s ghost was never seen again, unlike those of the two princes—12-year-old King Edward V of England and his 10-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York, who haunt the Tower to this day. If seen, the apparitions hold hands on the staircase, only to melt away into the walls.
Edward and his brother disappeared in 1483, having been imprisoned in the Tower by their uncle, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who contested their legitimacy and wanted the English throne for himself.
In 1502, a former supporter of Richard’s, Sir James Tyrrell, confessed under torture to having suffocated the boys as they slept, although he was unable to state the whereabouts of the bodies. Tyrrell’s confession may have been unreliable, but there seems little doubt that Richard was behind the killings—a deed that immortalised him as the villain of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third.
In 1674, a casket retrieved from the walls during alterations to the White Tower was found to contain two skeletons. The remains were buried in Westminster Abbey on the orders of King Charles II but were disinterred in 1933 by an English archaeologist who determined that they were those of two children aged around 8 and 13.
Henry VIII’s wives
Among the most turbulent spirits said to haunt the Tower are those of Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both of whom were imprisoned and beheaded there on the king’s orders following their alleged adultery.
"Among the most turbulent spirits are those of Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard"
Another victim of Henry VIII’s was the spirited 70-year-old Countess of Salisbury, who fled from the block during her bungled execution in 1541 and was hacked to death as she ran. The shadow of an axe is said to fall over the spot on the anniversary of her death.
Shadows in the tower
It was Henry’s daughter and successor, Mary, who ordered the execution of the 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey for supposedly plotting against her, leaving the tragic teenager’s ghost to haunt the Salts Tower—a place where a Yeoman Warder once reported being squeezed around the throat by a pair of ghostly hands.
Sir Walter Raleigh, a one-time favourite of Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth I, met a similar fate at the hands of James I, the first Stuart king: his ghost was reportedly seen several times in 1864 by members of the Tower Guard.
James I’s cousin, Arabella Stuart, died in 1615 in what today is the Queen’s House on Tower Green. Guests staying there have frequently reported being awoken in the night by the feeling that they were being strangled.
Credit: Vladislav Zolotov
In 1815, a sentry was said to have died of fright after confronting a phantom bear that lunged at him from a doorway in the Martin Tower. In fact, the bear was probably real since the menagerie kept a grizzly bear from 1811 to 1838—a present from the Hudson’s Bay Company to King George III.
"During the 18th century, various exotic animals were housed in the tower, including lions, leopards and elephants"
The Tower’s most famous animal occupants are the ravens which have roosted there almost continuously since the Norman Conquest. Legend has it that should the birds ever leave, it will signal the end of the monarchy—and indeed, during the Second World War, the Blitz saw their number dwindle to just one. However, the Tower authorities took care to ensure that a new flock of ravens was installed, their wings suitably clipped, before the Tower was reopened to the public in 1946.
Banner credit: RPBMedia
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