Punishment Executions and Martyrs


The Tower Hill area was for a long time a place where public punishments were carried out. This page recounts the dark history of both Great Tower Hill and Little Tower Hill as places for punishment and execution.

Long before any memorials were built at Tower Hill, and close to the WW2 memorial to Merchant Seamen, Great Tower Hill was used for executions of important people. The approximate location of the scaffold is shown on various old maps and plans on the Tower Hill History page HERE.

The manner of execution depended on the status of the victim. Beheading was considered the least brutal method - though didn't always turn out that way with several accounts of botched executions. Beheading was reserved for the rich and famous; lesser people were hanged. Crimes considered the most heinous were dealt with by more appalling means such as "hanging, drawing and quartering".

Mostly it was members of the nobility that were executed at Tower Hill - usually after imprisonment in The Tower - but there were exceptions. In London most commoners were hanged at Tyburn, or later at Newgate, but there were many other locations for hangings across the country. Executions were a public event supposed to have a deterrent effect. Members of Royalty, such as Henry VIII's unwanted queens, were executed in private within the Tower of London at Tower Green.

Tower Hill seems to have been on many occasions the place to dispose of those who had become "inconvenient" to the rulers of the country rather than genuine traitors. I have included information about two of these as examples: Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. I am sure that the stories of the others would be equally interesting, and I may extend this site to cover them at a later date.

The following account of the history of execution at Tower Hill comes from the works of the Victorian Antiquarian Walter Thornbury [15]. Thornbury's work makes fascinating reading as it conjures up the spirit of the past rather than being "dry-as-dust" academic writing. His work is considered to be generally well-researched and rather opinionated but that does not detract from it as source material.

Chapter X. The Neighbourhood of the Tower

Of Tower Hill, that historical and blood-stained ground to the north-west of the Tower, old Stow says:—"Tower Hill, sometime a large plot of ground, now greatly straitened by encroachments (unlawfully made and suffered) for gardens and houses. Upon this hill is always readily prepared, at the charges of the City, a large scaffold and gallows of timber, for the execution of such traitors or transgressors as are delivered out of the Tower, or otherwise, to the Sheriffs of London, by writ, there to be executed."

Hatton, in 1708 (Queen Anne) mentions Tower Hill as "a spacious place extending round the west and north parts of the Tower, where there are many good new buildings, mostly inhabited by gentry and merchants." The tide of fashion and wealth had not yet set in strongly westward. An old plan of the Tower in 1563 shows us the posts of the scaffold for state criminals, a good deal north of Tower Street and a little northward of Legge Mount, the great north-west corner of the Tower fortifications. In the reign of Edward IV. the scaffold was erected at the charge of the king's officers, and many controversies arose at various times, about the respective boundaries, between the City and the Lieutenant of the Tower.

On the Tower Hill scaffold perished nearly all the prisoners whose wrongs and sorrows and crimes we have glanced at in a previous chapter; the great Sir Thomas More, the wise servant of a corrupt king; the unhappy old Countess of Salisbury, who was chopped down here as she ran bleeding round the scaffold; Bishop Fisher, a staunch adherent to the old faith; that great subverter of the monks, Cromwell, Earl of Essex; and the poet Earl of Surrey—all victims of the same bad monarch.

Then in the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary, in ghastly procession after the masked headsman, paced Lord Seymour; in due course followed the brother who put him to death, the proud Protector Somerset; then that poor weak young noble, Lady Jane Grey's husband, Lord Guildford Dudley; and Sir Thomas Wyatt, the rash objector to a Spanish marriage.

The victims of Charles's folly followed in due time—the dark and arrogant Strafford, who came like a crowned conqueror to his death; then his sworn ally, the narrow-browed, fanatical Laud. The Restoration Cavaliers took their vengeance next, and to Tower Hill passed those true patriots, Stafford, insisting on his innocence to the very last, and Algernon Sydney. The unlucky Duke of Monmouth was the next to lay his misguided head on the block.

Blood ceased to flow on Tower Hill after this execution till the Pretender's fruitless rebellions of 1715 and 1745 brought Derwentwater, "the pride of the North," Kilmarnock, Balmerino, and wily old Lovat to the same ghastly bourne. In 1746 Mr. Radcliffe (Lord Derwentwater's brother) was executed here. He had been a prisoner in the Tower for his share in the rebellion of 1715, but succeeded in escaping. He was identified by the barber, who thirty-one years before had shaved him when in prison.

Chamberlain Clarke, who died in 1831, aged ninety-two (a worthy old City authority, who has been mentioned by us in a previous chapter), well remembered (says Mr. Timbs), as a child, seeing the executioner's axe flash in the sunshine as it fell upon the neck of Mr. Radcliffe. At the last execution which took place on Tower Hill, that of Lord Lovat, April 9, 1747, a scaffolding, built near Barking Alley, fell, with nearly 1,000 persons on it, and twelve of them were killed. Lovat, in spite of his awful situation, seemed to enjoy the downfall of so many Whigs.

There is a passage in Henry VIII — a play considered by many persons to be not Shakespeare's writing at all, and by some others only partly his work—that has much puzzled those wise persons, the commentators. The author of the play, which is certainly not quite in the best Shakespearian manner, makes a door-porter say, talking of a mob, "These are the youths that thunder at a play-house and fight for bitten apples: that no audience but the tribulation of Tower Hill or the limbs of Limehouse are able to endure." This passage seems to imply that there were low theatres in Shakespeare's time near Tower Hill and Limehouse, or did he refer to the crowd at a Tower Hill execution, and to the mob of sailors at the second locality?

Although most of the executions recorded for Tower Hill were beheadings, this was not the only way of dispatching the condemned that was employed there. It is recorded that Richard Wyche was burned at the stake for converting to Lollardism in 1440, and that John Goose suffered the same fate for the same reason in 1475. William Collingbourne was "hanged drawn and quartered" in 1484 for "favouring the cause of Henry Tudor", likewise three unnamed persons in 1532 for "coining" - the old term for making counterfeit coins which was a treasonable offence. Sir Thomas Wyatt was both beheaded and quartered in 1554, and "five unruly youths" - unnamed - were "hanged and boweled" for causing a disturbance on Tower Hill in 1595.

Executions Commemorated at Tower Hill

The table below lists the executions at Tower Hill that are commemorated on the memorial covered in the next section below. A more comprehensive list is provided in Richard Clark's website Capital Punishment UK [20].

Date Name
1381 Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury
1381 Sir Robert Hales
1388 Sir Simon de Burley
1397 Richard Fitzalan, 11th Earl of Arundel
1440 Rev. Richard Wyche, Vicar of Deptford
1462 John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford
1470 John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester
1495 Sir William Stanley
1497 James Tuchet, a commander of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497
1499 Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick
1510 Edmund Dudley
1510 Sir Richard Empson
1521 Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham
1535 John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester
1535 Sir Thomas More, ex-Lord Chancellor
1536 George Boleyn, brother of Anne Boleyn
1537 Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy de Darcy
1538 Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon
1540 Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex
1547 Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
1552 Sir Ralph Vane
1552 Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset
1554 Sir Thomas Wyatt
1554 Lord Guildford Dudley
1572 Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk
1615 Sir Gervase Helwys
1631 Mervyn Tuchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven
1641 Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford
1645 William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury
1662 Sir Henry Vane
1683 Col. Algernon Sidney
1685 James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth
1716 James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater
1746 William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock
1747 Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat

Execution of Thomas Wentworth - 1st Earl of Strafford

Sir Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641) was a major political figure just before the start of the English Civil War and a supporter of King Charles 1. He served as Lord Deputy of Ireland, where he earned a reputation for harshness, and was recalled to England to become advisor to the King who created him Earl of Strafford in 1640. He advocated taking a very strong line with the Scottish Covenanters and after a complex series of events - too complex to summarise here - he was impeached for treason by both Houses of Parliament and taken to The Tower. Strafford undertook his own defence and ultimately there was not enough evidence to support the charge against him. Not to be thwarted, the House of Commons passed a "Bill of Attainder" meaning that Strafford could be executed regardless of any crime. Charles gave his assent on 10 May 1641 in what with hindsight proved to be a vain attempt to preserve the monarchy and Strafford's fate was sealed.

Strafford's trial and execution seems to have been a popular topic for artists over the years and there are various drawings and painting on the subject. I have included just some of them here. How realistic they are is anybody's guess. Puzzled by his title 'Earl of Strafford', I eventually tracked down that the name was a corruption of Strafforth - Strafforth and Tickhill was a wapentake in the West Riding of Yorkshire where the Wentworth family seat of Wentworth Woodhouse was located.

Strafford and Laud
The trial of Strafford from an engraving by Wenceslas Hollar. [56]

According to Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 8 1640-1641 [18], the night before the execution, Strafford asked to see the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud but this was denied him. He then asked the Primate of Ireland to send a message to Laud (who was also imprisoned in the Tower) as follows: "You shall desire the Arch-Bishop to lend me his Prayers this night, and to give me his Blessing when I go abroad to-morrow, and to be in his window, that by my last Farewell, I may give him Thanks for this, and all other his former Favours."

The account in this document proceeds as follows:

My Lord Primate having delivered the Message without delay, the Arch-Bishop reply'd, That in Conscience he was bound for the first, and in Duty and Obligation to the second; but he feared his Weakness and Passion would not lend him Eyes to behold his last departure.

The next Morning, at his coming forth, he drew near to the Arch-Bishop's Lodgings, and said to the Lieutenant, Tho' I do not see the Arch-Bishop, give me leave, I pray you, to do my last observance towards his Rooms. In the mean time, the Arch-Bishop, advertised of his approach, came out to the Window; then the Earl, bowing himself to the ground, My Lord, (said he) Your Prayers, and your Blessing. The Arch-Bishop lift up his Hands, and bestowed both; but overcome with Grief, fell to the ground in Animi deliquio. The Earl proceeding a little farther, bowed the second time, saying, Farewell, my Lord; God protect your Innocency.
Strafford and Laud
Painting by Paul Delaroche showing Strafford being blessed by Laud. [47]
This Noble Earl was in Person of a tall Stature, something inclining to stooping in his Shoulders, his Hair black and thick, which he wore short, his Countenance of a grave well-composed symetry, and good Features, only in his Forehead he express'd more Severity than Affability yet a very courteous Person.

And as he went from the Tower to the Scaffold, his Countenance was in a Mild posture, between dejection in contrition for Sin, and a high Courage, without perceiving the least affectation of disguise in him.

He saluted the People as he walked on foot from the Tower to the Scaffold, often putting off his Hat unto them, sometimes to the right, and sometimes to the left hand, being apparelled in a Black Cloth Suit, having White Gloves on his Hands.

And tho' at this time there were gathered together on the great open place on Tower-Hill, where the Scaffold stood, a numerous croud of People, standing as thick as they could one by another, over all that great Hill, insomuch as, by modest computation, they could not be esteemed to be less than 100000 People; yet as he went to the Scaffold, they uttered no reproachful or reflecting language upon him.
An illustration of Strafford on his way to execution from Harper's School History 1856. [55]
Strafford Execution
An etching by Wenceslaus Hollar of the execution of Strafford. [47]

A contemporary account said:

The Earl walked firmly to Tower Hill and "his step and air were those of a general marching at the head of an army to breathe victory, rather than those of a condemned man to undergo the sentence of death". Huge multitudes had assembled to witness his execution, and in the evening the greatest demonstrations of joy were made, and those who had come from a distance returned crying to all the met, "His head is off! His head is off!".
Strafford Execution
A drawing of the scaffold with Strafford just beheaded. [47]
Strafford Execution
A 17th Century engraving of the execution from the Ashmolean. [57]

Laud would be following Strafford to the scaffold within a few years as described below.

Execution of William Laud - Archbishop of Canterbury

William Laud (1573-1645) was born in Reading to a cloth merchant and after studying at St John's College Oxford was ordained in 1601. He was strongly opposed to Puritanism and had a reputation for intellectual and organisational brilliance and strong "High Church" leanings. He rose steadily through the ranks until being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633; he also became Chancellor of Oxford University

Given Laud's preaching that King Charles ruled by Divine Right, and his opposition to reform of the church, it is hardly surprising that he made an enemy of the Puritans. Matters were made worse by Laud arranging the arrest of three Puritans who wrote pamphlets criticising his beliefs resulting in them having their ears cut and them being branded on the cheeks with the letters S L (for seditious libel). Laud used his position to force the church in the direction he wanted it to take while Charles ruled during the suspension of Parliament. His insistence that the Presbyterians in Scotland used the English Prayer Book for services resulted in an army crossing the border and invading the North-East of England and occupying coal fields near Newcastle.

According to Historical Collections of Private Passages of State Vol 3 1639-1640 [19], much like Strafford, Laud was impeached for High Treason by the Commons and the case presented to The Lords on 26 February 1640 by John Pym with ten detailed accusations against him with this preamble:

1. That he hath traiterously endeavoured to subvert the Fundamental Laws and Government of this Kingdom of England, and instead thereof, to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical Government against Law; and to that end hath wickedly and traiterously advised his Majesty, that he might, at his own Will and Pleasure, levy and take Money of his Subjects, without their Consent in Parliament: and this he affirmed was warrantable by the Law of God.

2. He hath, for the better accomplishment of that his traiterous Design, advised and procured Sermons, and other Discourses, to be preached, printed and published, in which the Authority of Parliaments, and the Force of the Laws of this Kingdom have been denied, and absolute and unlimited power over the Persons and Estates of his Majesty's Subjects maintained and defended, not only in the King, but in himself, and other Bishops, against the Law; and he hath been a great protector, favourer, and promoter of the publishers of such false and pernicious Opinions.
Trial of Laud
From Wenceslaus Holler's etching of the trial of William Laud. [47]

Like Strafford, Laud replied to the charges, but he was imprisoned in the Tower until Spring 1644 and then put on trial in the House of Lords. He stoutly defended himself and his actions and after 21 days the trial was adjourned without issuing a verdict. The matter was settled by the issue of a Bill of Attainder leading to his execution despite him having been given a pardon by the King in 1643. His submission of the pardon was rejected and a further petition to be executed by an axe rather than the usual punishment for traitors was eventually granted.

Below is the execution order for Laud [16].

9 January, 1644/5.

Whereas William Archbishop of Canterbury stands adjudged attainted of High Treason, by Ordinance of both Houses of Parliament, and is thereby to suffer the Pains of Death, as a Person attainted of High Treason should or ought to do: It is now Ordained, by the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, That as touching his Corporal Punishment, the Head only of the said Archbishop shall be cut off, at the Tower Hill, at the accustomed Place there used for such Purpose; and that afterwards his Head and Body shall be delivered unto his Servants, or some of them, to be by their Care buried: And it is hereby further Ordained, That the Lieutenant of the Tower of London shall, on Friday the Tenth of January, 1644, deliver the Body of the said Archbishop to the Sheriffs of London, at Tower Hill, in the accustomed Place; and that the said Sheriffs of London shall the same Day receive and execute the said Archbishop, at the accustomed Place at Tower Hill aforesaid, in such Sort, Manner, and Form only, as by this Ordinance is appointed and declared: And this present Ordinance shall be a sufficient Warrant and Discharge to the said Lieutenant of the Tower and Sheriffs of London, and every of them, in that Behalf; any Thing in the said former Ordinance, or any other Ordinance or Order of both or either House of Parliament, or any other Matter or Thing Whatsoever, to the contrary notwithstanding.
Execution of Laud
Laud on the scaffold about to be executed. [47]

Laud protested his innocence until his death and in his last sermon said he was "innocent of any offence known to the law" and repudiated charges of "popery" saying he had always lived in the Protestant Church of England. Initially buried in All Hallows, Barking, his body was moved to the chapel of St John's College Oxford in 1663.

Memorial to those Executed at Tower Hill

There is a simple memorial to those who were executed at Tower Hill with a number of panels. It is located to the West of the WW2 memorial to seamen. Nobody seems to know when it first appeared but it was certainly there in a different form in 1947 before the construction of the WW2 memorial as the photo from A London Inheritance [58] below shows. Most of the buildings shown are no longer there and the site of the three-storey one behind the hut is now occupied by the citizenM Hotel.

Executions Memorial in 1947 [58]
Plate set into the ground at the centre of the memorial to those that died on the scaffold. [54]
Plate set into the ground in memory of the Earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino [54]
Executions Executions Executions Executions
Plates showing the names of some of those that are known to have died on the scaffold at Tower Hill [54]

Punishments at Little Tower Hill

Whilst investigating documents related to the Tower Hill area, I discovered that Little Tower Hill, or East Smithfield, was also used as a place for punishment - both executions and relatively lesser punishments such as the Pillory - so I have included a taste of what I found.


Richard Clark's website [20] contains a list of those executed at the Tower of London (which includes Tower Hill). This list records the execution by hanging of three people at East Smithfield on 19 July 1700 for the murder of Mr. Oliver Norris.

The Old Bailey Proceedings [21] has the following account of an execution at Little Tower Hill:

On Friday the 19th of July, Michael Van Bergen, Katherine Truerniet, and Gerhardt Dromelius, were convey'd to the Place of Execution, where they behav'd themselves with that Meekness and Devotion as became Dying People; Praying unto God, and begging the Prayers of their own Country Ministers, the Ordinary and the rest of the Ministers that were with them. Gerhardt Dromelius being ask'd about the Barbarous Murder for which he suffer'd, persisted in the same Confession as before, and with that turn'd unto the People, and beg'd of them To take Example by him, and avoid Uncleanness, and all wicked Courses, especially violent. Passion, which had brought him to this untimely end. Katherine Truerniet and Michael Van Bergen, were prest severally to Confess the Crime for which they suffer'd Death, but there was no moving them to such an Acknowledgment, tho' they were told it was Swore against them, that he for his part, was seen to come from the Common-shore that very Morning, and that there was some Blood found behind their Door, it was all one, for they wou'd Confess no more, than that they knew of it after it was done. The Woman seem'd to be concern'd for her Reputation after Death; I desir'd her rather to be concern'd for her Soul, for that was the only valuable Consideration, to a Person in her Circumstances. The Man seem'd to be under a Dejection of Spirit, but upon Advice it was the Will of God he should thus suffer for his Wickedness, he took Courage, and gave him the Glory. After suitable Discourses, a Penitential Psalm and Fervent Prayers, their Souls were committed unto God.

After they had been hung, the bodies of the men were hung in chains between Bow and Mile End but Katherine Truerniet was buried.

The Pillory

The purpose of the Pillory was public humiliation. It consisted of an upright framework with a means of securing the hands and head. By comparison Stocks were designed to secure the person being punished by the feet. In both cases, those being punished were subjected to more or less any kind of abuse by the populace - including potentially verbal abuse, spitting, kicking or throwing various unpleasant objects such as decaying fruit and vegetables or even faeces.

The pillory was a more dangerous punishment than the stocks and used for more serious offences. It was designed so that the offender was unable to protect their head and other sensitive parts. There seems to have been no limitation to throwing stones which could result in blinding or even death. Normally people would be put in the pillory for only a few hours; presumably this was considered more than enough. The treatment of the offender would vary according to the crime committed - a notice would often be placed to show what this was. The pillory could also be used as a whipping post to provide additional punishment if the sentence so provided.

Nantwich Pillory
Photo of the pillory at Nantwich in Cheshire which has been preserved. [54]

Here are some specific examples of people sentenced to be put in the pillory at Little Tower Hill from Sessions Book 645 - January 1707 [17].

Jonathan Easden, convicted for cheating Francis Fieldhouse and Thomas Boswell, is fined £10 upon each indictment, and is to be put in and upon the pillory on Little Tower Hill, near the Victualling Office, for two hours, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., with a paper fixed over his head, describing his offences; he is to find sureties for his good behaviour for twelve months. He is remanded to Newgate until he pay the fines, undergo the punishment, then to be delivered, paying his fees, 35/- (p. 47)

The Weekly Journal 23 January 1725

On Tuesday Night last the Sessions ended at the Old Bailey. The two Persons found Guilty of a Misdemeaner [sic] for threatning to swear an Attempt to commit Sodomy, against a young Man, Apprentice to a Linnen-Draper, and thereby extorting Money from him, were sentenc’d to pay a Fine of 20l. a-piece, to stand twice in the Pillory, once on Tower-Hill, and once at Cheapside-Conduit, and to suffer six Months Imprisonment.

The London Journal 20 February 1725

On Saturday last Goddard and Rustead, who were convicted at the late Sessions at the Old Bailey, of conspiring to charge falsely, a young Gentleman, with an intention to commit Sodomy, (from whom they extorted a Diamond Ring and several Sums of Money) suffer’d one part of their Sentence, by standing in the Pillory at Cheapside Conduit. The Populace shewed a just Detestation of such infamous Practices, for they were most severely pelted; and no doubt but they will meet with the same Treatment on Tower Hill, where they are also to wear the wooden Ruff; after which they are to suffer Six Months Imprisonment, in pursuance of the Sentence pass’d on them at the said Sessions.

Old Bailey Proceedings 1 September 1697

Christopher Dickenson was indicted for a Misdemeanor, for forging a Bill of Sale and Letter of Attorney, in the name of one Amon Anderson , Mariner, belonging to His Majesty's Ship the Newcastle . There was Evidence that proved he did confess the same, the Jury thereupon found him guilty. Fined 5 Nobles, and to stand in the Pillory at Tower-hill, and at Charingcross.

The London Chronicle 22-24 April 1762

Mary Kite, for wilful and corrupt perjory, committed by her last session at Guildhall, upon the trial of Mr. David William a Custom-house officer, whom she had unjustly prosecuted for an apprehended assault with intent to commit a rape upon her; and the being now convicted of having been guilty of that perjury upon the clearest evidence, was sentenced to stand on the pillory upon Tower Hill and to be imprisoned in the gaol of Newgate for one year.

The two cases of "intention to commit sodomy" are interesting. Such accusations appear to have been a 'nice little earner' for local criminals by which they would threaten a victim with making an accusation of sodomy (then a capital offence) if they did not hand over money, property or whatever. There are real parallels with the blackmailing of gay men in the 20th Century with "outing" unless they paid money.

The pillory has not been used in the United Kingdom since 1830 - though I can see some merit in its return for use with lying politicians......

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