Imprisoned in the Tower: Would I cope?

Today, as we think about Anne Boleyn preparing herself for an execution that would be postponed for 24 hours, we have an article from Anne Boleyn Files follower Kathy Gallimore. Kathy wanted to share her feelings about what it would be like to be a prisoner in the Tower waiting for death.

Imprisoned in the Tower: would I cope?

The answer is “No”, and I have attempted here to express why I would not have coped and how in awe I am of the people who did. This is a personal view, and no historical quotes, sources or bibliography have been used.

I have been fascinated with Tudor history for as long as I can remember. Every book I read about the Tudors, and I have read so many over the years, piques my interest further, searching for facts which could shine new light on Tudor life. In essence, I can’t get enough of the intrigue that surrounds the main players and admit to having a morbid fascination with the Tower of London, particularly Traitors’ Gate.

I can only imagine what went through a prisoner’s mind and how they reacted when arrested and taken to the Tower following a biased trial at the hands of people who were only interested in their own advancement within the Tudor Court. “If it pleases Your Majesty, then guilty is the verdict.” Can historians really say that one person thought this and another felt that? Humans have been cruel to each other for centuries and what we believe went on in the Tower during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries is something we learn at school. We also learn that many of the accused arrived at Traitors’ Gate with life-threatening and untreated injuries. The Tower’s dark reputation lives on, and that is why millions of people visit the landmark every year.

About forty years ago, my late husband and I took a boat trip down the Thames from London to Greenwich, passing the Tower and Traitors’ Gate. I remember visualising what it must have been like to be escorted up the steps and into the confines of the Tower, knowing there was little chance of ever leaving alive. If I could honestly say that I was innocent of all charges, what would it take to convince the King and his cohorts? Would they even listen? Well, we all know the answer to that one!

The stench from the river and the heads displayed on Tower Bridge would be a stark reminder of the poor souls who had suffered in the same way that faced me. I would rather be thrown into the river and drown amongst the filth than wait for my execution. The relief I would feel knowing that the time for my death had passed, giving me hope of a pardon, would be short-lived when a guard opened the door of my cell to tell me that my execution would now take place the following day. All that apprehension and resignation would have to be tolerated once more. An unbearable thought.

Anne Boleyn, perhaps the most documented prisoner to have ever been held in the Tower, is someone I can probably relate to more than anyone else. Probably because she was a woman. Even if you are not a Tudor enthusiast, the chances are that you have heard about Henry’s second wife! The one historical fact that has never been refuted is that Anne was accused of multiple crimes and taken to the Tower to await her fate. Along with her co-accused, she pleaded her innocence, to no avail. The King’s mind was made up, and she was to suffer the consequences. How staunch she was, apparently. I could never be like her, but then again, she is reputed to have had a not-so-nice side, and maybe that strengthened her resolve. I would definitely be planning revenge on someone.

However, are we to believe everything we read in the history books? Were some of those found guilty of treason or challenging the King really that brave when told they were to be executed and tortured by the most gruesome methods? Burned or boiled alive, hanged, drawn and quartered, racked and more. How could anyone put on a brave face at such a prospect? No wonder Anne was grateful when she heard that an experienced swordsman would be imported to sever her head once it became apparent that she was definitely going to die!

To witness someone to be in favour one minute and out the next must have been a constant worry to anyone having the slightest connection with the King and his advisers. Well, even the people closest to the throne had to watch their backs (and necks). I would almost be afraid to breathe, worried I would talk in my sleep and fearful that someone might be reading my mind! What a terrible existence – to be denied what we now call freedom of speech.

Once Anne was incarcerated, was she able to sleep or eat? How could you do either with the sword hovering? According to history, she spent 17 days in the Tower. She must have lost weight and become exhausted, both physically and mentally. I most certainly would not have had an appetite or been able to find sleep. I’m not a religious person but would probably have prayed for mercy. She is recorded as being in her late twenties or early thirties when she entered the Tower. Probably too young for menopause so she may have had to contend with her monthly course. Maybe the stress of knowing she was to be executed affected her cycle. If she was still ovulating, she may have been thinking that there was still a chance she could bear a healthy son for Henry. I would have hated the lack of privacy, and I doubt if Anne would have had time to pack an overnight bag containing her personal effects! Even though it was almost summer, the cold, damp room would have made bathing in cold water unpleasant, to say the least. Was she allowed the luxury of hot water? Did she even bother to keep herself clean? We don’t know. Perhaps she became depressed and felt so wretched that she got to the point where she just didn’t care anymore.

No support was forthcoming from her family or friends, so Anne really was on her own, save for her ladies and her assigned confessor. Hardly a convivial situation for one who had been such a bright light at court and who had enjoyed the luxuries and pleasures being Queen afforded. Even if she was not liked (due to her treatment of Catherine), she commanded such authority that people feigned friendship. Suddenly, the tables were turned, and her so-called friends at court became her enemies. Did she ever consider that if she were pardoned, she would try to be more amiable? However, she had lost the King to Jane, and if she ever got out of the Tower, she would be very low in the pecking order.

We really don’t know what Anne’s thought process. If I had been in her shoes, I would have spent every waking hour planning how I could get out of this predicament. The King wouldn’t listen, she was hated at court, and it would be difficult to escape. She was stuck fast with nowhere to go, regardless of whether or not she was guilty. Everyone was lying to save their own skins so why would anyone take pity on her? Life was cheap and what did it matter if Anne died?

Life was very different back then, and we should be thankful, very thankful, that there are now no executioners lurking behind walls at the Tower. If I am to believe history, Anne was guilty as charged, but is this the absolute truth of the matter? I will never know! That’s the thing, isn’t it? Only Anne knew – should we give her the benefit of doubt?

Did Anne miss her daughter? Her maternal instincts must have kicked in, and Elizabeth’s father doesn’t appear to have been too concerned about the welfare of the young princess, having sent her away from court. I think Anne loved Elizabeth but she wasn’t a boy, and that is how Anne got into this mess in the first place. The preoccupation of men being hell bent on having a son must have made women doubt themselves. We know the reasons why a son was so important, but if I had been Queen and my first-born was a girl, followed by miscarriages or more girls, I might have been tempted to tell the King to give birth to the next one himself! Anne was a fiery woman, and none of us was privy to the private moments she shared with the King. Maybe she did tell him to get a healthy son by whatever means he could. The trumped-up charges against Anne facilitated this, and so she was eliminated, and before long Henry had sired a son.

What did Anne and her ladies do for over two weeks? They probably had books to read and had access to a Bible. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on anything, let alone snuggle down with a good book. The conversation must have centred around how Anne could prove her innocence (if she sincerely believed she was not guilty as charged). Her husband was miles away, wooing one of Anne’s ladies who served her at court. To be held in the Tower facing death and knowing my husband was flirting with someone younger than me, in the hope of siring a son, would be torture itself. I wonder if Anne ever thought about suicide or asked her maid to carry out the deed! What was really going on in Anne’s mind? It must have been like the dream (or nightmare) which has been documented: trying to run away but never getting very far.

If she had committed the crimes of which she was accused, she was probably wondering what a fool she had been and what she could have done differently to avoid being caught out. If she was not guilty and knew the King’s mind, she may have ranted and raved to such a degree that she was gasping for breath. She could have held her breath and allowed herself to become asphyxiated. She could have asked the maid to strangle her to death. Maybe she contemplated the exposed beams as a way out, hanging herself with a rope made with strips of her gown. I really don’t know if I could have taken my own life, even if it meant I would avoid a public execution, but I would have looked around the room for any possible opportunities.

How could anyone have the presence of mind to walk out to her death? According to what we read, she didn’t try and run away. Where would she run? Into the crowd gathered to enjoy the day’s entertainment? Those final steps to the block… How could you walk? I would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, pleading my innocence to anyone who would listen. Did she really chat with the executioner? Did the executioner actually tell her he was sorry for what he was about to do?

It’s a tough one, wondering whether or not Anne was guilty. We read that she was taken to the Tower because she was guilty but there is the possibility that she committed none of these crimes. Only Anne knew the truth but either way her fear of what lay ahead would have been all-encompassing. What I have trouble understanding is that Anne knew the risks, so why would she put herself in such an invidious situation. If I had been Henry’s wife and he had lost interest in me because I was unable to bear him a son, I honestly believe I would accept that he needed to conquer afresh, agree to a divorce and get on with it. Anything would be better than languishing in the Tower, and Anne knew very well what went on within its walls. If she was that clever, and we are led to believe that she was very well educated and astute, she should have changed her ways and danced to Henry’s tune. People may have actually begun to like her although it would have been a tough call after the trouble she caused Henry’s first wife.

Guilty or not, Anne must have realised how stupid she had been. Obviously, she could not be blamed for failing to bear Henry a healthy son, but the very idea that she committed adultery and worse doesn’t ring true with me. I’m sure she could have devised a plan to discredit Jane.

I lean towards the assumption that Anne was innocent and didn’t need to die by the sword. She had witnessed too many arrests and executions during her short life. To have slipped up and committed an offence worthy of execution seems strange to me. Anne was too smart to fall into that trap.

To have coped in the Tower, awaiting execution, is nothing short of a miracle. Guilty or not, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like being imprisoned in such an inhospitable place. Now, living in the 21st century, most in the Western world receive a fair trial, and if they are facing execution, they are aware that it will be carried out in a somewhat humane way. If we can call it “humane.” Waiting seventeen days to be taken to the scaffold would have been as bad as the end result. How cruel and how those who had imprisoned me would have revelled in it. I have an intense fear of rats, and there would have been plenty of those running around, arriving in their hundreds from the murky waters of the Thames.

Maybe there would have been a way to poison myself, but I would have needed to bribe someone in the kitchens to make this possible. The food I received would probably have been so bad that I wouldn’t have noticed if it had been laced with some lethal potion!

I have thought a great deal about what life would have been like in the Tower all those years ago. Definitely not on my bucket list!

My name is Kathy Gallimore. I moved to New Zealand from England just over sixty years ago and was educated down under. Consequently, I have a good Kiwi accent! I travel back to England every two years and always try to visit Henry’s haunts while I’m there. I was born in Westerham, just down the road from Hever Castle! My passions, apart from Tudor history, include animals (I worked/volunteered at the RSPCA here in Auckland for a number of years) and travelling within New Zealand and overseas. I love showing off my adopted country so if anyone is over this way, get in touch with me via Claire.

Related Post

13 thoughts on “Imprisoned in the Tower: Would I cope?”
  1. I have often tried to put myself in Annes shoes and imagine how I would have coped imprisoned in the Tower, especially in the beautiful month of May when the trees are in blossom and the grass smells so sweet after the rain, Anne was lucky in that she had a courageous spirit, once it was remarked of she she was braver than a lion, she was also tenacious and strong minded, how did she feel having to climb into the barge and being rowed up the Thames to that most impregnable of fortresses, in those days we have to remember the Tower was a pretty sight, it’s crenallated spires peeping above the trees and the winking river, it was rural therefore there would have been wild flowers nestling on the banks and further along, little cottages with pretty gardens, it did not look as grim as we imagine in our age as now tall glass buildings surround her, the roads are noisy with traffic and cars and pollution has ruined the clean fresh air, those who live and work near the Tower see it as a memorial to those who died, a gloomy building they had visited once with a school party or a relative, when ghost tours and sight seeing buses travel past the guide tells the story of Anne Boleyn, she is the Towers most famous prisoner and ghost! The Tower is in fact now a recognised historical landmark, and a place of fun to visit, all the more so because we can leave it and hurry home and look forward to an icy cosy evening in front of the tv, for Anne and all the others who have been incarcerated there though it was a place of misery, for they knew that could not leave it unless the King wished it, even though she was accorded the respect she deserved as Queen Anne was surrounded by women she didn’t like nor they her, she resided in the sumptuous apartments she had stayed in at her coronation as queen she would be put in a cell, what the conditions were like of her alleged lovers we do not know, they were gentleman so must have been in some comfort, they must have had a bed a stool maybe a chest, a table where they could write, apart from Smeaton who most likely was put in a dungeon at the bottom near the river, it’s likely he could see and hear a few scurrying rats, it is Smeaton the poor wretch I feel for most of all whose name is synonymous with Annes tragedy, he was quite possibly tortured, there were rumours he was racked but Cromwell did not have one at his house and after he had confessed there was no need to torture him further in the Tower, at his trial it was said he walked normally which he would not have been able to do if he had been so, (Anne Askew had been racked and therefore had to be carried to the stake), possibly he had been threatened with it though, Anne needed all her courage and wit to sustain her and as well as what happens with people when they know they are innocent, they believe it’s all been a dreadful mistake and they will soon be free, Anne soon came to realise though that her husband was most likely behind it all with Cromwell, she was not stupid and had known she had angered him many a time, she had rebuked him for his mistresses she had quarrelled with him and it was said once he had not spoken to her for several weeks, he was disappointed in her failure to bear him a son and was hotly pursuing Jane Seymour, after her trial she knew there was no hope till Cranmer appeared and coerced her into agreeing to an anullment, as noted this was a mind game of Henrys and very sick it was, she had had her hopes raised and cruelly dashed, a much weaker woman would have crumbled, Jane Rochford herself faced with the horror of certain death had a mental breakdown, Catherine Howard had given way to hysteria and so it took a much stronger woman to hold her own in that place of death, also we have to remember imprisoning women in the Tower was not that common, decades earlier in the reign of Edward 1V the Tower had not been the feared fortress it was in Annes time, it had pleasant quarters where the Kings wife and children had stayed in, they had played in the gardens, it was where the coronation celebrations were held, in Henrys time though it began to be feared as a place where once entered you rarely left alive, Anne must have thought how ironic it was that she was in the same apartments she was in at her coronation, she had been made Marquess Of Pembroke, then Queen, she had been crowned and anointed, she had held the orb and the sceptre, she had been feted like no other commoner before her, except Elizabeth Woodville, she must have slept in the huge luxurious bed she had shared with Henry, on her first night there I doubted she slept, nerves stretched to fever pitch renders the mind incapable of sleep, extreme worry and fear can ruin the appetite and I doubt whether she was able to eat for some days to, the shock of her arrest was responsible for her incoherent babbling and she would have felt in a daze, ‘what am I doing here whose been telling lies about me’, that first night would have been dreadful, if she eventually slept she could well have woken up thinking she was in Greenwich or Hampton Court or one of her other palaces, maybe it was all a dreadful nightmare, the mind fuzzy with sleep then realises it is all very real and she had to think calmly and take stock of her situation, all she could do was hold firm, her belief in her innocence and her faith in God would sustain her, in that deeply religious age people had great faith in the Almighty and prayed fervently, those in hopeless situations like Anne and her co accused believed fervently in the afterlife and also a heaven and hell, their belief was all they had to go on, it was this belief whether you were Catholic or Protestant that gave them strength, it sustained Katherine Of Aragon during the long miserable years of her seperation from Henry, and her sadness at the deaths of their children, on this day the 18th of May Anne now only had another night to get through which would be spent with her confessor, it is Friday tomorrow, the actual day this queen died 481 years ago, she would soon be meeting her maker, after weeks of misery, after suffering first shock then dismay at the charges against her, after enduring the ordeal of the trial and the misery at the anullment of her marriage, after realising that her once ardent lover and husband had now abandoned her she resolved to face death the best she could, she was it was noted by Kingston most cheerful, after weeks of torment she was happy she was going to die and her soul would be free, soon she would be in God’s garden and find eternal peace, she had entrusted her daughter to the care of her chaplain and her death would be quick, she had the skilled swordsman she was lucky, she had her devoted women with her, she would have her priest she was not alone.

    1. My instinctive feeling is that after the initial shock of her arrest and the stark depressing reality of her situation sank in, Anne must have found solace in a fragile hope that Henry might relent and allow her to live out her days in a nunnery. I would have been desperately grasping at any tiny fragment of optimism that even right up to the day and appointed hour of the execution, some lingering affection, remembrance of former love, might make Henry step forward and call off the execution.In fact I recall reading one account which described how Anne looked back several times as she knelt before the assembled witnesses.Was she hoping to see a messenger from the king racing into the tower to save her at the very last?
      Did she trust in Henry’s former love for her right up to the very end?If so, that makes her final minutes even more tragic.

      1. Yes on her way to the scaffold she kept peering over her shoulder in the forlorn hope perhaps a messenger would arrive to declare the King had decided to commute her sentance to banishment and maybe life in an abbey, as she walked out into the spring sunshine she had all the desperation of a drowning person who realises there is nothing they can hold onto but maybe someone may walk by and see them, that one hope may have still been with her, but as she climbed the steps to the scaffold she realised there was to be no reprieve, it is said that every night on the eve of her execution a ghostly scene is enacted, Anne walks to the scaffold and she is followed by her ladies and the men who accompanied her, the priest and William Kingston, and the headsman are waiting, she kneels on the ground her hands clasped in prayer and the headsman strikes, at once all the ghosts fade away into the night air till the following year, on the same evening according to the tales of old east anglia, her headless ghost also rides in a carriage drawn by headless horses through the country lanes of Norfolk till it reaches Blickling Hall her former home, Annes bloody head lays in her lap, as the carriage reaches the gates it disappears with all the occupants, all fanciful nonsense but a great read.

        1. Incidentally Blickling Hall was used in the last war by the army, my dad told me he was there and I was stunned as I’d been reading Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy, I was at once envious and asked him what it was like and did he see Annes ghost, my dad didn’t believe in the paranormal and just laughed at me but apparently its a beautiful Jacobean building with a statue of its most famous occupant on the staircase, Anne wears a little feathered hat and stands very tall and regal, preserved for all eternity, the original building has been much altered having bits added to it which is the case in most old buildings, but I would love to visit one day and walk in the same grounds that she must have walked, maybe one day…

  2. I think that it would be very difficult for modern people to be so steeped in the 16th century that their thoughts and feelings would be similar to what Anne Boleyn was thinking or feeling. For example, modern people often put much less weight on G-d and religious matters, and life expectancies differ greatly. So, people in the 16th century may have been much less frightened of death than we are; death was much more familiar (it was so common) and it was the gateway to heaven. This would bring special comfort to those who were innocent, because no crime would keep them out of heaven. A modern person would focus more on the unfairness, because many modern people would not think of themselves as heaven-bound. Anne, for example, was quoted as saying that she expected to be in heaven because of her charitable works; this hope alone may well have kept her sane and stable. .

  3. I often think about this subject too. As an atheist in the modern age, I am fascinated with how terrifying the thought you may be going to hell would have been. I feel fortunate indeed to have no fear of the afterlife. The thought that you would be in terrible pain and torment for all enternity must have been utterly torturous for the condemned. It would seem that Anne really did feel she was going to heaven – I hope it was of some comfort to her and eventually to her daughter.

    I also often think about people who would gather to watch executions. Again, we live in truly different times, but I can’t imagine turning up to watch something so terrifying and disgusting. Were people simply less squeamish then? All the blood, guts and body fluids… no thanks!

    Thinking of Henry – I often see comments of how evil he was. Of course he was a tyrant, but I think we find it hard to relate just how convinced he was that he was divinely entitled and right about everything. It’s not a mindset we can understand in modern times.

    As the saying goes, the past is a different country; they do things differently there.

  4. I think this is a modernized version of what Anne might have thought. People in the 16th century didn’t have the same view as us on death, privacy, gender roles, etc. I don’t think a Queen ever thought about packing an overnight bag or worried about getting her period in the Tower, or thought the King (or any man really) can like it or lump it with regards to baby girls. It was a wife’s duty, more so a Queen’s, to be obedient and provide children.

    Queen Anne was deeply religious, like everyone else during that time, and I think she found peace in the fact that she was innocent, she had enough time to pray and repent and from surviving evidence, she believed she will be with the Lord soon. I am an atheist, but that must have provided comfort.

    Death was also not as big of a taboo back then, that it is now. People got sick and died and got mutilated all the time. Everyone was familiar with these, if for no other reason, for the fact that it happened so often with little to no medical care.

    Nonetheless, I am sure Anne felt a lot of anguish, she felt betrayed, and absolutely horrified at this sudden and violent turn of events. She was human after all, and fearful of death.

  5. I’m a bit confused about this article; the evidence that we have suggests that Anne Boleyn cooperated with the king as much as she could and she was reported to be in hope of life. She hoped to go to a nunnery and spend the rest of her life there. I think Anne was very eager to escape execution, so accusing her of being stupid and not complying with the authorities is unfair and inaccurate, in my opinion.

    Moreover, we now know that Henry VIII ordered the executioner in ADVANCE of Anne’s trial. Even before she was condemned, the headsman was on his way. I understand that perhaps this was a precautionary measure, perhaps it was anticipated that the accused might be found not guilty and the headsman could be sent back home again, but I don’t think so. To me, the surviving evidence makes it abundantly clear that Henry was only too willing to get rid of Anne by this point. Chapuys reported that Henry was anxious for the execution to be over so that he could marry Jane.

    ” I’m sure she could have devised a plan to discredit Jane.” – I see this as a very modern interpretation and I don’t understand what you mean by discrediting Jane. How could she have done so, from the walls of her prison? How would that have helped her case, how would that have overturned the scandalous accusations made against her, how would that have changed Henry’s mind? Henry was firmly set in his decision and he had decided to cast Anne aside and marry Jane. Nothing Anne, or anyone else, said was going to change that.

    Did Anne cope in the Tower? I’m not sure she did, we have plenty of evidence that her behaviour was erratic, that she experienced mental breakdowns, that she was repeatedly sobbing, that she was laughing hysterically on other occasions; if Anne was innocent, and she knew herself to be innocent, she was probably in shock. She probably experienced terror at the thought of the blade clawing into her neck, she probably felt disbelief at what was happening to her. By all accounts, she was courageous and dignified on the scaffold, but the evidence we have, to me, suggests that her seventeen days imprisonment were tortuous for her, days in which she struggled with the thought of losing her life, struggled with the idea that her mother’s health was failing, struggled with the idea that her husband would so callously destroy her after a decade of love, struggled with the knowledge that no-one had rallied to her cause.

  6. Interesting article, but I really don’t know how I would cope, facing death. Would I be trying to escape execution, causing trouble, going mad or be resigned and prepare for death? Would I be cheerful and defiant? I don’t really know. I can’t even begin to imagine, but thank you for a thoughtful article.

  7. Just another detail, but it wins me up when people talk about Anne being brought to Traitors Gate, when it is well known that she was rowed to the now no longer existing Court Gate.

  8. Anne must have known well before her arrest that Henry was not as attached to her as he had been. The arrest must have come as a shock, since he had never treated Katherine so harshly. She had been confined, yes, but always in a manor house(though not always the best of them), not the Tower. Anne may have feared being set aside, she may not have truly realized her life was on the line if she believed Henry would treat her no worse than he had treated Katherine.
    She lacked the foreign allies that Katherine had. Her faction at Court had been dealt a fatal blow by the other arrests made that May. Her former allies remaining at liberty turned against her, and of course, Cromwell, who had been her ally had been the prime mover in the plot to oust her.
    The very qualities which had figured in the triumphs of the past ten years now worked to kill her. Henry and Cromwell knew how her mind worked, and what her capabilities were.
    She could regain her influence as long as she was secured in the Tower, where she could not hope to see or talk to Henry. There was no one to speak for her, or to caution Henry about the consequences of his actions. The consequences did not look serious at that time. Henry had no downside on killing Anne. He would finally be free of the diplomatic mess of the last ten years. He could now have another shot at a legitimate male heir. He would have to give nothing up, as his infatuation had worn itself out, and Anne was all around more of a liability to him at this point. Cromwell made it easy for him to have what he wanted. It should also be noted that despite the death of Katherine, Anne was still not acknowledged as Queen by all. I am not sure that it would have been possible for Henry to get complete acknowledgement of her position. She really did have to go. It is awful it was done in this manner, but dead she had to be for Henry to move ahead.

  9. Thank you all for your comments on my article. Yes, it was written from a 21st century perspective; I couldn’t have imagined how I would cope in any other way! Also, I guess everyone has their own opinion of Henry and how he interacted with his wives. My comment regarding the discrediting of Jane relates to how I would react to being set aside and stuck solid inside the Tower with nowhere to go – Anne had plenty of time to reflect. I simply wanted to share my personal thoughts and now I know I’m not as strong emotionally as I thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *