Over the next few days we are going to enjoy a series of article written by Anne Boleyn Files visitor, Nancy Smith, on some of the ghosts who are said to haunt the Tower of London. Thanks so much, Nancy!

Monarchs Who Never Were – Hauntings at the Tower of London

by Nancy Smith

When I was doing research for my article about Anne Boleyn ghost stories last year, I discovered that Anne isn’t the only spirit haunting the Tower of London, where she met her tragic end.  The Tower of London is ground zero for English hauntings.  Many of the sad wraiths that have wandered the Tower grounds for centuries were punished for their proximity to the throne, whether they sought the crown or not.

TheTower of London

The earliest part of the Tower, the central fortress known as the White Tower, was built by order of William the Conqueror.  Construction of the fortress began in 1078, 12 years after the Norman conquest.  The fortress was built to serve several purposes – to protect the Normans from the residents of the City of London; to intimidate the citizens of London into submission by displaying the brute force of the Normans, and to protect London from invasion by outsiders.  Even today, amid the skyscrapers of modern London, the Tower of London is an impressive sight; in Norman times, rising up as it did from the northern bank of the Thames, the Tower must have been truly awe-inspiring.

Successive monarchs have added onto William the Conqueror’s fortress, and the Tower served many purposes in its over 900 years of existence – royal residence, zoo, royal mint, records office, repository for the crown jewels, and the purpose for which it is best known – as a state prison and place of execution.

Although the Tower of London was used as a prison since at least 1100, the first recorded prisoner being Bishop Ranulf Flambard, the Tower’s sinister reputation as a prison for important state prisoners is most closely associated with the Tudor period.  (Flambard was also the first prisoner to escape from the Tower, using a rope that had been smuggled into the Tower in a butt of wine).  Likewise, although the elevated piece of land northwest of the Tower, known as Tower Hill, was used as an execution site since at least 1381, when Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, was beheaded by an angry mob, it was only in Tudor times that executions of important state prisoners began taking place within the Tower walls.  With the exception of William, Lord Hastings, who was accused of treason by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and taken out of a council meeting to be beheaded on a block of timber, all of the beheadings on Tower Green took place in Tudor times.  The unfortunates who perished on Tower Green were:  Queen Anne Boleyn (1536); Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, the last of the Plantagenets (1541); Queen Katherine Howard (1542); Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (1542), all during the reign of Henry VIII; Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen (1554), during the reign of Mary I; and Robert Devereux, end Earl of Essex (1601), during the reign of Elizabeth I.

As will be seen, the executions on Tower Green account for many of the Tower’s hauntings.

The First Ghost

The first reported sighting of a ghost at the Tower was that of St. Thomas a Beckett.  On St. George’s Day 1240, when construction of the Inner Curtain Wall was nearly complete, a great storm resulted in the destruction of the wall.  A year later, again on St. George’s Day, another storm destroyed the nearly completed wall.  A priest claimed to have seen the ghost of St. Thomas, who was Constable of the Tower in 1162, striking the wall with a crucifix.  St. Thomas was allegedly unhappy that the expansion of the Tower was not for the common good but “for the injury and prejudice of the Londoners, my brethren”.  Henry III, who was king at the time, being aware that his grandfather, Henry II was (at least indirectly) responsible for St. Thomas’s death, named an oratory at the Tower after St. Thomas.  That must have satisfied him, because the third time was the charm in the building of the Inner Curtain Wall – to this day it remains standing.

The Princes in the Tower

The Bloody Tower (originally called the Garden Tower), which was built at the same time as the Inner Curtain Wall, was allegedly the scene of one of the most notorious crimes in British history – the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

King Edward V, who became king at the age of 12 in 1483 after the sudden death of his father, Edward IV, was taken to the Tower by his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), supposedly to prepare for his coronation.  He was later joined there by his 9-year old brother, Richard, Duke of York.  In the early summer of 1483 the boys were seen playing in the grounds of the Tower, but by late summer of 1483 they had dropped out of sight, and by late 1483 rumors were circulating that they had been murdered.

The fate of the princes of the identity of their killer (if they were murdered) is not the subject of this article.  However, in 1674, during renovations to the White Tower, workmen found a box containing 2 small skeletons buried under the staircase leading to the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist.  Believing them to be the skeletons of the princes, Charles II ordered the bones to be placed in an urn and buried in the North Aisle of the Chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey.  Sightings of the princes did not end with their deaths, however.  Their ghosts were seen as early as the late-15th C., when guards passing a stairway in the Bloody Tower noticed the shadows of 2 small figures gliding down the stairs.  Since then, the trembling figures of 2 small boys have been seen wandering the Bloody Tower, wearing white nightgowns and clutching each other in fear.  When the witness, moved to pity by the trembling apparitions, reaches out to comfort the 2 small figures, they back up slowly towards the wall before disappearing.

Sir Walter Raleigh

The boys are joined in the Bloody Tower by the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was imprisoned there for 13 years during the reign of James I before being beheaded at Whitehall on October 29, 1618.

Sir Walter has been seen wandering around the Bloody Tower, which is furnished as it would have been in his day.  Sir Walter lived in relative comfort at the Tower of London.  In fact, the second floor was added for the comfort of him and his family.  He lived there with his wife, Elizabeth Throckmorton and their 2 sons, Walter and Carew.  In fact, Carew was born in the Bloody Tower in 1605.

Sir Walter had the freedom to wander the Tower of London at will, and he continues to do so after death.  In addition to wandering around the Bloody Tower, looking exactly as he does in the portrait hanging there, Raleigh’s ghost has been seen on the ramparts known as Raleigh’s Walk, where he exercised during his imprisonment; the Byward Tower, the Queen’s House and the building known as Seven Tower Green, now used as a lodging for Yeoman Warders and their families.

The wife of one warder was terrified to take a bath because she claimed to have been physically touched by an entity she believed to be a man from the time of Raleigh (although it is unknown how they decided Sir Walter was the culprit).  The next occupant of Seven Tower Green braced himself for a visit from Sir Walter, and he was not disappointed.  One night he heard a loud click and the door leading to Raleigh’s Walk from his bedroom opened.  (Part of Raleigh’s Walk is now part of the house).  Likewise, Raleigh has been seen in the Queen’s House, chained and headless (although how the apparition can be identified as being Sir Walter since it is headless is anyone’s guess).  Sir Walter Raleigh (or his spirit) has also been seen in the Byward Tower by a Yeoman Guard as recently as 1983.  About a year and a half later, the apparition was seen in the same area by a different guard.  Also in the 1980s, a Yeoman Warder working in the Byward Tower in the early morning hours saw 2 Yeoman Warders standing by a fireplace (which just moments earlier had been a space heater), smoking cigars and deep in conversation.  The Beefeaters were wearing uniforms of a much earlier period, and as the surprised Beefeater stared at them one of them turned, stared back at him, and then both vanished.

Notes and Sources

Tower of London

Princes in the Tower

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11 thoughts on “Monarchs Who Never Were – Hauntings at the Tower of London Part 1”
  1. The saddest one is the one about the two princes. I wonder, have there been any DNA or facial reconstruction or anything like that on the two small skeletons to see if they might be identifiable? Or were the skeletons cremated and then put into an urn?

    1. As far as I know, the bones were just placed in an urn as they were recovered from the box in which they were found. They were last examined in 1933; however, the powers that be at Westminster Abbey have refused any further attempts to open the urn and examine the bones. I believe that members of the Richard III Society have made several requests, as they’d like to try to disprove the notion that the bones are of the princes in an attempt to exhonorate Richard.

    2. The skeletons were examined by a doctor and dentist in the 1930’s, and pronounced to be two boys, about 9 and 12 (the ages that the Princes would be if killed during the reign of Richard III). When Kendall was writing his biography of Richard III, he consulted other experts, who have given a wide variety of ages, including that the bones are from children too young to be the princes. I have heard that the Richard III Society has been asking for DNA testing for the bones, but nothing has been done about this.

      I agree that it is sad. I rather think of the ghosts of any of the children who have died in the Tower as having fun scaring visitors.

      1. When the bones were examined in the 1930’s it was assumed that they were the princes and the examiners worked backwards from that assumption, i.e they found what they wanted and expected to find. The bones themselves were jumbled up with animal bones, and there’s some disagreement as to whether some of the human ones are male or female. There’s a good chapter about them in Bertram Fields “Royal Blood”. Also, it shouldn’t be forgotten that when the bones were found in the 17C the Tower had been not only a prison, but a palace and a garrison for 600 years. It’s highly unlikely that the princes were the only children there in all that time.

  2. Great Claire….I am printing this article of yours off and taking it with me to read as I stand within the Tower of London this May…..I agree with others that the saddest would be the two small, young princes of the Tower….So innocent, so unnecessary. I have read many books about these two boys and all of the facts behind their deaths. I have felt such strong feelings when I have stood within the Bloody Tower…my imagination runs away with me…here, it was right here that they took their last breathes on earth. Even if there were not ghosts, the people all of us discuss, the articles of yours we read, still bring them alive around us when we are within the very spaces that they lived and breathed. I know I fee the closest to Anne Boleyn within the Tower, as well as, the others who met their death there. This time I will say goodbye to them and I will let them know that there are those of us who still think about them, who cared about their lives here on earth. It will be the final time for England for us….it will be a final goodbye from the stand point of being so close to where they actually walked and talked…..

  3. Oh, great article–So many interesting spirits around that beastly place–I hope when I get there, I will see something or someone–I’ll be quite disappointed if I don’t! Love this! THank you so much, Claire and Nancy.

  4. Thanks for the story of the ghosts of the Tower.I’d love to visit there some day.My father many years ago in the late 1950s was TDY for the US AIirforce, and went to Germany and England.He said the Beefeaters mentioned the ghost of Anne Boleyn and some of the others.
    It’s a shame the Abbey won’t allow DNA testing of the bones thought to be that of the two princes.If I were queen, I might intervene to settle the question once and for all.

  5. Very interesting article Nancy! The Tower is such an interesting place and most of the things you talked about here I didn´t know

  6. All very interesting, I do not believe Richard III was guilty of the death’s of the 2 princes as clearly Henry VII had as much as any one too gain from there death, He forced there elder sister to marry him to please the Londoner’s and get them to except him.

    1. I don’t agree that he forced Elizabeth of York to marry him, it was the idea of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort and I’ve seen no evidence of Elizabeth being forced. They also had a very happy marriage.

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