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Five Ladies and the Tower of London

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Executioner poised to chop off m'Lady's head

3m2 that Shaped History

This entry deals with the scaffold site at the Tower of London and the five ladies who were executed there. The Tudor dynasty was one of the most frail in English history due to the lack of male heirs and the rival claimants to the throne. This frailty arose from the fact that Henry VII consolidated the houses of York and Lancaster by marrying Elizabeth of York. This marriage put an end to the civil War of the Roses and the union produced two sons; Arthur, who died in his late teens, and the future king, Henry VIII.

You'll enter the Tower via Byward Tower. Walk straight up towards Wakefield Tower and take a left past the Bloody Tower1. On your left, you'll see the Queen's House and a green where the ravens can be seen - it is said that if the ravens leave the Tower then the monarchy will crumble - and on the right you'll find the White Tower. In front of this green is a roped off area; this is the famous scaffold site.

The execution site was reserved for prisoners of the highest importance and rank. Most prisoners were executed on Tower Hill in front of large audiences. The scaffold site gave a little privacy for those about to meet their maker.

The ladies in this entry are listed in order of their execution date and not importance.

Anne Boleyn c 1507 - 1536

Anne Boleyn was an intelligent middle class girl who rose through the ranks to become consort to one of Europe's great matrimonial prizes - King Henry VIII. She was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, a diplomat, and a niece of the Duke of Norfolk. She was raised and educated in the courts of France and Burgundy but was recalled to England to become a Lady in Waiting to Catherine of Aragon. It is rumoured that she was in attendance at the 'Field of Cloth of Gold' - a summit between Henry VIII and Fran├žois I of France. She could claim royal descent through her mother's family back to Edward I (1239 - 1307) which was vital for any consort of the era.

When Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce a male heir, the King started to rove. His wife was by now middle-aged and no longer attractive. Anne, however, was a perfect foil to an ageing king. Bonnie and blithe she soon attracted the mighty monarch's attention. Henry sought a divorce from Catherine but this was not forthcoming and was eventually rejected by the Pope and led to the excommunication of the country from the Catholic faith. Henry VIII was afraid to execute Catherine of Aragon because first and foremost she was the daughter of the Catholic Kings Isabella and Ferdinand but also, she was aunt of Emperor Charles V.

Henry VIII, after having left the Catholic fold, became supreme head of the Church of England and married his lover, Anne Boleyn. The coronation of this new consort was the first time that cannons were used at the Tower of London to mark a celebration. The public didn't like her for the simple fact that she didn't have the glamour of Catherine of Aragon. To counter this, Anne tried to outshine her predecessor in terms of charity. A sign of the new era can be seen in one of the motifs of Anne Boleyn; the image shows a white dove (Anne's heraldic image) pecking at a pomegranate (Catherine's emblem).

By nature, Anne Boleyn was a reformer/Lutheran and was known to have political discussions with her husband, the King. When she became pregnant, everybody was certain that it would be a prince. However, Anne gave birth to the future Elizabeth I - a disappointment to the whole court. Even the proclamation had to be altered from the birth of a 'Prince' to a 'Princess'.

This was the start of the end for Anne. Over the course of the next two years, she had several miscarriages and her arguments with the King became more vitriolic. Henry VIII believed that this new marriage was cursed and he wasn't given a male heir as punishment. He needed an escape from the marriage. An exit was provided by the death of Catherine of Aragon. With his first wife dead, he could safely divorce his new wife and be free to chase a new fancy. Which is exactly what he did.

Anne Boleyn was arrested on charges of treason, sorcery and incest with her brother Viscount Rochford (to produce that all important male heir) - all of them false accusations. Members of Anne's household were imprisoned, tortured and interrogated and the result was that Anne Boleyn was taken to the Tower from Greenwich Palace, arriving by water through Traitor's Gate. The most damning evidence came from Jane, Viscountess Rochford - Anne's sister in law.

Anne was executed at the scaffold site on 19 May, 1536. She has the distinction of being the only one of the ladies who was beheaded with a sword, as is the French way, by the Swordsman of Calais.

Margaret, Countess of Salisbury c 1473 - 1541

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury holds a special place in English history as being the last Plantagenet princess. The Plantagenets were the ruling dynasty in England from 1154 - 1485. Margaret was extraordinary, reaching the age of 69 or 70 in an era where the average life expectancy for a woman was 45 years. She was also famous for staying true to the old Catholic ways, while remaining faithful to King and successfully treading her way through the War of the Roses and four of the King's marriages. She was considered and revered as the first lady in the land after the queen and princesses.

The Countess's father was the Duke of Clarence, who in turn was the brother of King Edward IV and Richard III. She was also first cousin to Edward V and Richard, Duke of York; the two princes who disappeared in the confines of the Tower of London.

Margaret had four children, two of whom became well known. Her son Henry was executed by the King in 1538 and her other son Reginald fled religious reform and was made a Cardinal by the Pope.

The reason why Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was executed is simple. Her family were not only too close to the body of the throne to make their own claims to crown and country, but also her son was dedicated to the old Catholic faith. Her execution was timed for Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine Howard to show that the old era had passed. Margaret was executed at the scaffold site on 27 May, 1541, and legend has it that the execution did not run smoothly and several chops were needed to finish off the job.

Catherine Howard c 1520 - 1542

Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII, first cousin to Anne Boleyn (see above) and another niece of the Duke of Norfolk. She reigned for 18 months and, like her cousin, she started out as a lady in waiting to Henry VIII's fourth wife Anne of Cleves2.

Before Catherine married Henry VIII, she had two affairs, one with a man called Dereham and another with a man called Culpeper. At the time, if two people had intercourse, it had the power of marriage which would mean that the Queen was in fact a bigamist. However, this little titbit was nothing compared to what happened next.

For some inexplicable reason, Catherine Howard resumed her affair with Culpeper during a northern tour. Why she committed adultery is anyone's guess for it was clearly an insane and dangerous thing to do - she only had to remember what happened to her cousin.

The king discovered his wife's infidelities through a message pressed into his palm during a religious service. Shortly thereafter, Catherine Howard, Dereham and Culpeper were arrested. The two men were given public executions; Culpeper, a former favourite of the king, was beheaded. Dereham, however, was of lower rank and was hung, drawn, castrated and quartered while still alive - the traditional punishment for a traitor.

Catherine was granted a secluded execution at the scaffold site and was beheaded, cleanly, on 13 February, 1542.

Jane, Viscountess Rochford ? - 1542

Jane, Viscountess Rochford was the sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn (see above) and it was on her evidence that Anne and her brother (Jane's husband) were executed. The career of Jane is obscure but she was an exceptional court player who knew how to save her own skin.

The fall of Viscountess Rochford started on the northern progress where Queen Catherine Howard started her affair with Culpeper. Both the Queen and Culpeper said in their confessions that it was the Viscountess who had encouraged the pair to become lovers. No one knows why she did this but it is believed that her death was mainly political. She was a reminder of Anne Boleyn and a negative past.

Jane, Viscountess Rochford, was beheaded at the scaffold site minutes after Catherine Howard and in the words of Antonia Fraser, author:

Lady Rochford was now executed in her turn on a block still wet and slippery with her mistress's blood.

Lady Jane Grey 1537 - 1554

Lady Jane Grey was queen for nine days and one of the most famous political pawns of history. She was the grand daughter of Henry VIII's sister Mary. She was forced to marry Lord Guildford after her father's machinations to marry her to Edward VI failed. When Edward VI died, Jane was proclaimed queen in order to keep a Protestant on the throne of England and stop Henry VIII's Catholic daughter Mary seizing power.

However, like all of the plans concerning Lady Jane Grey, this failed. Mary seized London and imprisoned Lady Jane in the Tower of London. Jane Grey was executed at the scaffold site on 12 February, 1554 - she was only 16 years old and had been queen for nine days.


The bodies of these brave and innocent women were taken from the site and interred in the chapel of Peter ad Vincula within the tower walls. The two queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were given due Royal recognition by Queen Victoria in the 19th Century. They have grand plaques giving them the title of Queen (until this point they had been ignored). To enter the chapel, you have to be part of a tour party. All you have to do is wait by the entrance and a guide will take you through.

1Bloody Tower is where the Princes in the Tower are meant to have been killed and where Sir Walter Raleigh was held prisoner.2This was a diplomatic marriage. The spouses spoke different languages and the marriage was annulled after six months. Anne of Cleves survived and grew to love England.

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