In the 850 years it functioned as a prison, the near-impregnable Tower of London saw — according to historian Nigel Jones — 37 different escapees, which works out at just four a century. The audacity of those rare break-outs might have been exaggerated in urban legend, but they still make for cracking yarns. We analysed the tactics of some of those great escapes, and found that it’s the simple ideas which really do work best.
1. Get the guards plastered
A classic – and it really worked. Bishop Ranulf Flambard was locked up as a scapegoat for an unpopular tax regime. During a luxurious stay there, Flambard had the run of the Tower and in 1101, at one of his many banquets, he succeeded in getting the guards drunk enough to fall asleep. Flambard then simply hauled himself out of a window clinging to an escape rope he’d had smuggled in via a wine bottle. The Tower had never been designed as a prison, and its first ever inmate had escaped with embarrassing ease.
2. Pack a massive ladder
The rebel baron Roger Mortimer slightly adapted the Flambard Technique in 1323 by lacing the warders’ wine with sedatives. Over the walls went Mortimer with two siege rope ladders, and the recalcitrant noble was free to make off with Edward II’s wife and then successfully plot to overthrow the King. Before long Mortimer would again see the Tower however; this time bricked into his cell before being hanged at Tyburn. Hubris.
3. Good old-fashioned teamwork
Tower escapology reached its zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries when a spate of politically and religiously-motivated incarcerations led to a golden era of creative absconders. The Jesuit priest John Gerard was banged up and tortured in 1597 on allegations of treason against Elizabeth I. But he was able to cultivate a network of Catholic allies via notes written in orange juice, which served as an invisible ink.
Gerard’s autobiography recounts how he and John Arden colluded to hack out some masonry, sneak past guards onto the Tower roof, and from there, shin their way down a rope which was tied at their end to a cannon, held at the other by a squad of complicit boatmen in the Thames. It could have ended badly for Gerard, as it had done for Gruffyd ap Llywelyn – also a man of some bulk, who’d hazarded something similar a century or so before but fallen to his death.
4. Fancy dress
Lord Nithsdale was jailed in 1716 for his part in the First Jacobite Rising. In arguably the Tower’s most entertaining break-out, Lady Nithsdale rounded up a group of girlfriends to visit her condemned husband one last time. There, they caused enough of a scene by weeping and wailing that the prison officers didn’t spot the Lady slipping Nithsdale into a disguise. Clad in a woman’s clothes and caked in make-up which obscured his beard, Nithsdale shuffled out with the other ladies. His wife would follow, but not before she held an imaginary conversation with her husband by impersonating his voice, to fool guards outside into thinking he was still there.
Fugitives who dressed up to trick their gaolers were numerous, and they deserve particular recognition for their guile and theatrical talent. It could be the courtier Edmund Neville fashioning fake tools and smearing his face with dirt to look like a blacksmith. Or — the escape which researcher Geoffrey Abbott reckons to be the Tower’s last — the errant World War One serviceman who sauntered out for a night on the town under the elaborate disguise of… a coat.
5. Resort to violence
‘Colonel’ Thomas Blood had a less traditional escape, in that he was not actually an inmate of the Tower when he made it. In 1671, Blood technically managed to flee the bounds of the fortress with the Crown Jewels in his pockets, before being apprehended. The conman had gained privileged access by ingratiating himself with the jewel-keeper Talbot Edwards, promising Edwards’s daughter a husband in the shape of his non-existent nephew. At the unveiling of said bogus nephew, Blood and his cronies bludgeoned and stabbed Edwards in the jewel-room, making off with the crown (squashed) and orb. Firing inaccurately upon any pursuant, the gang made it past the Tower walls before their arrest.
Men have been hanged for far less. Remarkably, all parties lived to tell the tale, and even in the face of Blood’s vocal contempt for the jewels’ worth, Charles II spared the lives of the robbers for mysterious reasons. He actually gave Blood some land. Some speculate the King was in on the conspiracy for complex financial reasons; others that he simply admired Blood’s chutzpah. And who would deny him — or any of these old rogues that?