Did Anyone Ever Escape From The Tower Of London?

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By M@ Last edited 19 months ago
Did Anyone Ever Escape From The Tower Of London?

The Tower of London might seem like a watertight stronghold, with intimidating gates, a mighty moat and fearsome beefeaters. Even so, some 40 prisoners have escaped its clutches over the centuries — about one per generation.

Booze and drugs

Their tactics were varied and imaginative. In 1101, Bishop Ranulf Flambard supposedly got his guards so drunk that he was able to slip down a rope to freedom, thereby becoming the first recorded escapee of the Tower. Roger Mortimer played a variation on the theme in 1322. He drugged his guards with sedatives, before deploying a rope ladder. Mortimer was back four years later, capturing the Tower during a successful rebellion, only to end up a prisoner once again when political fortunes changed.

Dare devils

Some have used acts of death defiance to earn their freedom. In 1597, Jesuits John Gerard and John Arden escaped along a rope stretching out over the moat towards the Thames. This despite their hands being badly mangled from the torture chamber.

Cross-dressing

Perhaps the most imaginative escape ruse took place in 1716. The Earl of Nithsdale was destined for the axe block for his role in the Jacobite uprising. Lady Nithsdale paid a visit to his cell, accompanied by two acquaintances called Mrs Mills and Mrs Morgan (not her maid, as is often stated). The party dressed Nithsdale up in women's clothes, topped his head with an 'artificial headdress' and caked his face in so much make-up that it somehow hid his long beard. The ladies confused the guards by coming and going — hiding their faces with handkerchiefs — so that the transvestite lord was able to walk out of his cell without raising an eyebrow.

Breaking in

One wily band of chancers even broke into the Tower and almost made off with the Crown Jewels. The ultimate heist took place in 1671, led by the memorably named Colonel Thomas Blood. Blood and his cronies were able to talk their way into the treasure room. Having roughed up the jewel master, they made off with a golden orb, sceptre and St Edward’s Crown.

Fortunately, the Tower’s guard captured the robbers before they could flee. You might well assume that the malefactors got the death sentence for their audacious crime. But, in one of the great mysteries of Stuart-era England, Blood and his gang were unexpectedly given a Royal Pardon by Charles II. The ringleader was even granted some land in Ireland.

Most recent escapee (1945)

The most recent escape from the Tower — a long-forgotten event we discovered in the newspaper archives — seems to have been in 1945. Private LC Wheeler of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry appears to have struck an officer and simply walked out of the Tower, while imprisoned and awaiting court martial. Here's a news cutting:

Copyright Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board.

With a fork and some mattresses

Less recent, but more interesting, is the case of two Scots Guardsman called Fleming and Colvin, who were under lock and key for some undisclosed misconduct in 1942. Fleming was able to pick the lock with a fork. The pair then lowered themselves into the moat with a rope made from blankets, and crossed barbed wire barricades by laying down mattresses. They were soon recaptured.

Copyright Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board.

Press cuttings from the British Newspaper Archive. Other photos by the author.

Last Updated 16 January 2017