The gray bricks of the Tower of London are damp to my touch, and as I run my hand over their rough surfaces, a layer of mildew clings to my fingertips.
During the centuries, these massive walls have held captive hundreds of unfortunate prisoners. I can’t help but think of all the eyes that have stared at these bricks, knowing full well the only fate that awaited them.
Some say that the Tower of London is the most haunted place in England, says Phil Wilson, a yeoman sarjeant at the Tower. “Hundreds of people have been held prisoner and died here. There are dozens of ghost stories,” he says.
Wilson should know. As one of the queen’s elite Tower caretakers, he has spent six years not only working in this fortress, but living here as well. Wilson and his wife, Ann, make their home in Beauchamp Tower. The only access to their apartment is a narrow, winding staircase, and I have to watch my step as Wilson and I walk up to meet Ann.
The ancient rooms of the apartment are oddly shaped, making furniture arrangement a difficult task. Yet the couple has decorated the rooms nicely, and I immediately feel welcome and at home. While Phil explains his work as a yeoman warder, Ann is busy preparing tea and scones. There is a delicious aroma in the room. For an instant, I forget that I am inside a prison.
Then I look out the front window.
“That there,” says Wilson, pointing to a distinctive square of dark brick, “is an executioner’s site.”
A sick feeling comes over me as I picture the gruesome scenes that have taken place there. Wilson, who knows his history, happily recounts some of the Tower’s tales as we sit down for tea.
Many of those condemned to death had done nothing but fall out of favor with the royal family, he says. Others were sentenced for witchcraft, political activity, religious beliefs or adultery. But the Tower was no ordinary prison. “It was a fortress and royal palace,” says Wilson. “You had to be a person of high status to be held prisoner here.”
Some prisoners went to their deaths with stoic bravery. Sixteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey was queen for nine days in 1553 before she was overthrown by her cousin, Mary Tudor, who ordered Grey and her husband put to death. Right before her beheading, the teenager delivered an eloquent speech, then laid her head bravely upon the executioner’s block.
Since then, Lady Jane’s serene ghostly figure has been seen numerous times, especially on the anniversary of her death. Others have seen her husband’s weeping ghost in the Beauchamp Tower.
Other prisoners, such as the 70-year-old Countess of Salisbury, rejected their sentences and fought to the death. “She ran from the executioner,” says Wilson, “who chased her down and hacked her to pieces.”
According to Tower legend, the woman’s ghostly apparition has been seen in grisly reenactments of her death. Others have reported seeing the shadow of a huge ax falling across the scene of her murder.
Personally, it’s one sighting I’d rather not see. “Isn’t it hard to live in a place with so much gruesome history?” I ask the Wilsons.
Ann laughs and says that although she had some hesitations at first, she enjoys it now. “It’s a wonderful place to live,” Wilson booms, explaining that a communitylike feeling pervades the Tower. “Some 35 yeoman warder families live here. It’s like our own little village.”
The only drawback to living at the Tower, the couple admits, is that they can’t get pizza delivered. “The restaurants never believe it when I give my address,” Wilson says.
By now, we’ve finished our tea and scones, and Wilson and I head across the grounds to the chapel, where many of those executed are buried. The chapel is deathly silent, and a musty smell fills its rooms.
“Anne Boleyn is probably the most persistent ghost here,” Wilson says quietly as we move to the chapel altar, where the queen’s body is buried.
The second wife of Henry VIII, Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest, and beheaded by sword. “They say that her lips were still moving and her eyes looking around after she was beheaded,” Wilson states.
I suppress a shiver.
William Wallace, the Scottish patriot who rebelled against English rule and whose life was depicted in the movie Braveheart, was put to death here at the Tower of London.
“People have reported seeing Anne Boleyn’s headless figure leading a procession of dignitaries down the aisle of the chapel to her final burial place,” Wilson tells me. In another sighting, one sentry actually challenged Boleyn’s figure with his bayonet, and claimed to have received shocking bolts that knocked him unconscious.
Another well-known prisoner was William Wallace, the Scottish patriot who rebelled against English rule and whose life was depicted in the movie Braveheart. According to Tower history, young Wallace was “hanged till nearly dead, his bowels torn out and burned, his head cut off and his body quartered.”
I can’t help but think that the English leaders of today are certainly a lot friendlier than they were back then.
Perhaps the most touching ghostly sighting is that of young King Edward V, 12, and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, Duke of York. The boys were taken to the Tower by a relative who wanted to usurp their power, and they disappeared in 1483. “Their apparitions have been seen standing together, hand in hand, looking very lost,” Wilson says.
Brits aren’t the only ones seeing ghosts. Not long ago, an American visitor took a photograph at Traitor’s Gate. “She claimed there was no one there at the time,” Wilson says, “but when the film was developed, there was a gloved hand with a silk cuff in the right hand corner. The photo was analyzed and they say it has not been tampered with.”
“Isn’t it difficult living with all these strange stories?” I ask Wilson as we make our way back across the massive grass-covered grounds.
“Sometime children ask me about the ghosts,” Wilson says, “but I always say, although there were lots of people executed here, nobody has ever been hurt by a ghost.”
“Sometimes, though, I wonder about them,” he adds. “I’ll get up at night, when it’s all quiet, and look out the window to the executioner’s site. Then I wonder if I’ll see something tonight.”
If You Go
Historic Royal Palaces
Tower of London