Many people associate the Tower of London with beheadings and executions. True, the Tower of London held hundreds of prisoners throughout the centuries.
But, throughout its 1,000 year history, only 22 people were executed inside the Tower of London, and more than half of those occurred during the 20th century.
However, just outside the Tower of London sits Tower Hill, a public space that was the location for over 100 executions. This is where the majority of the Tower of London prisoners would meet their fate.
What is Tower Hill?
A large part of the area surrounding the Tower of London is part of what’s called the Liberties of the Tower.
Defined around the turn of the 13th century, the Liberties of the Tower was under the direct jurisdiction of the Tower, the idea being that the Tower could use the land around it to ensure its defensibility.
One area of the Liberties was known as Great Tower Hill, and referred to all the land lying from the west and north of the Tower, within the boundaries of the London Wall (a piece of which is still visible outside Tower Hill Underground Station).
As the name suggests, Tower Hill is indeed a hill, rising up from the River Thames to a maximum height of 14.5 metres (48 ft) OD.
Why Were There Executions at Tower Hill?
Although the common assumption is that hundreds of people lost their heads inside the Tower of London, the reality is that executions inside the Tower were reserved only for people of high status and royal blood, or for those whom the king or queen wished to make quiet, quick work of.
Executions inside the Tower took place on ‘Tower Green’ behind the Tower walls. The walls of the Tower provided privacy and dignity for the soon-to-be-executed - not something that was offered to many as most executions were a public event!
Executions were deliberately held in places where a huge crowd could gather.
This was a great way for the King or Queen to show off their prowess and strength, as well as send a warning to as many people as possible that this was the fate of anybody who dared to cross them.
For centuries it was considered completely normal to take the family, pack a snack (or just buy one from the vendors who would be selling nearby), and enjoy this horrifying form of entertainment.
Executions were a public spectacle, and where better to hold one than on top of a hill, high on a scaffold, in a place where many people could gather, and that had close proximity to where many of the doomed prisoners were kept? Tower Hill was a perfect location.
Dozens and dozens of people met their ends here, until Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat (Jamie Fraser’s grandfather for any Outlander fans who are reading!) was given the dubious honour of being the last person executed on Tower Hill, having been beheaded for treason on the 9th of April 1747.
Methods of Execution at Tower Hill
- Considered the most dignified method. The most common method used at Tower Hill.
- Usually reserved for ‘lower class’ individuals and common prisoners.
- Shooting by a Firing Squad
- Primarily reserved for spying and desertion.
- Burning at the Stake
- Common for religious crimes. At Tower Hill, this only happened twice. Both victims were convicted of heresy.
- Hanged, Drawn and Quartered
- Considered the most brutal method. Victims were hung by the neck until almost dead, revived and placed onto a table where their body was cut open and their entrails removed then set on fire. Their corpse was divided into five pieces: the head to be placed on top of London Bridge and the four quarters of the body posted in the four corners of the city.
Famous or Notable People Executed on Tower Hill
- Sir Simon de Burley, 1388 - Treason
- John de Beauchamp, 1st Baron Beauchamp, 1388 - Treason
- Richard Fitzalan, 11th Earl of Arundel, 1397 - Opposing the King
- Rev. Richard Wyche, Vicar of Deptford, 1440 - Heresy
- John and Aubrey de Vere, Earls of Oxford, 1462 - Treason, Lancastrian Conspirators
- Sir William Stanley, 1495 - Suggested supporting Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the throne
- Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, 1499 - Treason
- Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, 1521 - Treason, Claimant to the throne
- John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, 1535 - Refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy
- Sir Thomas More, 1535 - Refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy
- George Boleyn, 1536 - Incest and adultery with his sister, the Queen
- Edward Neville, 1538 - Treason, Conspiracy with the Pole family
- Sir Nicholas Carew, 1539 - Treason, Partook in the Exeter Conspiracy
- Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, 1540 - Treason, Betraying the King’s secrets
- Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, 1547 - Treason, Aspirations to the throne
- Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley, 1549 - Treason, Aspirations to the throne
- Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1554 - Treason, Began Wyatt’s Rebellion
- Lord Guildford Dudley, 1554 - Treason, Assuming royal authority
- Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, 1572 - Treason, Took part in the Ridolfi Plot
- Sir Christopher Blount, 1601 - Treason, Took part in Essex’s Rebellion
- William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1645 - Treason, Supporting King Charles I
- Christopher Love, 1651 - Treason, Supporting King Charles II
- James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, 1685 - Treason, Began Monmouth’s Rebellion
- William Boyd, 1746 - Treason, Jacobite Colonel at the Battle of Culloden
- Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerino, 1746 - Treason, Jacobite Colonel at the Battle of Culloden
- Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat - Treason, Jacobite
People Executed Within the Tower of London (Tower Green)
- William Hastings, Baron d’Hasting, 1483 - Treason, Supporting King Edward V
- Queen Anne Boleyn, 1536, Treason - Incest and adultery
- Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, 1541- Treason, Implicated in The Pilgrimage of Grace
- Jane Boleyn, Viscountess of Rochford, 1542 - Treason, concealing the Queen’s adultery
- Queen Catherine Howard, 1542 - Treason, adultery
- Jane Gray, 1554 - Usurping the throne
- Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, 1601 - Began Essex’s Rebellion
Other Historical London Execution Sites
Tower Hill was but one of many execution sites in London. Broadly speaking, different crimes/people would be punished at different locations.
For example, Tower Hill tended to be reserved for traitors to the Crown.
Execution Dock on the banks of the Thames was where pirates would meet their fate, and Tyburn (by far the busiest execution site in London) was where the majority of ‘regular’ people who committed general and petty crimes would be sent.Newgate Prison - Ludgate Hill, City of London
Executions here took place outside the prison on Old Bailey Road. Watch our video about what’s left of Newgate Prison below.
- Execution Dock - Wapping, Docklands
- Where pirates were hanged on deliberately shortened ropes so their necks would not break. Bodies were left hanging until three tides were washed over them!
- Lincoln’s Inn Fields - Holborn
- Used for executions in the 16th and 17th centuries. Notable are conspirators in the Babington Plot who were hung drawn and quartered here.
- Old Palace Yard - Palace of Westminster/Houses of Parliament
- After standing trial inside, four participants in the Gunpowder Plot were executed here, hung drawn and quartered, including Guy Fawkes himself. Later, Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded here as well.
- Smithfield - Smithfield, City of London
- Medieval London’s primary execution site. Primarily heretics executed here, particularly busy during the reign of Queen Mary I. William Wallace was also executed here for treason. Watch out video about Smithfield below.
- Charing Cross - Whitehall near statue of King Charles I
- A pillory stood here for centuries, the site of public floggings. Executions also occasionally took place here, most notable of which was that of eight Regicides.
- Kennington Common - Near Oval Underground Station
- A site for executions south of the River Thames. 129 men and 12 women executed here. Notable are the 1745 executions of 17 Jacobite rebels.
- Tyburn - Near Marble Arch
- London’s busiest execution site. Eventually held a triangular shaped gallows, enabling the simultaneous execution of 24 people. Come on a virtual tour of Tyburn with us below.
Modern Day London Execution Sites
- Holloway Prison
- Where female felons were imprisoned after the closure of Newgate Prison in 1902. The last woman to be executed in the UK, Ruth Ellis, convicted of killing her boyfriend, was hanged here on the 13th of July 1955.
- Pentonville Prison
- All executions here were by hanging. Pentonville carried out more executions in the 20th century than any other prison in England and Wales with 120 men executed.
- Wandsworth Prison
- Still the largest prison in the country. Saw the execution of 134 people between 1878 and 1961. Most notable was William Joyce, a WWII Nazi propagandist called Lord Haw-Haw.
Public executions continued to be carried out in London until The Capital Punishment Amendment Act was passed in 1868. Too many people felt the spectacle was inhumane and didn’t act as an appropriate deterrent to other would-be criminals.
The last person to be publicly executed in England was Michael Barrett, executed for his part in The Clerkenwell Explosion. He was hanged on the 26th of May, 1868 outside Newgate Prison.
Capital punishment in the England, Scotland and Wales was banned in 1965. However, some crimes, including treason, remained punishable by death in Great Britain until 1998!
Want to Visit Tower Hill?
If reading this post has got you in the mood to visit Tower Hill, then we have just what you need!
For in person visits, join us on our City of London, or London All-in-One Tours, both of which end at the Tower of London. These tours will give you an overview of history at the Tower as well as the executions that took place both behind the walls and on the Hill.
If you want to see inside the Tower where so many prisoners were kept, and where two Queens of England were executed, make sure to check out our post HERE on tours inside the Tower of London.
If you want to visit virtually - we’ve got you covered! Check out our fantastic virtual tour inside the Tower of London. On this tour you will see the private memorial to the victims executed within the Tower, as well as the church where their bodies have been laid to rest.
Once you’ve explored inside the Tower, come along on our amazing virtual tour of Tower Hill itself. This tour will give you all the information about the people who were executed here, including all the gory details.
You’ll also learn more about the other execution sites in London.