The Bloody Tower, The Brutal History Behind The Ghosts That Are Said To Haunt The Tower Of London

Updated: Jun 22

The Tower of London has seen more horrors and blood-shed than anywhere in England, the ghosts of the victims of many brutal endings are still frequently reported wandering around the battlements.

The Tower of London is believed to be one of the most haunted buildings in England
The Tower of London is believed to be one of the most haunted places in England

The Tower of London's ancient battlements, colourful Beefeaters, and legendary ravens attract millions of tourists each year from all over the world. They stroll the picturesque buildings and courtyards, and listen, enthralled as guides bring to life the spectacular and violent happenings that shaped Britain's past. For the Tower was once the most blood-drenched spot in England, and for more than 700 years it has had the ghosts to prove it.

The first, in 1241, was that of Saint Thomas Becket, who had been murdered at Canterbury Cathedral 71 years earlier. Becket was a Londoner and had been Constable of the Tower before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. His spirit was seen by "a certain priest, a wise and holy man." It was said to have returned to demolish extension walls which were upsetting people who lived near the Tower. The priest saw the apparition strike the walls with a cross, whereupon they fell as if hit by an earthquake.

Later Tower ghosts had more personal reasons for returning to the London landmark. Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII's six wives, is the most frequently seen spirit. Several sentries have spotted her over the years, and one even faced a court-martial because of her.

He was found unconscious outside the King's House on a winter night in 1864 and was accused of falling asleep on watch. At the hearing, he told how a strange white figure had emerged from the dawn mist. It wore a curious bonnet that appeared to be empty. The private, who served with the King's Royal Rifle Corps, challenged the figure three times, but it continued to move towards him. When he ran the bayonet of his rifle through the body, a flash of fire ran up the barrel and he passed out.

Two other soldiers and an officer told the court-martial they had seen the apparition from a window of the nearby Bloody Tower. After hearing that the incident had taken place just below the room where Anne Boleyn spent the night before her execution for adultery on May 19, 1536, the court-martial cleared the unfortunate sentry.

Anne, Queen for 1,000 days, had a horror of English steel in English hands, and her husband agreed to import a French executioner with a French sword for the beheading. But after her death, there were no more niceties. Her headless body was bundled into an old arrow chest and buried in unseemly haste in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

The Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London
The Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London

Sentries have often seen her ghost pacing up and down outside the tiny church, and one night, one of the guards noticed an eerie light shining from inside the chapel. He climbed a ladder to peer through a window and saw a ghostly procession of knights and ladies in Tudor dress, file slowly up the aisle, led by a woman who looked like Anne. When she reached the altar, they all vanished, leaving the chapel in darkness again.

Anne's restless spirit does not confine itself to the scene of her death. Her headless body is said to arrive in a phantom coach at her childhood home, Blickling Hall, Norfolk, on the anniversary of her execution, and she has also been reported wandering through the grounds and attics of Rochford Hall, Essex, during the 12 days after Christmas.

But it is at the Tower where most of her rambles have taken place, often near the time of other executions. At 2 am in February, 1915, Sergeant William Nicholls and his watch saw a woman in a brown dress with a neck ruff. She walked quickly towards the Thames, which runs past one side of the Tower, then disappeared into a stone wall. Five hours later, a German spy was shot in the moat, one of 11 executed there during World War One. Anne was last seen in February, 1933, when a guard reported a headless apparition floating towards him close to the Bloody Tower.

The ghosts of three other 16th-century ladies who lost their heads have also been spotted in the Tower. Catherine Howard, the fifth of Henry VIII's wives, was beheaded there in 1542, and has been seen walking the walls at night. Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, re-enacts the horrors of her 1541 execution on its anniversary. She was dragged screaming to the block, and the axeman chased her round the scaffold, missing his target three times before finally severing her head. Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen for only nine days, has been reported several times.

The Tower of London's Salt Tower
The Tower of London's Salt Tower

Two sentries recognised her when they saw the figure of a woman running along the battlements of the inner wall, near the Salt Tower, at 3 am on February 12, 1954 - the 400th anniversary of her beheading on Tower Green, less than 150 yards away. Exactly three years later, two Welsh Guardsmen spotted a white shapeless form on the Salt Tower, where Lady Jane was imprisoned before her execution, at the age of 17.

In 1970, a man from Grays, in Essex, wrote to a London evening newspaper, saying his girlfriend had seen what seemed to be a ghost during a visit to the Tower. He said the figure of a long-haired woman, wearing a long black velvet dress and white cap, was standing by an open window in the Bloody Tower. A large gold medallion hung around her neck. The girl was the only one in her party to see the figure, and she said that, when she went up to the window, both on the visit and on a later occasion, she found it difficult to breathe. Experts believe she is one of the very few people who have seen Lady Jane Grey in daylight.

Phantom men and children are also said to roam the Tower. In 1890, a sentry described an encounter so vivid that he "nearly died of fright." He was on duty in the Beauchamp Tower when he heard someone call his name.

He said, "I turned and there. floating in mid-air, was a face, red and bloated, with a loose, dribbling mouth and heavy-lidded pale eyes. I had often seen it in the history books - it was Henry VIII, with all the devil showing in him. I was so scared I did not stop running until I came upon two of my comrades. They were beginning to clamour, when they suddenly broke off - the face had followed me. The affair was hushed up, and we were all told not to breathe a word that the Tower was haunted."

During World War One, another sentry reported seeing a ghostly procession pass him near Spur Tower. A party of men were carrying a stretcher bearing the headless corpse of a man, his head tucked in beside his arm. Historians said this was the practice in earlier centuries when bodies were returned to the Tower for burial after executions on Tower Hill.

The Bloody Tower
The Bloody Tower

The ghost of a former Duke of Northumberland has been seen so often on the battlements between the Martin and Constable towers that sentries have nicknamed the pathway Northumberland's Walk. Sir Walter Raleigh, the favourite explorer of Elizabeth I, who was imprisoned in the Tower by her successor, James I, and executed in 1618, has also been reported by guards; and two little children seen walking the Bloody Tower hand-in-hand are believed to be Edward and Richard, the two princes allegedly murdered on the orders of their uncle in 1483 so he could claim the throne as King Richard III.

Some of the Tower's many ghosts are not recognisable as personalities. The Keeper of the Jewel House, Major-General H D W Sitwell, woke one morning in 1952 in his quarters in St Thomas's Tower, on the outer wall, to see a monk in a brown habit through the open door of his bedroom.

Some of the reported ghosts are said to not even be human. In October 1817, Edmund Swifte, then Keeper of the Crown Jewels, was dining with his wife, son, and sister-in-law in his parlour in Martin Tower. As he offered his wife a glass of wine, she exclaimed, "Good God, what's that?"

He followed her startled gaze and saw a cylindrical glass tube, about as thick as a man's arm, and filled with white and blue liquid which seemed to be constantly churning. It hovered between the top of the table and the ceiling, moving slowly from one person to another until it passed behind Swifte's wife, pausing over her right shoulder. She crouched and clutched her shoulder, shouting, "Oh Chris, it has seized me." Swifte lashed out at the cylinder with a chair, then rushed upstairs to check the couple's other children were all right. When he returned, the apparition had vanished.

Only days later, a sentry outside Martin Tower watched vapour pour through the narrow gap between the closed door and sill, and take the shape of a giant bear. The guard lunged at it with his bayonet, but the cold steel passed through the figure and stuck in the wooden door. The man collapsed from shock and never recovered. When Swifte visited him the following day, he declared him "changed beyond recognition." Within days, the sentry was dead.

The Tower also has its share of mischievous spirits. Several Yeoman Warders have found themselves bundled out of bed in one particular small bedroom in the Well Tower. In the autumn of 1972, a photographer was sent tumbling from a ladder as he set up his camera to take pictures of a mural in the Beauchamp Tower room where Lord Lovat, the last Tower prisoner to lose his head, had been held.

Perhaps the most curious fact about the Tower of London hauntings is that none have ever been reported in the White Tower, the largest and oldest of all the buildings, and the heart of the entire complex. Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, was just one of the celebrities incarcerated there in cruel conditions before his gruesome death - but none have ever returned to the scene of their ordeals.

Masons restoring one of the walls in the late 1850s may have uncovered a clue to the reason for that. In the 11th century, when work on the White Toward began, it was believed that buildings could be protected against malevolent spirits by sacrificing an animal in them. Eight centuries later, the repairmen broke into one of the thickest stone walls... and found the skeleton of an ancient cat.

Now that you have read the history of the hauntings at the Tower of London, make sure you check out the true story of the ghosts that have plagued the homes of the British Royal Family.


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