Torture at the Tower

Jeremy Ashbee, from the Historic Royal Palaces, discusses a new programme at the Tower of London on punishment and imprisonment.

From May 1st, the Tower of London is opening a new permanent installation entitled ‘Torture at the Tower’. This is the first phase of a general programme to re-interpret the subject of imprisonment in the Tower. The aim is for the whole range of imprisonment – from luxurious to appalling, and from the Normans to the twentieth century – to be presented to visitors. This reflects the genuine importance of imprisonment in the history of the Tower of London, but also allows Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages and conserves the Tower, to tackle some of the most popular misconceptions.

Torture was a perfectly genuine feature of imprisonment at the Tower of London, though the truth of it has been exaggerated probably more than any other part of the fortress’s history. It happened rarely, probably to around fifty to sixty prisoners and only during a relatively short period, spanning the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I and James I. Most importantly, torture occupied a very specific place in the law of proof (although paradoxically it has never officially been recognised in English Law, being carried out by royal officers enjoying royal immunity). Torture was overwhelmingly used during interrogations for the purposes of gathering information. As a consequence, the documentation for torture is remarkably detailed.

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