9 Famous People To Be Executed At The Tower of London

The thought of the Tower of London can still send shivers down the spine to this day. Originally built as an imposing fortress, the Tower became a prison for many famous historical names across the centuries. For some, it was their final port of call, doomed to execution on Tower Green, or just beyond the walls at Tower Hill.

Nine famous people executed at the Tower of London were:

  1. Anne Boleyn
  2. Thomas Cromwell
  3. Catherine Howard
  4. Lady Jane Grey
  5. Thomas Wyatt the Younger
  6. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
  7. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
  8. Thomas More
  9. Josef Jakobs

The list largely strikes as a who’s who of Tudor times. In this article, I shall look at how each famous name on the list rose to prominence, how they fell out of favor and how their final grisly moments panned out.

Tower of London executions
The Tower Of London has provided a list of executions like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Tudor times.

1. Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is undoubtedly the most famous of the historical figures executed at the Tower of London. The second wife of the notoriously tetchy Henry VIII, she would find out just how precarious a position being a King’s spouse could be in Tudor times.

She spent her early life at the French court before returning as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and future rival, Katherine of Aragon. She soon caught the roving eye of the King, as had her sister Mary before her.

Henry was completely enamored by Anne. He set about finding a way to divorce Katherine of Aragon, putting in motion England’s split with Rome. Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen at Westminster Abbey in June 1533 and gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I three months later.

However, the King’s eye began to rove again, spurred by the lack of the all-important son born to Anne. Her previous ally, Thomas Cromwell, helped bring charges of adultery. This included incest with her brother George (source), and Anne was doomed.

On May 9th, 1536, Anne Boleyn was accompanied by four ladies in waiting as she was taken to Tower Green. Anne’s status saw her executed within the walls although a large crowd was allowed to gather to watch.

One final mercy awarded to his wife was the King having a French swordsman brought in, who severed her head in one swift swipe of the blade. This video looks at the spot where Anne Boleyn was executed.

Anne Boleyn is buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower grounds.

2. Thomas Cromwell

They say what goes around comes around. Many historians see Cromwell’s hand behind the downfall of his former ally in religious reform, Anne Boleyn. Four years after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Cromwell was following her to the executioner’s block.

Thomas Cromwell rose from being born the son of a blacksmith and brewer to becoming the powerful chief minister to Henry VIII. He was always looked down upon by the nobility, many of whom did not like the religious reformations he was helping to push through. You did not rise to power in Tudor England without making enemies along the way.

The King’s faith in his chief adviser was starting to wane not long after Anne Boleyn’s execution. The Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion against religious reform, and Henry’s disappointment in Cromwell’s choice of Anne of Cleeves as the King’s fourth wife, further marked his card.

Cromwell’s enemies in the nobility saw the chance to remove their nemesis. Cromwell was arrested on vague charges of treason and heresy.

There was no trial. Cromwell was sentenced by an act of Attainder. Despite his pleas of innocence to the King, Thomas Cromwell was beheaded on Tower Hill on July 28th, 1540.

3. Catherine Howard

On the day Thomas Cromwell was losing his head, his former boss was marrying wife number five, Catherine Howard.

In this ongoing Tudor drama, the young queen would sadly go the way of Anne Boleyn. She is the second beheaded in the divorced, beheaded, died rhyme used to recall the order of Henry VIII’s wives.

Catherine of Aragon1485-1536MaryDivorced
Anne Boleyn1500-1536ElizabethBeheaded
Jane Seymour1508-1537EdwardDied
Anne of Cleeves1515-1557NoneDivorced
Catherine Howard1521-1542NoneBeheaded
Katherine Parr1512-1548None with Henry VIIISurvived

When Anne of Cleeves was pushed to one side, Henry VIII returned to a familiar theme. His eye fell on one of the displaced Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Henry was now middle-aged and losing the looks he was famed for in his youth when he married the much younger Catherine Howard.

While the King was renowned for his mistresses, his Queen had to be above moral reproach. The King may have forgiven Catherine for the lovers she had that he was unaware of before their marriage. However, an accusation of an affair with the courtier Thomas Culpepper during the marriage sealed her fate.

Catherine Howard was beheaded on February 13th, 1542. The unforgiving Henry also had her maid Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne, executed for her role in facilitating the alleged affair with Culpepper.

4. Lady Jane Grey

The execution of Lady Jane Grey is the most heart-rending of them all for me. She was a pawn in her family’s ambition and a reluctant Queen.

Her crime was being born into the royal line and becoming a figurehead in a supremacy battle between the protestant and catholic parties within England.

The dying 15-year-old King Edward VI nominated his cousin Lady Jane Grey as Queen in 1553. She was protestant, and Edward did not want his catholic half-sister, Mary, from taking the throne. However, under his father’s acts of succession, Mary was the rightful next in line.

Lady Jane Grey was Queen for just nine days, earning the unwanted record of shortest reign ever. Here is a frieze of the coronation of Lady Jane Grey from the wall of the Supreme Court in Parliament Square in London:

Frieze of the coronation of Lady Jane Grey
Lady Jane Grey during happier times at her coronation

Mary deposed Lady Jane Grey as Queen but took pity on her situation. Mary imprisoned her protestant rival in the Tower, refusing advice to have her executed.

Unfortunately, the Wyatt Rebellion against Queen Mary involved Lady Jane Grey’s father. The Privy Council pushed Mary to execute Jane, and Mary reluctantly agreed.

Lady Jane Grey went to Tower Green on February 12th, 1554, an hour after her husband’s execution. She read Psalm 51 before asking the executioner to ‘despatch her quickly.’ She was just 17 years old.

This image below shows

5. Thomas Wyatt the Younger

Thomas Wyatt the Younger could have faced the cruelest and most brutal execution. Treason was punishable by hanging, drawing, and quartering, from which any guilty party desperately hoped to have the sentence commuted to beheading.

Thomas Wyatt was sentenced for his role in the rebellion of 1554 which took his name and indirectly secured the fate of Lady Jane Grey.

The son of the famous court poet of the same name, he was vehemently opposed to the marriage of the Catholic Queen Mary to the Spanish King, Philip II.

The rebellion was based on uprisings in various parts of the country. The failed plot almost implicated the future Queen Elizabeth I, who spent time in the Tower under suspicion of knowing about the plot.

Thomas Wyatt the Younger denied he plotted to kill Queen Mary, but was sentenced to death. On April 11th 1554, he suffered a traitor’s death.

However, unlike other rebels who suffered the full horrors of being hung, drawn, and quartered, Wyatt’s was commuted to beheading.

His body was then quartered and his severed head placed on a gibbet in St. James as a warning to other would-be rebels.

6. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Being the Queen’s favorite was no guarantee of avoiding the executioner’s block. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was a favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth I.

However, favoritism brings resentment and enemies at ambitious courts. One misstep can soon see a dramatic fall from grace.

Robert Devereux was the great-grandson of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary. Devereux replaced his father at court following the death of the first Earl of Essex. He was a dashing and witty courtier, a breath of fresh air in what could be a stuffy inner circle.

The Queen enjoyed Devereux’s flirtatious nature and it was evident Devereux was a favorite of hers. However, he was ambitious and impulsive. The Queen would occasionally banish him from the court for his misdemeanors, before welcoming him back.

However, after leading a disastrous military campaign in Ireland, Devereux foolishly involved himself with a coup aimed at removing the Queen’s counselors.

He was arrested for treason before receiving one final favor from the Queen. His execution in 1601 was commuted to beheading rather than hanging, drawing, and quartering.

7. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

Margaret Pole was the niece of Edward IV and Richard III. She was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon and a governess to the future Queen Mary. In short, she had some pretty impressive nobility credentials. This did not prevent the most brutal of executions.

She was also a stoic Catholic in a time of religious upheaval. It was her unwavering support for her son, Reginald Pole, which would see her nobility stand for little.

Pole fled to France in 1532 to avoid persecution for his religious beliefs and was made a Cardinal in 1536. He would later become Archbishop of Canterbury during Queen Mary’s reign.

Unfortunately, his would-be persecutors turned their attention to his brothers and mother who remained in England. Margaret Pole was imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason, where she remained for two years before her execution.

Margaret Pole’s execution in 1541 is one of the most brutal and hideous. It is said an inexperienced axeman needed 11 blows of the blade to complete the job on Tower Green.

In 1886, she was beatified as a martyr by Pope Leo XIII, and her ghost is one of those reportedly seen haunting the Tower grounds.

8. Thomas More

Thomas More remains one of the most famous names in English history. It is a name associated with piousness, fortitude, and the willingness to sacrifice personal freedom for your beliefs.

Thomas More was a close friend as well as adviser to Henry VIII. Of all the people who lost their lives to the executioner during his reign, Thomas More probably hurt the most.

As with much at the time, More’s fall from favor centered on the King’s move away from papal Rome. When Henry announced his supremacy as the head of the church in England, More resigned as Lord Chancellor.

More could not defend the split from Rome or support Henry’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

More further stood firm to his faith when he refused to swear the Oath of Succession. This led to his arrest in 1534 and he stood trial the following year for high treason. This was never going to be a trial that the lawyer More could win. His fate had already been sealed.

The ‘man for all seasons’ was beheaded at Tower Hill on July 6th, 1535. Two weeks earlier, his friend Bishop Fisher suffered a similar fate for not swearing the Oath of Succession. Both severed heads were displayed as warnings on London Bridge.

Here is a short video of the trial and execution of Thomas Moore from the TV series Wolf Hall:

9. Josef Jakobs

This may not be as famous a name as others, but Josef Jakobs is a hugely significant part of the history of the Tower of London. Jacobs left his mark on history as the last person executed at the Tower of London.

Executions at the Tower ceased in the late 18th century. However, they returned during times of war in the 20th century as a punishment for spying. 11 enemy agents were executed by firing squad during the first world war at the Tower’s miniature rifle range.

During the second world war, Josef Jakobs was parachuted into Britain on a spying mission. The unfortunate Jakobs broke his ankle on landing and after trying to endure the pain, finally needed to attract attention.

It was fairly obvious Jakobs was a German spy, and he was sentenced to death. Jakobs sat in a chair for his execution due to his injury (source).

Five bullets struck Josef Jakobs, one through the heart. With that burst of gunfire, the Tower of London witnessed its final execution.