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Torture at the Tower of London

The Traitor's Gate Tower London courtesy copyright Historic Royal Palaces The Tower of London is infamous throughout the world as a grim fortress in which, over the centuries, hundreds of prisoners suffered and died. Of all the many uses to which the Tower of London has been put, torture has attracted the largest body of myth and legend, and it has come to dominate the image of the Tower of London in the popular imagination. Behind the legend is a true story, and many of the details of torture in the Tower are well documented by reliable sources.

Actually torture only occupied a relatively short period of the castle's history, from the 16th to the 17th centuries, and of the prisoners who have passed through the Tower, only a tiny fraction were ever tortured.

It is no coincidence that the period when torture occurred at the Tower was a period of religious upheaval in England. In such times of national emergency the government used every available method to gather information and torture became a matter of state policy.

The idea of torture in the Tower became a matter of myth and legend long after the instruments of torture had been placed in storage (and in most cases, lost).

If it was mentioned at all, it was portrayed as a savage foreign invention, and a few surviving instruments were displayed to visitors as Spanish inventions. Myth making reached its peak in the 19th century, spurred on by novelists who wished to evoke the Tower of London in its former days as an ancient fortress and stronghold.

Torture was essentially a matter of gathering information to be used in law, not a matter of punishing prisoners for bad behavior. In many cases, the victims were deemed to be guilty already, and the aim was not to extract a confession but to know about co-conspirators, safe houses, the routes of letters and so on. In the reign of James I, Sir Francis Bacon wrote: " the highest cases of treasons, torture is used for discovery, and not for evidence."

Torture has never been officially recognised in English law as a means of gaining information. The officers who tortured prisoners in the Tower were acting with the knowledge and authority of the highest levels of government, the privy council and the monarch. Critics claimed that torture was ineffective as well as cruel, and that a man on the rack would say anything to be released. From the mid-17th-century onwards, torture was effectively abandoned.

Apart from the instruments themselves, there were other ways of assuring cooperation, such as the very close confinement afforded by a truly tiny cell. In the Tower, the notorious chamber known as 'Little Ease' measured just 1.2m square (4sq ft), and its cramped conditions prevented the prisoner from ever finding a comfortable position. There has been much speculation about the location of Little Ease, although the truth may never be known for certain.

As part of their interrogation, many prisoners were subjected to threats and intimidation - another form of torture, though this time at the discretion of the lieutenant and warders. The authorities played on the prisoners' fear: for example, the clerk of the Council introduced John Gerard to 'the master of torture', but Gerard later found out that this was a trick to frighten him, and the man was in fact an artillery officer in the Tower.

A certain amount of information has survived about the individuals who actually tortured prisoners in the Tower. There is an important distinction between those who operated the instruments, and those who questioned the prisoners during each session. The Warders of the Tower, under the command of the lieutenant, saw to the physical business of torture. The interrogations themselves were carried out by two or three commissioners, usually including at least one law officer, such as the royal attorney or solicitor.

One of the most notorious commissioners was 'Norton the Rackmaster' Thomas Norton, MP and Recorder of London, who interrogated prisoners in the late 1570s and early 1580s. On his death in 1584 he was replaced by Richard Topcliffe, who operated as an interrogator all over England. Topcliffe was fanatically anti-Catholic but held no formal office, and appears to have carried out much of the torturing in person.

While Topcliffe and Norton took to their jobs with near relish, other officers found the duty an unpleasant one. John Gerard later heard that Sir Richard Berkeley resigned as lieutenant, not wishing to be involved in torture again.

Torture Instruments

The Rack

The rack was the most infamous and widely used instrument of torture. It is thought that the earliest mention of the rack is in the Ancient Greek texts of Aristophanes. From Roman times to the middle ages there are few records of the use of the rack, but it was increasingly employed by the Spanish Inquisition from around 1252.

At the Tower of London the rack was sometimes claimed as the invention of the Duke of Exeter, a 15th-century Constable of the Tower, and so in the 16th century it was nicknamed The Duke of Exeter's Daughter although other sources called it 'the brake'. It was standard procedure to show the prisoner the rack first, and then to repeat the questions: only if the prisoner remained obstinate should the rack actually be used.

During the religious ferment that gripped England in the 16th-century, the rack was used freely not only by the Catholic Queen Mary, but by those monarchs who had broken with Rome: Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

Although many variations of the rack have been used throughout the centuries, the basic principle has always been the same - to stretch the victim's body. Eventually if the torture is continued, the limbs will be dislocated and finally torn from their sockets.

Under Queen Elizabeth I, one of the chief interrogators was Thomas Norton. On 27 March 1582 he wrote to the man credited with creating the English secret service, Sir Francis Walsingham: 'None was put to the rack that was not at first by some manifest evidence known to the Council to be guilty of treason, so that it was well assured beforehand that there was no innocent tormented. Also none was tormented to know whether he was guilty or not, but for the Queen's safety to know the manner of the treason and the accomplices.'

Queen Elizabeth I's Lord High Treasurer Lord Burghley claimed in 1583 that '...The Queen's servants, the warders [of the Tower], whose office and act it is to handle the rack, were ever by those that attended the examinations, specially charged to use it in as charitable a manner as such a thing might be'.

The rack, due to its regional variations in design, was know as the chevalet (little horse) in France, the escalera (ladder) in Spain, and the folter (frame) in Germany.

The Scavengerís Daughter

The Scavenger's Daughter, or Skeffington's Irons, was the brainchild of the Lieutenant of the Tower of London in Henry VIII's reign, Sir Leonard Skeffinton or Skevington. It was conceived as the perfect complement to the Duke of Exeter's Daughter (the rack) because it worked the opposite principle to the rack by compressing the body rather than stretching it.

The Scavenger's Daughter is rarely mentioned in documents, and the device itself was probably not much used. The best-documented use is that on the Irishman Thomas Miagh, charged with being in contact with rebels in Ireland. It may be in connection with Scavenger's Daughter that Miagh carved on the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London, "By torture straynge my truth was tried, yet of my libertie denied. 1581. Thomas Miagh."

The Manacles

Manacles are iron handcuffs fastened around a victim's wrists from which he would be hung with his feet off the floor. A prisoner held in this way for a long period of time experienced extreme pain and might have difficulty using his hands for a time afterwards.

As the reign of Elizabeth I progressed, the ruthless use of the rack, particularly on Jesuit priests such as Edmund Campion and Alexander Briant, provided ammunition for overseas critics of the English regime. This may partly explain why in the 1590s, more writs were issued specifying the use of the manacles. This could also be a product of the rise of the inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, who seems to have favoured this method of torture.

In 1594 Henry Walpole, a Jesuit missionary priest, was allegedly subjected to the manacles 14 times, causing him to lose the use of his fingers for a time, and permanently ruining his handwriting. Walpole left graffiti in the Salt and Martin towers at the Tower of London, which can still be seen today.

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