This article was first published in the Christmas 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
With its double curtain walls, solid towers, and sheer-walled central keep, the Tower of London looks like the impenetrable fortress it was built to be after William the Conqueror began it in 1078. But the Tower – designed both to keep out besieging armies and keep in the state’s VIP prisoners – has proved porous over the centuries. In fact, more than 30 inmates successfully broke out of the Tower between the 12th and 18th centuries, none more audaciously than the following three…
The escapee who waited till his captors got drunk
Sir Roger Mortimer, 1 August 1323
Mortimer was a powerful Marcher lord who in his youth had been a close companion to the future Edward II. But once he ascended the throne, Edward’s tyrannical ways and his corrupt favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, disgusted Mortimer, and provoked him and other barons to revolt.
In 1322, Edward crushed the rebels at the battle of Boroughbridge and ordered many of them to be put to death. However, the king had Mortimer imprisoned in the Tower, and it’s here that Roger may have met his future lover and co-regent, the neglected Queen Isabella, ‘she-wolf of France’.
On the feast day of the Tower’s patron saint, St Peter-ad-Vincula, the garrison became royally drunk at a celebratory banquet. While the soldiers slept it off, Gerard D’Alspaye, the Tower’s sub-lieutenant, hurried to the cell where Mortimer and a companion, Richard de Monmouth, were closely confined. D’Alspaye went to work with a crowbar, chipping away the mortar between the stones of the cell wall, until the blocks were loosened and fell.
Armed with a rope ladder, D’Alspaye, Mortimer and de Monmouth clambered up a chimney from the royal palace’s kitchens – certainly with the cook’s connivance, and possibly with the help of Isabella herself – dropped down into the Tower’s outer ward, and used the ladder to scale the outer curtain wall.
Accomplices rowed them along the Thames to Greenwich, where fresh horses were waiting. The three escapees made their way via Portchester to the Isle of Wight, and from there took ship to exile in France. When Mortimer returned in 1326, he was accompanied by Isabella – and an invading army. He had Despenser executed, deposed King Edward, and probably had him murdered in Berkeley Castle, ruling England with Isabella as a virtual dictator.
However, he was deposed by Edward III, who returned him to the Tower in chains. This time there would be no escape: in November 1330 Mortimer was dragged on an ox-hide to Tyburn and hanged.
The escapee who climbed down a silk rope
General John Lambert, 10 April 1660
Among the grim Puritans surrounding Oliver Cromwell, John Lambert made a pleasing change. Affable and charismatic and an able military lieutenant to the lord protector, he seemed best placed to succeed his boss. Cromwell suspected as much, and sidelined Lambert in favour of his lacklustre son, Richard Cromwell. Lambert watched helplessly as the republican ‘Good old cause’ he had fought for dissolved.
Eventually, in 1660, another general, George Monck, arrived in London with an army, making no secret of his intention to restore Charles II to the vacant throne. As an obvious opponent of this scheme, Lambert was accused of mutiny by parliament and thrown into a cell in St Thomas’s tower over Traitor’s Gate. Yet Lambert’s stay was to be a short one. Unbeknown to his jailors, a silken rope had been woven for a £100 fee, and smuggled into his cell by one of the handsome general’s lady admirers. Another female associate, a servant named Joan, was persuaded to take the general’s place in his bed, hiding her hair under his nightcap and returning the warder’s cheery ‘Goodnight’ in Lambert’s deep voice.
Meanwhile, the general himself had slipped out of the window and, with his hands bandaged against friction burns, slid nimbly down the silk rope to freedom. The next day, the unlucky warder, confronted by Joan in the resourceful general’s night clothes, demanded to know where he was. “He is gone – but I cannot tell whither!” the girl replied.
In fact Lambert symbolically assembled a force of diehard Roundheads on Edgehill, the first battlefield of the Civil War. But the time for such sentiment had long gone. Colonel Thomas Ingoldsby, an old comrade of Lambert’s, and a regicide eager to ingratiate himself with the new royalist regime, was sent by Monck to apprehend him. Lambert’s stallion got bogged down in a muddy field and he was caught and returned to the Tower. He was spared death, but he was imprisoned for life, first on Guernsey, and then, following another escape attempt, on Drake’s Island in Plymouth harbour. His mind gave way under the strain and he died, insane, a quarter of a century later in 1684.
The escapee who dressed up as his wife
Lord Nithsdale, 23 February 1716
The last recorded escape from the Tower – and the most spectacular – involved cross-dressing, just like John Lambert’s (see box 2). Lord Nithsdale, a Scottish Jacobite, joined the doomed rising to restore James Edward, the ‘Old Pretender’, to his father’s throne in 1715.
Defeated at Preston, Nithsdale and other rebels surrendered and were brought to London and held in the Tower lieutenant’s lodgings overlooking Tower Green. There they faced execution – until the intervention of Nithsdale’s bold young wife, Winifred. Undaunted by the worst winter weather in years, and accompanied only by her Welsh maid, Winifred set out from Scotland by horse and coach through snow drifts and blizzards on what seemed the forlorn hope of saving her husband.
Amazingly, Winifred reached London and bluffed her way into King George I’s study in St James’s Palace. Here she tried to hand the affronted monarch a petition for mercy. Outraged, he left the room, with Lady Nithsdale hanging on to the royal coat-tails.
Next, the feisty Winifred planned an elaborate scheme to spring her husband from the Tower. The plan involved a group of female friends, chosen because they were tall enough to pass for Nithsdale in the fading winter light. On the very eve of his execution, Winifred and her friends, all dressed in identical dark cloaks and hoods, drove in coaches to the snow-shrouded Tower and took turns to visit him. The soldiers in the outer room guarding Nithsdale’s cell were fazed by a constant procession of weeping women going in and out, and failed to notice that one of the outgoing ‘women’, face covered by a handkerchief, his tell-tale dark eyebrows masked with powder, was none other than Lord Nithsdale.
Winifred herself remained in the cell, carrying on an intense conversation with her absent husband, replying to herself in his voice. This charade continued until she judged he had got clean away. Bidding the empty cell a tearful final farewell, Winifred left, begging the guards not to disturb his lordship, who was making his last prayers.
From a nearby safe house the next day, Nithsdale watched his former comrades go to the death he had only escaped thanks to his resourceful wife.
The couple ended their days in Rome, poor but happy. They are buried in the Howard family’s Catholic chapel at Arundel, in west Sussex, where the cloak in which Nithsdale made his escape can be seen in the nearby castle.
Nigel Jones, former reviews editor of BBC History Magazine, is now a full-time writer and runs www.historicaltrips.com He is the author of Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones (Hutchinson, 2011).
Nigel Jones discusses Tower escapees on our podcast here.