Step out of Tower Hill station and follow “Tower of London” signage to street level. Take time to look at the displays in this area.
1. Tower Hill.
Public executions were considered popular entertainment in the Tower of London’s heyday. Tower Hill, a few minutes’ walk from the actual Tower of London, was the main place of execution for prisoners of war and traitors to the king or queen. Royalty and prisoners for whom public exposure was considered too high a risk would be executed more quietly in Tower Green, within the walls of the Tower complex, which you will see later in the tour.
With no TV or radio, and precious little time or resources for leisure, the working classes would rush to Tower Hill when a bell rung out one hour before the scheduled execution. Acrobats, jugglers and other performers entertained the eager, often blood-thirsty crowds as they waited for the prisoner to appear.
There would be a scaffold here, scattered with straw, equipped with gallows if the execution were by hanging and a chopping block if it was to be a beheading. Prisoners were brought up to the platform and, by permission of the king, given a chance to speak a last word to the crowd. Prisoners were expected not only to forgive their executioners but also to pay them. Priest or religious representatives would be present to offer spiritual encouragement to prisoners in their last moments.
Execution by beheading was actually considered merciful in contrast to other forms of execution, which included being hung, drawn and quartered or being burned alive at the stake. Execution by beheading took two forms: by axe — by far the most common — and by sword, reserved for nobility because it was considered swifter and less painful. The pain a victim of beheading endured depended much on the sharpness of weapon as well as the skill and experience of the executioner. One poor noble woman is said to have endured seven strokes before the fatal blow.
Among the victims executed on Tower Hill were William Wallace, popularized in the movie Braveheart; Thomas More, advisor to Henry VIII, who fell out of favor for opposing the king’s first divorce; the alleged co-conspirators of Ann Boleyn’s, Henry VIII’s second wife, whom Henry accused of adultery; and other conspirators against reigning kings and queens, such as Guildford Dudley, husband of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey.
Next stop: Tower of London