History and myth at the Tower of London

How 19th-century art has shaped our views of people and events in royal history

The Princes in the Tower (c1831-99) by Unknown artist after an original painting by Hippolyte-Paul DelarocheHistoric Royal Palaces

In the 19th century, artists often turned to the rich and dramatic history of the Tower for inspiration for their paintings.

The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey (c1850-99) by Hendrik Jacobus ScholtenHistoric Royal Palaces

 The tragic tales of the Princes in the Tower and of Lady Jane Grey became the subject of melodramatic artworks.

But are the stories they present history or myth?

The Meeting of Thomas More with his daughter, after his sentence of death (1863) by William Frederick Yeames (1835-1918)Historic Royal Palaces

Stirring our spirits

Thomas More, chief minister to Henry VIII, was sentenced to death for treason in 1535.

His son-in-law, William Roper, recorded how More's daughter Margaret (William's wife) burst through the crowds and armed guard to embrace her father as he returned from his trial.

The artist, William Frederick Yeames, in his painting of 1863, has chosen this moment in the story to maximise the emotional power of his artwork.

The Princes in the Tower (c1831-99) by Unknown artist after an original painting by Hippolyte-Paul DelarocheHistoric Royal Palaces

The Princes in the Tower

Paul Delaroche's 1831 image 'The Princes in the Tower' is a work of imagination...

The two boys, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were the sons of Edward IV. They were taken to the Tower ‘for their protection’ after the death of their father in 1483.  

They never re-emerged. 

Paintings and drama

Delaroche has designed a sinister Tower chamber for the two boys’ final days. He is drawing on Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the alleged murder of the princes by their uncle, Richard III.

The little dog senses the arrival of Richard’s murderous henchmen: an ominous glow appears at the bottom of the door to the bedroom.

The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey (c1850-99) by Hendrik Jacobus ScholtenHistoric Royal Palaces

The tragedy of Lady Jane Grey

Jane Grey was proclaimed queen on the death of her cousin Edward VI in July 1553. 

Her 'reign' lasted only nine days before she was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower by the more powerful backers of Edward’s sister Mary, crowned as Mary I in October.

Jane was executed in February 1554 aged only 17.

A Protestant heroine

In his painting, the Dutch artist Hendrik Jacobus Scholten has placed Jane in a starkly furnished Tower cell, despondently contemplating her fate, while her attendants collapse in desolation.

The man in the painting is supposedly John Feckenham, confessor to Mary I, who was sent to Jane to convert her to catholicism and save her life.

The prayer book and crucifix consigned to the floor perhaps lie as symbols of her refusal to abandon her Protestant faith.

Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul DelarocheGuildhall Art Gallery & London's Roman Amphitheatre

The death of a Queen

Victorian artists and historical novelists turned the ‘Nine Days Queen’ into a tragic heroine.

In his slightly earlier image of the execution of Jane, painted in 1833, the French artist Paul Delaroche has gone even further in his composition to stir our emotions and sympathy. 

He has created a claustrophobic image of a Tower dungeon, with Jane depicted as a white-clad, innocent victim, pathetically reaching out, blindfolded, for her own execution block.

Tower Green at the Tower of London (2018) by Nick GuttridgeHistoric Royal Palaces

Changing history into myth for a better story

Artists did research history, and some even sketched at the Tower, but they also added details and changed locations for dramatic effect.

Queen Jane was probably not imprisoned in a Tower cell but in the relative comfort of the residence of a Tower official, and she was not executed in a dungeon, but outside on Tower Green.

Jane Grey's first night at the Tower of London (1840) by George CruikshankHistoric Royal Palaces

Rewriting history

William Harrison Ainsworth wrote The Tower of London in 1840. The book is long on imaginative scene setting and short on historical accuracy.

 It helped to create the popular image of the Tower as a grim state prison, with dramatic illustrations by George Cruikshank.

View of the Bloody Tower and Gateway (c1825-46) by Nicholas Condy (1793-1857)Historic Royal Palaces

Entertaining the visitors

The Tower’s identity as a visitor attraction grew in the 19th century in parallel with the popularisation of melodramatic and lurid tales of imprisonment and execution. 

Not all the stories were true, and many were romanticised versions of the past, packed with heroes and villains.

In this painting by Nicholas Condy, the artist captures a Yeoman Warder in full flow, outside the Bloody Tower. 

This building acquired its sinister name in the 16th century, as it was believed to be where the Princes in the Tower had been murdered in 1483.

Heroes and villains

Visitors to the Tower of London since the 19th century have come to see the Crown Jewels and to hear tragic stories of prisoners and daring tales of escape.

We are still influenced by the images created by 19th-century artists in our view of the Tower’s past.

The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey (c1850-99) by Hendrik Jacobus ScholtenHistoric Royal Palaces

History and myth at the Tower of London

It remains difficult to divide history from myth at the Tower. We may never know precisely where Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned, or how the Princes in the Tower met their fate.

We do have some tantalising clues left behind.

Jane' graffito in the Beauchamp Tower, Tower of London (2009) by Simon Jarratt PhotographyHistoric Royal Palaces

 Legend has it that this graffito 'Jane' in the Beauchamp Tower was inscribed by her husband, Guildford Dudley, fated also to be executed in 1554.

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