The Bell Tower – Tower of London
The Bell Tower
The Bell Tower is situated immediately adjoining the Queen’s House. The tower was constructed to reinforce the defensive wall of the inner bailey and was built during the late twelfth century, making it the second oldest tower after the Norman White Tower and may have been built on the orders of King Richard the Lionheart (1189-99).
The Bell Tower derives its name from the small wooden turret situated on top of the tower which contains the Tower’s ‘curfew bell’, used to inform prisoners given the liberty of the Tower that it was time to return to their quarters. Today it is sounded at 5.45pm each day, to warn visitors that the Tower is about to close.
Several famous prisoners were held in the Bell Tower during Tudor times, including Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher and the Princess Elizabeth. More and Fisher were sent to the Tower by Henry VIII for their refusal to subscribe to the Act of Supremecy, which made the monarch Head of an English Church which was divorced from Rome. The situation had arisen through Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope could not grant Henry the required annulment, as Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain held him in his power.
Sir Thomas More
- Sir Thomas More
The brilliant Sir Thomas More (pictured), King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and the author of Utopia, spent a period of incarceration in the Bell Tower. The staunchly Catholic More refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and swear allegiance to the King as Supreme Head of the Church in England for which on 17th April 1534, he was imprisoned in the Tower.
At first, More’s imprisonment was not overly harsh. His family were allowed to bring drink and warm clothing, and his wife Alice and daughter, Margaret Roper, were allowed to visit him. However as More continued to refuse to be persuaded to sign the oath, the fire in his cell, then his food, warm clothing, books and writing implements were all removed. On 1st July 1535, More was tried at Westminster, charged with high treason and sentenced to death. More was executed on Tower Hill on 6th July, 1535. He is buried in the nearby tower chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.
Imprisoned in the Tower on 16th April 1534, the Catholic martyr John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, is believed to have been lodged in the Upper Bell Tower, directly above More’s lodgings.
Fisher was the only English bishop who had refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, although captive in the same tower, they communicated by means of messages delivered by their servants. The Pope promised to create Fisher a cardinal, to which the enraged Henry famously declared that Fisher would have no head to wear his cardinal’s hat on. Bishop Fisher’s trial took place on 17th June, he was found guilty, and executed on 22nd June 1535.
Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I) also suffered a term of imprisonment in the Bell Tower at the age of 21, during the reign of her elder sister Mary I. Suspected of underhand involvement in the Wyatt Rebellion, Elizabeth was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by boat, landing at Traitors Gate, the princess angrily proclaimed that she was no traitor. During a heavy down pour of rain, Elizabeth had no choice but to enter the Tower. She passed under the arch of the Bloody Tower where she may have seen, across the inner ward, the scaffold left over from the execution of Lady Jane Grey, who was also implicated in Wyatt’s Rebellion.
In the spring of 1571, Baillie was about to leave Flanders with copies of a book by the bishop of Ross in defence of Queen Mary, which he had got printed at the Liège press, when Roberto di Ridolfi, the agent of Pope Pius V, entrusted him with letters in cipher for the queen, and also for the Spanish ambassador, the Duke of Norfolk, the Bishop of Ross, and Lord Lumley. They described a plan for a Spanish landing on Mary’s behalf in the eastern counties of England. As soon as Baillie set foot on shore at Dover, he was arrested and taken to the Marshalsea. The letters were, however, conveyed in secret by Lord Cobham to the bishop of Ross, who, with the help of the Spanish ambassador, composed other letters of a less incriminating nature to be laid before Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor.
The scheme might have been successful had Burghley not made use of a traitor, named Thomas Herle, to gain Baillie’s confidence. Herle described Baillie as “fearful, full of words, glorious, and given to the cup, a man easily read”. Herle had also gained the confidence of the bishop, and a complete exposure of the whole plot was imminent when an indiscretion on Herle’s part convinced Baillie that he was betrayed. He endeavoured to warn the bishop by a letter, but it was intercepted, and Baillie was conveyed to the Tower of London, where he refused to read the cipher of the letters, and was put on the rack. The following inscription, still visible on the walls, records his reflections inspired by the situation: “L. H. S. 1571 die 10 Aprilis. Wise men ought to se what they do, to examine before they speake; to prove before they take in hand; to beware whose company they use; and, above all things, to whom they truste. |— Charles Bailly.”
One night, the figure of a man appeared at Baillie’s bedside. He claimed to be John Story, whom Baillie knew to be in the Tower awaiting execution. In reality the figure was that of a traitor of the name of Parker, but Baillie fell into the trap with the same facility as before. On Parker’s advice he endeavoured to gain credit with Burghley by deciphering the substituted letters of the bishop of Ross. He revealed also the story of the abstracted packet, and sought to persuade Burghley to grant him his liberty by offering to watch the correspondence of the bishop of Ross. That he gained nothing by following the advice of his second friendly counsellor is attested by an inscription in the Beauchamp Tower as follows: ‘Principium eapientie Timor Domini, I. H. S. X. P. S. Be friend to no one. Be enemye to none. Anno D. 1571, 10 Septr. The most unhappy man in the world is he that is not pacient in adversities; for men are not killed with the adversities they have, but with ye impacience which they suffer. Tout vient apoient, quy peult attendre. Gli sospiri ne son testimoni veri dell’ angolcia mia, aet. 29. Charles Bailly.’