The Tower of London served as a prison from the late 11th century until the Second World War. High and low-ranking prisoners were held in different parts of the site including the White Tower. The last prisoner executed at the Tower was German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941.
The Tower is often associated with imprisonment, torture and execution. Although there were no purpose-built cells, its position close to the centre of government and courts of law meant that prisoners were held here from an early date. High-ranking prisoners were sometimes held in the White Tower. Other prisoners were held in various parts of the Tower site, including the Beauchamp and Bell Towers. Prisoners might be kept in close confinement or allowed liberty of the site. The Tower largely ceased to act as a state prison after 1820 except during the unusual circumstances of the First and Second World Wars, when some prisoners of war, conscientious objectors and spies were detained here.
Only 22 people have been executed within the Tower site – 7 in the
15th –16th centuries, 3 in the 18th century and 12 in the 20th century. Many Tower prisoners who were sentenced to death met their fate on nearby Tower Hill.
Prisoners of noble birth found guilty of treason were beheaded with an axe. Execution by sword was rare in England – Anne Boleyn was the only Tower prisoner beheaded in this way. The Tower executions of the 18th and 20th centuries were by firing squad.
Being a prisoner in the Tower of London wasn’t necessarily all doom and gloom. Some richer prisoners were allowed to bring their family and servants with them. Prisoner Sir Walter Raleigh’s son Carew was born and baptised in the Tower in 1605.
Fort Nelson is one of the ‘Palmerston Forts’, commissioned in the 1860s by Lord Palmerston, who feared a French attack. By the time they were completed, however, any threat from France disappeared. The forts gained the nickname ‘Palmerston’s follies’.