The Tower is supposedly haunted by the ghosts of many historical personages who have suffered there. These include the Little Princes, nephews to Richard III (r. 1483–5), who were murdered while imprisoned in the Tower, and Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded on Tower Green in 1536. Her ghost has often been reported as haunting the Green, and also the Chapel Royal in the White Tower, according to nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts. In 1864, a sentry who was being court-martialled for deserting his post explained that he had challenged a white shape looming through the mist, and when it failed to stop he had stabbed it with his bayonet, but the weapon passed straight through. Realizing this must be Anne Boleyn’s ghost, he had fled in panic. His excuse was accepted. Lady Jane Grey is also said to appear as a white shape on the anniversary of her execution, 13 February 1554. Other famous ghosts include Sir Walter Raleigh, imprisoned for thirteen years in the Bloody Tower and finally beheaded in 1618, and Henry Percy, imprisoned for sixteen years for his share in the Gunpowder Plot, but never executed. In addition, there are anonymous monks, and unidentified figures clad in historical costumes of various eras; there are phantoms that are not seen, but heard sighing, groaning, or screaming in various parts of the building; there are footsteps, cold draughts, and strange, lingering scents.
The more historical tales are sometimes remodelled quite drastically, to suit the expectations of different generations as to what is a ‘good story’. As an example, it is instructive to consider the accounts of the death of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, executed on 27 May 1541 on the orders of Henry VIII. The first description is a contemporary one, written by Eustace Chapuys, a diplomat, in a letter to the Queen of Hungary. He stresses the dignity, self-control, and edifying words of the elderly countess, giving this priority over the distressing details of the actual beheading:
When informed of her sentence she found it very strange, not knowing her crime, but she walked to the space in front of the Tower, where there was no scaffold but only a small block. She commended her soul to God, and desired those present to pray for the King, Queen, Prince and Princesses. The ordinary executioner being absent, a blundering garçonneau [young lad] was chosen, who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces.
About a hundred years later comes a different version, written by the historian Lord Herbert of Cherbury in his life of Henry VIII (1649). The account he had been given was that the countess, steadfastly maintaining her innocence, refused to co-operate in her own execution, and thus created difficulties for the headsman:
The old lady being brought to the scaffold set up in the Tower, was commanded to lay her head on the block: but she (as a person of great quality assured me) refused, saying ‘So should traitors do, and I am none’; neither did it serve that the executioner told her it was the fashion; so, turning her grey head every way, she bid him, if he would have her head, to get it off as he could; so that he was constrained to fetch it off slovenly.
It is a powerful, if gruesome, scene. It has, alas, been cheapened in modern ghost lore into a grotesque melodrama, in which all sense of dignity and tragedy is lost. We are now told that the countess, ‘screaming in abject terror’, had to be dragged to the block by force, broke away from the guards, and ran about the courtyard, demented, while the masked executioner pursued her. Eventually ‘the guards dragged her writhing body to the bloodstained block’, where it took five blows to finish her off. All this is supposed to be spectrally re-enacted on the anniversary of the execution:
Then, according to reports, her ghost is seen, screaming with terror, running panic-stricken round and round the spot where the scaffold once stood, pursued by a ghostly masked executioner, heavy axe in hand, who finally overtakes the terrified woman and ‘chuckling diabolically’ slowly hacks her head off with repeated dreadful blows.
Such a travesty must surely set the proud and courageous countess turning in her grave. It is some compensation to consider that in 1886 the Vatican, regarding her as a martyr, granted her the title ‘Blessed’; no doubt she will eventually be canonized as St Margaret Pole.