Little Ease, the torture cell in the London Tower.4 min read
In 1534, a man and a woman were stopped a step away from the exit door of Tower Hill in London by a group of night guards. The man was their colleague, John Bawd, and the woman was Alice Tankerville, a convicted thief and a prisoner. So ended the Tower’s first known escape attempt by a woman. But Alice’s accomplice and admirer, the guard John Bawd, was destined to enter the Tower record books too: he is the first known occupant of a peculiar torture cell used during the reigns of the Tudors and early Stuarts.
The windowless cell measured 1.2 square meters and was called Little Ease, translatable as “not very comfortable”. Its effect was simple. The prisoner inside could not stand nor sit nor lie down, but at most crouch over. This caused a slow but growing agony, to the point of making the space stifling and dark, and the risk of going crazy was very high.
The torture began with certainty in the sixteenth century, when the prisoners were taken inside the Tower of London.
Historically, in 1215 England outlawed torture through the passage of Magna Carta, except by royal warrant. The first king to authorize it, and he did so reluctantly, was Edward II. He submitted to intense pressure from the Pope to follow the lead of the king of France and demolish the Order of the Knights Templar, part of a tradition begun during the Crusades.
King Philip IV of France, jealous of the Templars’ wealth and power, had charged them with heresy, obscene rituals, idolatry, and other offenses. The French knights denied all, and were duly tortured.
King Philip IV of France, jealous of the Templars’ wealth and power, had charged them with heresy, obscene rituals, idolatry, and other offenses. The French knights denied all, and were duly tortured. Some who “confessed” were released, while all who denied wrongdoing were burned at the stake.
Once Edward II ordered imprisonment of members of the English chapter, French monks arrived in London bearing their instruments of torture. In 1311 the Knights Templar were questioned and examined in the presence of notaries while suffering under the torments of the rack within the Tower of London. And so the Tower, principally a royal residence, military stronghold, armory, and menagerie up until that time, became popular as torture place.
If the instruments remain after the Knights Templars were crushed, to be used on other prisoners is uncertain.
It was in the 16th century that prisoners were unquestionably tortured in the Tower of London.
The royal family rarely used the fortress on the Thames as a residence, more and more, its stone buildings contained prisoners.
If to date the Tudors are described as successful monarchs, they too had difficult moments: rebellions, conspiracies and other threats, both internal and foreign. “It was during the time of the Tudors that the use of torture reached its height,” wrote historian L.A. Parry in his 1933 book The History of Torture in England. “Under Henry VIII it was frequently employed; it was only used in a small number of cases in the reigns of Edward VI and of Mary. It was whilst Elizabeth sat on the throne that it was made use of more than in any other period of history.”
John Bawd admitted that he had planned Alice Tankerville’s escape “for love” and he was sentenced to spend a lot of time inside the cell before being hanged with his lover. The lovers were condemned to horrible deaths for trying to escape. According to a letter in the State Papers of Lord Lisle, written on March 28, Alice Tankerville was “hanged in chains at low water mark upon the Thames on Tuesday. John Bawd is in Little Ease cell in the Tower and is to be racked and hanged.”
Today no one knows exactly where Little Ease was located. One theory: in the dungeon of the White Tower. Another: in the basement of the old Flint Tower. Probably it was torn down or walled up long ago.
The reasons for ending up tortured in the tower were different. Often the victims ended up in the Tower for religious reasons. The majority of the prisoners were charged with high treason, but murder, robbery, embezzling the Queen’s plate, and failure to carry out proclamations against state players were among the offenses.
According to the website “Ancient Fortress”, but also “British History Online”, several people were condemned to go through Little Ease. Among these the most famous is certainly Guy Fawkes, among the authors of the “Conspiracy of Powders”, which on November 5, 1605 tried to blow up the whole English parliament and the King himself, James I of England. Fawkes was subjected to various tortures, which probably included the terrible easel, interspersed with confinement within the “Little Ease”, which forced him to confess his name (John Johnson was called at the beginning) and the names of his companions. Together with him were executed Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes, sentenced to death by the torture known as “hanged, quartered and beheaded”.
It was in 1640, during the reign of Charles I, that torture was abolished forever, closing one of the darkest chapters in England’s history.