Two years ago just before the 2019 Easter break I spent a couple of days in London as part of a trip with the History with English FdA cohort. During this period I managed to “geek-out” by having a tour around the Globe theatre, checking out a Weimar art exhibition at the Tate Modern, and also managing to go for a walk by the Thames whilst picking up geocaches. But before all of that we spent a few hours at the Tower of London; this was my first time walking around this historic site, and I excitedly lapped up all of the history and heritage on offer.
I took part in one of the walking tours that provided a brief walk around the site, and it was whilst walking around that I realised the larger scope of this location. I had previously looked upon the Tower on passing as something rather underwhelming, but when inside all of its historical importance was heavily impressed on me. This included a look at the crown jewels, Henry VIII’s cod-piece, and starring at a plentiful bounty of Beefeaters.
The tour guide explained how one of the towers – the Bell Tower – was the place of Queen Elizabeth’s imprisonment, back in the period before she became queen of England. As a fan of Tudor history I was hooked, and this only increased when I was informed that the same tower was the location of Rudolf Hess’ imprisonment during the Second World War. My two worlds – of Tudor and Nazi history – collided into one setting; both of these eras are ones that we cover on the A-level History course at my college, and both of these eras are ones that I regularly read further into.
So, how did Elizabeth come to be imprisoned? This takes us back to 1554 when Elizabeth was the half-sister of Queen Mary I. Mary’s reign was a turbulent one due to religious issues (attempting to return England to the Catholic fold) and it brought about the deaths of many Protestants. Opposition to Mary can be found in the ending, dying days of her half-brother, Edward VI; the so-called “Devise of the Succession” was formed in order to allow the crown to by-pass Mary (and Elizabeth) in order to rest on the head of a more pliant and thoroughly Protestant person: Lady Jane Grey. However, poor Jane has gone down in history as the “nine day queen”, due to the people of the country rallying behind the true Tudor successor. Mary was able to claim the throne and Jane was imprisoned.
In 1554, some of the nobility hatched a new plot: Mary would be removed and Jane would be installed in her place. New resentment had grown due to Mary’s intended marriage to Philip of Spain; not only would Catholicism gain a stronger foothold in England, but there was also fear that the spoils of patronage would be taken by Spaniards. However, this Wyatt Rebellion was a complete disaster: the ring-leaders were caught and killed, and the whole incident led to Mary ordering Jane to be put to death.
It is during this time-frame in which Elizabeth becomes involved. Many of Mary’s advisors also suspected Elizabeth’s role in the plot, and so she was arrested and interrogated. However, Elizabeth did not crack under this pressure. Although Elizabeth was a rival to Mary, the elder half-sister did not take the step of further torture or ordering an execution. Elizabeth spent a couple of months in the Tower of London before being moved to house arrest in Oxfordshire.
The website ‘Elizabethan Era’ outlines Elizabeth’s time in the Bell Tower:
Her accommodation in the Bell Tower was small but comfortable. Her room was on the first floor, and had a large fireplace with three small windows. Some of her familiar servants were imprisoned with her, including Kat Ashley. At the beginning of her imprisonment Elizabeth was allowed to take exercise by walking along the walls of the Tower. The bell which gave the Bell Tower its name was used as a curfew bell to tell the prisoners that it was time to return to their cells. She was closely guarded at these times but she came into contact with some of the children of the guards who lived in the Tower
Elizabeth survived the place that saw many other notable Tudor figures succumb, notably that of Sir Thomas More in 1534. However, the other imprisoned person that intrigued me was that of Rudolf Hess during the Second World War. As noted above, the key reason is due to my coverage of the Nazis in A-level History; however, Hess is more compelling because of his interesting and chaotic life.
Hess was an early supporter of the Nazi movement, joining Hitler’s party in 1920. He was involved in notable early events, such as the failed Munich Putsch of 1923, and then assisting Hitler in the writing of Mein Kampf when both were imprisoned. After the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933, Hess served as a keen, unwavering deputy to Hitler, all the way up to the very curious incident of 10th May 1941.
On that day, Hess made a solo flight to the UK with the intention of arranging a peace settlement with Nazi Germany. The BBC website takes up the story:
Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, landing in a field near Eaglesham. The prominent Nazi had flown solo for nearly 1,000 miles from Bavaria in a Messerschmitt Bf 110, apparently on a peace mission in the days leading up to Germany’s invasion of Russia. He was promptly arrested by a pitchfork-wielding local farmer who took Hess to his farmhouse before alerting the authorities.
The whole event seems quite incredible; a comparison would be Churchill’s deputy, Clement Attlee, taking a plane to parachute onto German soil! But perhaps Hess’ desperation is in him predicting the eventual demise of Germany due to Hitler’s continued lust for more war; within a month Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa on the USSR, which ultimately led to the utter defeat of the Nazis.
So, what happened to Hess? He was arrested and held in Britain until the commencement of the Nuremberg trials in 1946; he was convicted of life imprisonment and spent the rest of his life in Spandau Prison, before hanging himself in 1987. During the war he was confined in the Bell Tower, separated from Elizabeth by four centuries of history.
Whilst on the tour at the Tower of London these two characters kept coming to my mind; I believe there is a book (if there is not one already) waiting to be written about their connection in the Bell Tower. And what title more fitting than ‘Bess & Hess’.*
* the credit for the ‘Bess & Hess’ must go to Jon Baldwin, the coordinator of the History with English FdA at University Centre South Devon. He sure does know how to create a catchy title!