Castles were cold, dark, and offered little privacy. They were all a recipe for terrible mental health, but The Tower of London was a special kind of fortress. Built in 1078 on the north bank of the River Thames, the structure offered its own unique flavor — prisoner torture.
English criminals knew being sent to the Tower of London meant they were in for a brutal imprisonment. Unlike the rest of medeival Europe, wealth and status only got you so far in this devilish edifice. Today, few know just how cruel the place could be.
When the tower was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1070s, he wanted to use the structure to display his status to the surrounding areas. The White Tower held the central keep. It was 90 feet tall and had 15-feet thick walls. Inside was another display of power.
Heretics captured in the mid-1500s during religious persecution and tortured until they gave up being Catholic. Father John Gerard, a priest, described fainting at least eight times in one day during his punishment. It’s easy to see why.
Guards’ favorite torture method was the rack. This atrocious machine used ropes and leverage to rip a prisoners limbs from their sockets — or sometimes off their bodies. Guy Fawkes was subjected to the rack for 30 minutes until he confessed his real name to his capturers.
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So, you’ve now heard of the rack, but have you heard of the scavenger’s daughter? This weird device is shaped like the letter A. A prisoner would be forced inside in a sitting position and then compressed by the metal until they yielded … or died.
Prisoners were also hung up by iron chains. Their limbs were stretched wide across the cold stone walls, while they dangled just above the ground. This has been depicted in many movies and TV shows — it seems like show creators normally get this detail correct.
Another creative torture method was forcing something to stay inside a pitch-black four by four square feet space for days. There wasn’t enough room for anything remotely resembling comfort. Sometimes the prisoner would spend days in here.
These punishments were no joke: The Earl of Arundel was driven to insanity during his imprisonment. He spent 10 long years in the Tower of London and suffered a severe mental break while rotting away in the darkness. It was a grim fate, and other royals endured similar.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
One of the most famous royals held in the tower was Princess Elizabeth. She was imprisoned for nearly two months in the 1550s and was subjected to severe isolation and psychological torment. Elizabeth stayed in the same apartments as her mother, Anne Bolelyn.
Other royal prisoners weren’t as lucky. Many of them were beheaded, like Jane Bolelyn, Viscountess Rochester, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and William Lord Hastings. Life in the prison wasn’t so bad for everyone, however.
The first ever prisoner, Ranulf Flambard, was thought of as cruel and greedy in the public eye. While he was imprisoned in the tower, this influence surrounded his stay. He lived a lavish lifestyle inside the walls with his servants.
Even with his entourage, Ranulf didn’t want to spend his life behind bars. He threw a large party, got the guards drunk, and escaped through a window. Ranulf made it to Normandy and later reconciled with King Henry I, the royal who locked him up. Others found comforts, too.
Though prisoners were losing their minds and being terribly tortured, they may have been able to enjoy a conjugal visit every now and then. Sir Walter Raleigh sired a son with one of Queen Elizabeth’s maid’s Bessy when he was in the tower.
You may have been a political prisoner subjected to insane punishments, but you’re probably living a life of luxury while doing it. Ranulf (from earlier), had an assortment of elegant outfits, and Walter (also from earlier) was allowed to conduct science experiments.
Historic Royal Places
Even though a high-ranking political official may be spending an indeterminate time behind bars being systemically broken physically and psychologically, they were still allowed to have servants. Anne Boleyn’s handmaidens tended to her for three entire years.
Depending on how much money a tower “resident” possessed, they would receive a certain type of food. The rich ate well; the poor suffered from malnutrition. Many wealthy prisoners held regular feasts behind bars.
University of California Irvine, Flickr
And amidst the torture, the castle was home to a massive zoo — the first of its kind in the country. The exhibit remained open from 1200 until 1835 and was filled with a variety of animals gifted to the various royals who controlled the tower. Still, it was home to some of history’s worst moments.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henry III held accused murderers in the keep. During his reign, he added enormous walls to the Tower of London. He also imprisoned more than 100 Jews who were thought to have killed Hugh of London and hanged 18 of them.
Another king who held hundreds of Jews at the tower was Edward I. He captured 700 Jews for coin-clipping — cutting off small scraps of currency to later sell for profit. For this “crime” 300 Jews were murdered at the tower.
As attitudes turned anti-Semitic across England, Jews later used the keep as a sanctuary from hordes of angry Londoners. In 1290, Jews were forced to leave England by Edward I. They had to leave for their safety.
Today, the Tower of London is cared for by a variety of historians who are dedicated to keeping its history — no matter how gruesome — alive. Though anyone of them will tell you that no castle was a particularly pleasant place.
Paul Grover / The Telegraph
Castles were smelly. With a general lack of running water and extreme difficulty in obtaining it, most servants and other lower-class residents couldn’t clean themselves. And the types of toilets they used definitely didn’t help.
Toilets weren’t fancy. When you needed to go, you’d likely have to do it on a wooden bench with a little hole in it. Your waste would fall into a vast poo pit or straight into a moat. Outside the bathroom, life wasn’t much better.
When you were using this gross, dirty toilet, you probably wouldn’t have any privacy either. Castle makers followed the HGTV network’s sage advice and went with an open floor-plan. Unless you were a noble, you probably didn’t have a room to call your own.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Generally, more than 100 people would live in a castle, meaning you’d never feel alone. There was so much square footage that needed to be maintained, so royalty required an enormous staff for upkeep.
The Paston Treasure, unknown artist, Dutch School
The high-ranking officials were responsible for managing the politics and land protection and delegated all cleaning and cooking work to their staff. Anyone who lived in the castle had some kind of job, even the royals.
Hans / Flickr
There were five different types of careers in a medieval establishment: if you were upper-class, you could choose nobility, the clergy, or just being a royal. Lower classes were merchants, craft-makers, and laborers. Who do you think had to rise with the sun?
It was critical that people in castles started their day with the sun because so little of it found its way inside the walls. This meant all the indoor servants had a small window of time to get their work done.
Castle life may have been lousy, but at least there was always liquor around. Water was still teeming with bacteria and other waste, making it dangerous to safely consume. So, people got drunk for their health, in a way.
Photo by POOL/ Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images
A big part of castle life revolved around preparing for feasts and parties. These were a massive to-do and it took the entire staff working diligently to properly prepare for them. The lame part? Servants wouldn’t even get to eat the fancy food they were making.
In the dining hall, people sat based on their royal status. The king and queen would sit at the head, while the rest of their court filed in around them. They were also served the food first, which might have been cold by the time they got to eat it.
Within the filth, you could attend church. Even though your body wasn’t clean, your spirit was, we guess. If religion was your thing, you wouldn’t have to leave the compound to worship. Still, you should probably bring something to cover your nose.
If you have musophobia, stay out of medieval-era castles. They were filled with rats because warmth, food (any kind of food), and open water sources are only a few of the many things that draw rats inside. Castles really are the perfect ratly environment.
And like everything else in a castle, floors were extremely dirty. Cats and dogs were given free reign and used the space as a massive toilet. To cover this smell, servants threw fragrant herbs on the ground. It was a crunchy, poopy mess. Getting clean was tough.
If someone wanted to take a bath, it would be in a portable wooden tub. The tub would be moved from one room to the next for people to use. Was there privacy? No. Was it hygienic? Also no. But, it was available.
Photo by Jens-Ulrich Koch/Getty Images
Not that there was a ton of opportunity in all that open space, but you weren’t allowed to copulate with your spouse unless you were planning for a child. Even admitting to having sexual thoughts about them was a sin and could be punished.
Torturing prisoners wasn’t just something created to spice up TV shows. Whenever a ruler was feeling feisty, they could order prisoners who were in the dungeons to be terribly punished.
Many prisoners were captured due to conflicting political beliefs, making this treatment even more heinous. One particular method involved capturing rats in a basket, tying it to a helplessly bound person, and then letting the rats eat their way out. Fun!
There’s a reason castles are known for fireplaces — they were dark, cold structures. The windows were high and narrow, to help defend the castle against archers and the stone walls themselves didn’t hold heat. So, bundle up if you’re planning to sleep over in one.
To add to this, kitchens commonly caught on fire. For some reason, they were made of wood and the food was being cooked over huge flames. You do the math. Eventually builders changed to stone.
Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Stairways in castles were always clockwise. This helped defend against right-handed swordsmen who would have their blows blocked by the stone walls. Defenders in the castle had the advantage.
Today’s castles might be museums or houses for royalty, but when the original medieval castles were built, they were designed to serve as fortresses during times of war. All of the planning that went into them was about defending the grounds from enemies.
When you think of a castle’s first line of defense, you probably imagine a moat, right? Traditionally, a moat was a large body of water that circled the castle and separated it from the land. But it wasn’t there to keep enemies from crossing…
For people designing most castles, their biggest fear was that their enemies might dig underneath the walls to gain entry. If there was a moat, it ensured that any tunnels would be immediately flooded.
In fact, for some castles, the moat wasn’t even located outside the place at all! Instead, it could be found between the first and second walls of the castle. That way, anyone digging a tunnel would get a truly unpleasant surprise…
Speaking of unpleasant surprises, moats didn’t exist solely to keep invaders from digging tunnels to gain entry, either. The moats served other purposes for those living in the castle. For instance, they made for a great way to dispose of human waste.
When it came to other methods of protecting the castle, one of the oldest traditions in design was the concentric circles of defense. Looking at this castle from above, you can see how the circles were created to make entry very difficult.
Concentric circles of defense were designed to act as a series of obstacles. While the layout of medieval castles might be all too familiar to us when it comes to how we look at castles today, they were a true innovation in the world of design when they were originally built.
The concentric circles of defense meant that invading armies would have to conquer one obstacle after another, slowing them down as they made their assault on the castle. First there was a wall, then there was a moat, then another wall, a keep, and so forth…
The main gate of the castle might look imposing, but to our modern eyes that’s all it is. The truth of the matter is that, during medieval times, the main gate of the castle was more than intimidating; it was downright deadly!
The main gate was often comprised of two barriers. If invaders made it past the first entryway, they could become trapped between the first and the second gate by the castle’s inhabitants. They might think that their siege was going to be successful, but they were wrong.
The invading soldiers would then be trapped in one of the castle courtyards, and this wasn’t pleasant to say the least. There were thin slits in the courtyard walls that allowed the castle inhabitants to fire upon the trapped intruders.
Secret passages were a critical part of the design of any and every castle that was built. These passages could serve many different purposes, including allowing a means of escape for those who lived in the castle.
These secret passages could also lead to rooms where the castle’s inhabitants could take shelter. In the event of a siege, they could also serve as a great way of getting much-needed supplies and other assistance into the castle.
Sometimes the secret passages led to secondary wells for the castle’s inhabitants in case the attackers breached their walls of defense and poisoned their drinking supplies. Castles may be glamorous, but they were also critical war fortresses.