Today (February 2) in London History – 1st Escape from the Tower

This one is my all-time favourite Tower of London anniversary. The first-ever escape from the Tower of London took place on this day 921 years ago – February 2nd, 1101. This podcast tells the story. And introduces you to the fugitive.


He was the first prisoner to escape from the Tower of London. That was 921 years ago today – February 2nd, 1101. 

The escape was pure Gilbert and Sullivan.

It gets better. Our escapee was also the first person to be locked up in the Tower of London. You won’t have heard of him. Once you have heard of him, you’ll never forget him. When you’re in London – or in Durham – you’ll be the first to admit, “yeah, I hang with someone who lived over 900 years ago.”

And I’m not exaggerating when I say you’ll hang with him when you’re in London. He’ll obviously be there, giving you a nod of recognition, coolly appraising you, when you’re at the Tower of London. Or even thinking about. Same goes for whenever you’ve got a date with the Houses of Parliament – either physically being there or just thinking about the place. Same goes for when London Bridge swims into your ken. Or when you’re in Durham. Or thinking about Durham. Same goes for whenver the most important document of the middle ages – the Domesday Book – takes a bow. 

That’s not just remarkable. It’s pretty cool, when you think about it. “Yeah, I hang with a guy who lived over 900 years ago.” That takes some beating. 

Ok, let’s perform the introduction. Keeping in mind that your new acquaintance is going to be with you from here on out.

His name was Ranulf Flambard. Even his name – once known – is etched in acid on the wall of your memory. 

Ranulf Flambard – Flambard means torch bearer. Or incendiary. Or devouring flame. His opponents – and he’s got lots of them – say it describes his personality.

He was the Bishop of Durham. That’s why he’s there, almost wherever you look in Durham. He built Durham, lots of it anyway. He sure is there. He’s buried there. His skeleton has survived. It’s one of the few surviving, identifiable, thousand-year-old skeletons. Mr. Flambard is the eternal flame. 

But we’re in London. He’s in London. He’s just escaped, today, from the Tower of London. We’re hunting him down. Wherever we go, it’s the same thing – he was here just a minute ago. You just a minute ago. London Bridge, for example. Why do we think Ranulph Flambard when London Bridge comes up? Why? Because he built the first stone bridge there, that’s why. That’ll be the one that a couple of centuries later made way for the famous London Bridge, on its nineteen arches, with its houses and shops and two chapels and gatehouses festooned with traitors’ heads on stakes.

Ok, so we just missed him at London Bridge. Tally ho – let’s get our buns up to the Houses of Parliament. Same thing, “you just missed him, he was here just a minute ago.” And you’re thinking, ‘hold on here, the Houses of Parliament were built in the mid-19th century, Flambard lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. Anachronisms don’t come any more glaring than that.’ To which the reply is, “yes, of course Charles Barry’s building is a 19th-century construct – but the most important part of the whole complex – arguably the most important building in the whole country – is Westminster Hall. No other building in England crystallises its history like Westminster Hall. And mighty Westminster Hall – which was built in 1097 – is still very much there. And sure enough Ranulf Flambard supervised the building of Westminster Hall. 

And for that matter, ditto the Tower of London. Ranulf Flambard built a wall around the White Tower. Not that it kept him in when they locked him up there. Ditto the hugely important Domesday Book, that one-of-a-kind – no other country’s got anything like it – comprehensive survey of England, the land, the wealth, the people, the works. Sure enough, Ranulf Flambard was a torchbearer for that mighty project.

And conveniently enough, that gets us to where he was coming from, so to speak. What he was all about. 

Ranulf Flambard wasn’t just a mere Bishop. He was also a hugely important government official – a mover and shaker – in Norman England. He had to do with power – that was the game he was playing – and power comes from wealth. Amassing it.

Ergo Westminster Hall. The building is nothing if not an expression of power and might. Ditto the Tower of London. He added to that power and might, putting that wall around the White Tower. Now admittedly, he was at the wrong end of the power calculus there for the six months or so that he was locked up. Well, sort of at the wrong end. He served time the same way those high-level mobsters did in the Mafia film Goodfellas. He had it pretty good. His incarceration in the Tower wasn’t onerous. He had servants in there looking after him, he wasn’t in some dank cell – his suite was well above ground level. And, finally, ditto the Domesday Book – what that project was all about was making taxation – exaction’s a better word – more efficient. You can hear it in the name Domesday book, it was Doom for the conquered Anglo-Saxons. It was 11th-century equivalent of 21st-century surveillance. William the Conqueror and his successors, sons William Rufus and Henry I knew where every penny, every last piglet and team of oxen was – and that made it so easy to put the taxation screws on right down to the last farthing. 

It would have been whispered – dangerous to say it aloud – but people hated him. One of them said he “skinned the rich, ground the poor down, and swept other men’s inheritances into his net.”

Another said he was “addicted to feasts and carousals and lusts.” Said he was “cruel and ambitious, prodigal to his own adherents, but rapacious in seizing the goods of other men.” The Archbishop of Canterbury did the dirt on him. In a letter to the Pope the Archbishop described Flambard as “a rent collector of the worst possible reputation.”

Yet another prominent voice described him as “a plunderer of the rich and a destroyer of the poor.” To a Victorian historian, he was “a malignant genius.”

Ok, just a few more brushstrokes. And then we’ll get to that Gilbert & Sullivan scene, his escape from the Tower of London. 

Ranulf Flambard – the torchbearer – was of humble birth. His mother was said to be a sorceress. Oderic Vitalis – great name – lived at the same time and knew him. At least knew of him. Oderic didn’t have much time for his fellow priest. 

According to Oderic, Ranulf the Torch Bearer was “educated from boyhood with base parasites among the hangers-on of the ducal court, so that he was better instructed in cunning deception and the specious manipulation of words than in the art of letters.”

Sounds about right. Though there was one famous incident when Ranulf was deceived. It, too, was an escape. Here’s the tale. Ranulf had a concubine. Remember he was “addicted to lusts.” The concubine’s name was Alveva. The Torchbearer fathered several children on her. Then he gave Alveva, in marriage, to a citizen of Huntingdon. He always stayed with Alveva and her husband during his journeys from London to Durham and back. Well, in the way of these things, his hostess – she had been his concubine, remember, and was the mother of his children – his hostess, Alveva, was an auntie. Auntie to an attractive girl named Christina. Sure enough, Ranulf liked what he saw. Liked Alveva’s niece, Christina. Tried to seduce her. Remember this was a man who was an expert in cunning deception. Not this time, though. The teenage girl was more than a match for him. When he got physical with her, Christina told him she was going to lock the door to guarantee their privacy. “Good idea,” said Ranulf. Well, Christina locked the door all right. From the outside. She locked him in. The teenage girl ran rings round the middle-aged expert in cunning deception.

Most of the time, though, Ranulf turned up trumps.

It all went south when King William Rufus died and Henry I took over. Ranulf Flambard was accused of embezzlement and locked up in the Tower. The first-ever state prisoner at the Tower of London. He went down on August 15th in the year 1100. Well over 900 years ago. Five and a half months he was in there. And then came the great escape. As I said, it was pure Gilbert and Sullivan. He sent out for a barrel of wine. A rope was concealed in the bottom. He got his guards roaring drunk. And then passed out drunk. Out came the rope. The rope was attached to the pillar dividing the window. Up onto the window and out the prisoner went. Used the rope to rappel down the wall of the Tower. Friends were waiting for him outside the Tower. Waiting for him with horses. Off they galloped to an unknown port and a ship, which took them to Normandy. Flambard had done it. The first-ever prisoner in the Tower of London was also the first escapee from the Tower of London. 

That’s our London story for February 2nd. It’s an eternal flame of a London story. As is the man who bears the torch of the tale: Ranulf Flambard. I defy you not to give him at least a passing thought the next time the Tower of London swims into your ken. He’s now part of your mental furniture. Good night from London. Good escapes into the dreamscape of its rich and rewarding and luminous history. 

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