Today (October 6) in London History – Americans locked up in the Tower of London

This one’s about the Americans who have been locked up in the Tower of London. The star of the show was locked up in the Tower on October 6, 1780. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.

The first American locked up in the Tower of London. That’s the claim Jeremy Beadle makes for Henry Laurens. Remember Jeremy Beadle? Some of you will, I’m sure.

Well, Jeremy gets a B minus for that paper. Henry Laurens was an American. And he was locked up in the Tower of London. 

But he wasn’t the first American to be a guest of His Majesty in the mighty and notorious London castle-cum palace-cum prison-cum arsenal-cum zoo-cum mint-cum jewel house-cum record office-cum execution and burial site-cum major tourist attraction – yes, the Tower of London has been all of those things in its time.

The first American in the Tower slammer was Francis Lovelace, the second Governor of New York colony. Ok, he was a Londoner bred and born – Woolwich, southeast London – but if you’re the second governor of New York colony you qualify as an American. In my book at any rate. If anybody wants to be a purist about the matter, we’ll say he was a dual national. His governorship wasn’t especially successful. He lost New York to the Dutch. The Duke of York wasn’t best pleased, not least because New York was his namesake colony. We might say today the buck stopped with Francis Lovelace, he was the man in charge after all. He was sent home in disgrace. I’m sorely tempted to call the second governor of New York an old lag. You know that lovely old bit of English slang. The American equivalent would be jailbird. Somebody who’s had his share of run-ins with the law. Ok, I’m exaggerating a little bit but Francis Lovelace did time in the Tower on two occasions. First in 1659. That was before New York was on his radar. And then in January 1675 he was remanded to the Tower for dropping the ball so spectacularly on the other side of the Atlantic. I mean, losing New York to the Dutch – not a good career move.  That second time he was interrogated by commissioners. His answers were deemed unacceptable. But no further proceedings were brought against him. He wasn’t a well man. He got dropsy in April of that year and they released him. He died, in penury – the Duke of York had helped himself to all of Lovelace’s land and wealth as a rebuke, shall we say, for the New York screw-up. Anyway, Lovelace died in penury, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, on December 22nd 1675. All of that’s good hearty fare. But I’ve saved the best for last. Francis Lovelace was a younger brother of the cavalier poet Richard Lovelace who, behind bars himself, in 1642, wrote the wonderful poem, Althea, from Prison. Yes, that poem – the one that  has the immortal lines, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.”

What I want to know is, locked up in the Tower, 17 years and 33 years later, did Francis Lovelace pace back and forth in his cell reciting over and over again, “stone walls do not a prison make” – maybe to the point where he begged to differ with his brother, “the hell they don’t.”

Moving on, a much more famous American name.

William Penn. And, yes, once again, William Penn was English – he was a Londoner bred and born, indeed he was born at Tower Hill and baptised at All Hallows by the Tower – but given that he was the founder of Pennsylvania and the founder of Philadelphia, the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed, I think we can get away with seeing him as an American. Another dual national if you prefer. Anyway, William Penn was locked up in the Tower in 1668. Solitary confinement in an unheated cell. And threatened with life imprisonment. Pretty grim, really. And his crime, blasphemy. 

Then we come to Stephen Sayre. He was part of a thousand-strong American community living in London at the time of the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1775. He was accused of conspiring to kidnap George III. They were going to put his Majesty in the Tower of London and then send him back to where he came from. Well, where his ancestry came from, Hanover, in Germany. 

The plot was foiled. It must have been a decidedly uncomfortable time for that Yank. He wouldn’t have been able to open his mouth – not with that American accent of his – without getting piercing looks from everybody within hearing range. Thanks to a Proclamation of Rebellion the government had spread far and wide. In the proclamation, the population was asked to be “aware of diverse wicked and desperate persons” and asked to inform the authorities of any “traitorous conspiracies and attempts against Us, Our Crown and Dignity.  In the event, the bang on the door came. Sayre was arrested on a charge of High Treason and bunged up in the Tower of London. That was in October of 1775. A fellow American – what’s that expression about a paucity of honour amongst thieves – anyway, a fellow American blew the whistle on Sayre. Sayre had confided in his compatriot. Problem was his compatriot, one Francis Richardson, was serving in the British Army as an adjutant in the Tower. Well, it sort of hangs together – because remember they wanted to put George III in the Tower after they’d nabbed him. They were going to spoil that year’s State Opening of Parliament by kidnapping George III when he was on his way to that great state occasion.

So it’s not His Majesty going into the Tower, it’s his would-be kidnapper, the American Stephen Sayre. In due course, the charge got watered down from high treason to “treasonable practices.” Eventually, they released him, on payment of a bail of £1,000, a lot of money in those days. And finally the charges were dropped entirely and the bail money returned. The word was put about that if Sayre seriously thought he could pull off a stunt like that he should have been committed to Bedlam, not the Tower.

But hey, you can’t keep a good Yank down. From London he went as an agent of the U.S. government Russia where he tried to “charm” Catherine the Great. I’ve long wondered, was that word “charm” a euphemism? Did my countryman really try to bed the Russian empress? I wouldn’t put it past him. Only other thing you need to know about the American Stephen Sayre is that in 1773 he served as a Sheriff of the City of London. Well, he was from the land where the hustler was king, the land of razzmatazz and positive thinking, that land that in due course would produce a guy named Dale Carnegie who would write one of the best-selling books of all time, a book titled How to Win Friends and Influence People.

And that brings us back to Henry Laurens, the Yank Jeremy Beadle thought should have pride of place in this particular line-up. Jeremy, labouring under a massive misapprehension, thought Henry Laurens was the first American prisoner in the Tower of London.

And it doesn’t just get us to Henry Laurens. It also gets us to this day in London History – October 6th, 1780.

The day they showed the American Henry Laurens to his cozy little room in the Tower of London. Two rooms actually. Small rooms to be sure.

The Brits had kidnapped Henry Laurens on the high seas. As a representative of the American government he was enroute to Holland to make a treaty on behalf of the American states. When the British warship turned up he threw a bunch of incriminating letters overboard. But they were recovered. That led to the Brits declaring war on Holland two months later. He was bunged up in the Tower on suspicion of High Treason. He was a prisoner but he had to pay rent for his cell. And he had to pay for his food, drink, bedding, coal and candles. He was made of pretty stern stuff. The Brits tried to win him over. They threatened to hang him if he didn’t turn his coat. That didn’t work. Nothing they tried worked. He stayed firm. For 451 days he was in there. And I really like how it ended. A prisoner exchange. Remember there was a little event at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19th, 1781. It was the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War. When they surrendered, the defeated British army and their Hessian comrades in arms marched out of Yorktown with their flags furled and their muskets shouldered and their band famously  playing “the world turned upside down.” They marched out of Yorktown and laid down their arms before the two armies – French and American – that had defeated them. But here’s the thing. The victorious Americans took a very high-level prisoner. Lord Cornwallis himself, the British army’s commanding General. In due course, a prisoner exchange was arranged. The Americans said we’ll give you Lord Cornwallis in return for freeing our man Henry Laurens, letting him out of your wretched Tower of London and sending him home.

I’m not personally acquainted with either Lord Cornwallis or Henry Laurens but my every instinct tells me the Americans got a better deal, got a better man.

Four other Henry Laurens takeaways. 1. He was the former president of the American Congress. 2. He joined Ben Franklin, John Adams and John Jay at the peace conference in Paris. Was one of the signatories to the treaty by which Britain recognised the independence of the United States.

3. Before the war of independence, the Americans complained bitterly that Britain treated them like slaves. Henry Laurens was principled enough to see the inconsistency in the argument that the mother country treated them like slaves while they themselves owned hundreds of African slaves. In due course he declared he abhorred the institution and freed the slaves that worked his plantation. He was the first large planter in the deep south to do so.

4. He was one of the first Americans to be cremated.

Personal note. This is why I do these podcasts. 24 hours ago I knew nothing about Henry Laurens. Had never heard of him. I’m very pleased to have made his acquaintance, even if he wasn’t the first American to be locked up in the Tower of London. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Easy. Visit All Hallows by the Tower. It’s the oldest church in London – it was founded in A.D. 675. It’s the church where William Penn was baptised. The sixth American president John Quincey Adams was married there. It’s got a fascinating little museum in its crypt. We do a lot of walks that start at Tower Hill Tube. You want to be really efficient – make the best possible use of your time – just get there half an hour early for the walk and cross over to the Tower side – the church is right there by the Tower – and pay a visit to All Hallows prior to the walk. That’s twenty or twenty-five minutes well spent. All Hallows by the Tower is a rewarding place to visit.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

One response to “Today (October 6) in London History – Americans locked up in the Tower of London”

  1. Ron Harrell says:

    An entertaining podcast on the Yanks in the Tower.
    I hope Aaron Rodgers gets to tour the Tower on his short stay in London this week. It would be the only time he’d have to face the ravens this year!

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