Title page of the first edition
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Tower of London is a historical romance by the English writer William Harrison AinsworthEnglish historical novelist, at one time considered a rival to Charles Dickens., first published in 1840. The story centres on the plots and counter-plots to win control of the English crown following the the death of Edward VI, encompassing the very brief reign of Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537 – 12 February 1554), her imprisonment and execution in the Tower of London, and the restoration of the Catholic faith in England by her successor, Queen Mary I.

The novel is illustrated with forty engravings and fifty-eight woodcuts by George Cruikshank, depicting episodes from the story and architectural features related to the Tower.[1] Its enduring image as a grim place of torture and imprisonment was largely shaped by the works of 19th-century authors, and in particular by Ainsworth’s novel.[2][3]


The story begins with Lady Jane Grey, the wife of Lord Guilford Dudley and daughter-in-law to the Duke of Northumberland, entering the Tower of London on 10 July 1553. She had before then reigned as the Queen of England for nine days, after she and her husband were installed on the throne by Dudley’s father, the Duke of Northumberland. But shortly afterwards Mary I is able to take control of England, and sends the duke to be executed. In an attempt to regain the kingdom he has lost, Dudley mounts a rebellion, which ends in failure and the imprisonment of himself and his wife. Simon Renard, the Spanish ambassador to England, then arranges a marriage between Mary and Philip of Spain, restoring the Catholic faith in England.

The events of the book alternate between historical background and Lady Jane’s fate. In Book II, incidents throughout the history of England from William the Conqueror to the 1820 Cato Street conspiracy are mentioned. The novel then returns to Lady Jane busying herself with prayer as she awaits her execution, her only hope for freedom being to convert to Catholicism. There are conspiracies over Mary’s rule of England, from supporters of the imprisoned Lady Jane and those who wish to put Elizabeth, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII, on the throne. But neither side is successful before the story ends, and Lady Jane is executed for high treason.


In his preface, Ainsworth explains his purpose in writing the novel, based on showcasing three aspects of the Tower of London,[1] its role as palace, prison and fortress.[4]

Desirous of exhibiting the Tower in its triple light of a palace, a prison, and a fortress, the Author has shaped his story with reference to that end; and he has also endeavoured to contrive such a series of incidents as should naturally introduce every reflect of the old pile – its towers, chapels, halls, chambers, gateways, arches, and draw-bridges – so that no part of it should remain unillustrated.”[4]

The architectural descriptions within the novel tend to break up some of the aspects of the plot, but serve to show how the Tower has changed over time. This transcends the plot’s temporal bounds and links the Tower’s origins with the 19th century, when the novel was published. According to the literary critic George Worth, “Ainsworth seems constantly to be trying to remind his readers, living in an age of urbanization and industrialization in which historic old landmarks were being swept away or defaced or ‘restored’ beyond recognition, that they had a heritage, one very large vested in physical structures of one kind or another, and that the heritage … might soon be gone beyond recall.”[5]

Catholics were generally viewed negatively by Ainsworth’s contemporary English audience, and the Catholic Queen Mary in particular, who earned the nickname Bloody Mary for the persecution of Protestants during her reign. Ainsworth was not a supporter of Catholicism, but he felt that it was part of an idealised English past, and sought to describe the religion and its adherents neutrally. Although many Catholics in the novel try to use Mary to promote Catholicism in a fanatical manner, Ainsworth attempts to treat her sympathetically, introducing Cardinal Pole as a moderating figure who tries to steer Mary from too extreme a position.[6]

Critical reception

It would be reasonable to suppose that the American author Edgar Allan Poe was no great fan of The Tower of London, given his critical review in which he wrote that “The authorship of this work does a little, and but a little, more credit to Mr. Ainsworth than that of ‘Jack Sheppard’.[a]Jack SheppardJack Sheppard (1702–1724) was a notorious thief in early 18th-century London, wildly popular with the poorer classes. was a notorious thief in 18th-century London, and the subject of Ainsworth’s last Newgate novelEarly form of sensation literature, drawing its inspiration from the Newgate Calendar, first published in 1773 and containing biographies of famous criminals., published in 1839. Ainsworth had until then been a rival to Charles Dickens, but his reputation never recovered from the public backlash against his glamourisation of a criminal. It is in no spirit cavilling that we say it is rarely our lot to review a work more utterly destitute of every ingredient requisite to a good romance”.[7]

But other reviewers have been more positive. Writing in 1934 Malcolm Elwin stated his view that “… several of his [Ainsworth’s] novels – particularly Tower of London and Old St. Paul’s, in spite of the absurd antics of the hero of the latter – have undoubtedly the quality of durability. No writer could hope to surpass either as romantic histories of their particular subject.”[8]

The structure of the novel, dealing as it does with historical romance and architectural history, has also divided opinion among reviewers. Writing in 1972, George Worth considered that Ainsworth “spaces his [architectural] descriptions judiciously throughout the novel in such a way as to heighten the effect of the novel rather than detract from it.”[9] But in contrast, writing three years later, Nicholas Rance stated his view that The Tower of London is an “incongruous merging of historical romance and guide book”.[10]

See also




Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Tower of London. Richard Bentley, 1840, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/49850/49850-h/49850-h.htm.
Allen Brown, Reginald, and P. Curnow. Tower of London. Department of the Environment, 1984.
Carver, Stephen. The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805–1882. Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.
Elwin, Malcolm. Victorian Wallflowers. Jonathan Cape, 1934.
Impey, Edward, and Geoffrey Parnell. The Tower of London. Merrell Publishers, 2000.
Rance, Nicholas. The Historical Novel and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century England. Vision, 1975.
Worth, George. William Harrison Ainsworth. Twayne Publishers, 1972.

External links