Courtenay's escape from the Tower. — George Cruikshank. Eighth instalment, August 1840 number. Fifty-sixth illustration and and twenty-fourth steel-engraving in William Harrison Ainsworth's The Tower of London. A Historical Romance. Illustration for Book the Second, Chapter XVIII. 10 cm high x 13.8 wide, framed, facing p. 238: running head, "Courtenay's Escape." The dark plate conveys the warders' sense of urgency in trying to detect the wherry by which their noble prisoner, the Earl of Devonshire, has escaped from house-arrest in the Bell Tower, under their very noses. Since he is a former favourite of the Queen and may well become so again if he lives, the giant warder holding the torch aloft prevents his fellow from employing his arquebuss. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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By this time, the earl's flight from the Bell Tower had been discovered. On his return, finding the door barred withinside, the warder suspected something wrong, and gave the alarm. A few seconds sufficed to the men-at-arms to break down the door with their bills, and they then found what had occurred. The alarm-bell was instantly rung, and word passed to the sentinels on the By-ward Tower, and on the other fortifications, that the Earl of Devonshire had escaped. In an instant, all was in motion. Torches gleamed along the whole line of ramparts; shouts were heard in every direction; and soldiers hastened to each point whence it was conceived likely he would attempt to break forth.

Before relating the result of the attempt, it may be proper to advert to what had been done in furtherance of it by Xit. Having got through the loophole as before related, the dwarf pursued the course subsequently taken by Courtenay, made a hasty excuse to Og, and crossed the drawbridge just before it was raised. Approaching the side of the river, he drew a petronel, and flashing it, the signal was immediately answered by the sound of muffled oars; and Xit, whose gaze was steadfastly bent upon the stream, could just detect a boat approaching the strand. The next moment, Sir Thomas Wyat sprang ashore, and as Xit was explaining to him in a whisper what had occurred, the alarm was given as above related.

It was a moment of intense interest to all concerned in the enterprise, and Wyat held himself in readiness for action. On reaching the drawbridge and finding it raised, Courtenay without hesitation bounded over the rails, and plunging into the moat, struck out towards the opposite bank.

At this juncture, Og and his companions arrived at the outlet. The giant held his torch over the moat, and perceived the earl swimming across it. A soldier beside him levelled his arquebuss at the fugitive, and would have fired, but Og checked him, crying, “Beware how you harm the queen’s favourite. It is the Earl of Devonshire. Seize him, but injure him not — or dread her majesty’s displeasure."

The caution, however, was unheeded by those on the summit of the By-ward Tower. Shots were fired from it, and the balls speckled the surface of the water, but without doing any damage. One of Wyat’s crew hastened to the edge of the moat, and throwing a short line into the water, assisted the earl to land.

While this was passing, the drawbridge was lowered, and Og and his companions rushed across it—too late, however, to secure the fugitive. As soon as Courtenay had gained a footing on the wharf, Sir Thomas Wyat seized his hand, and hurried him towards the boat, into which they leaped. The oars were then plunged into the water, and before their pursuers gained the bank, the skiff had shot to some distance from it. Another boat was instantly manned and gave chase, but without effect. The obscurity favoured the fugitives. Wyat directed his men to pull towards London Bridge, and they soon disappeared beneath its narrow arches. [Chapter XVIII. — "How Courtenay Escaped from the Tower," p. 238-39]


When advised by Bishop Gardiner about the probability of Mary's having engaged herself to the King of Spain, the French ambassador, De Noailles, tries to formulate a plan to rescue Courtenay, in hopes that, when Mary's wrath has subsided, she will once again consider the handsome Englishman a suitable husband.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London​ at the​ age​ of​ twelve, Edward Courtenay, whom Mary created the first Marquess of Exeter, was a leading Catholic claimant to the throne​ through the Yorkist bloodline. He​ remained under house arrest​ for fifteen​ years, but at Easter, 1555,​ he​ was released,​and exiled to Continental Europe. Although Ainsworth's​ account of his escape from the Bell Tower makes exciting reading, it is not an accurate portrayal of ​the latter history of Edward Courtenay. English Protestant "Marian exiles" in Venice were plotting Courtenay's return to England to marry Elizabeth,​ ​ but his sudden death in 1556, in Padua, terminated such plans, which in any event Elizabeth herself would have opposed as she blamed him for her imprisonment in the Tower.

The present dark plate depicts the reactions of the warders rather than the activities of the rescuers. "Torches gleamed along the whole line of ramparts; shouts were heard in every direction" is Ainsworth's stage-direction to Cruikshank, who has provided a dark plate illuminated by the torch which the giant warder Og holds aloft as he checks his companion's impulse to fire on the rescuers. However, the utter obscurity of most of these figures renders any success with firearms unlikely. Although Ainsworth narrates the activities of the rescue party led by Sir Thomas Wyat, Cruikshank shows Courtenay in the moat and a man on the bank ("One of Wyat's crew") tossing the swimmer a line, but the illustrator shows neither the other rescuers, nor their leader, nor yet their boat. Thus, the plate is not entirely successful in generating suspense, although through judicious use of chiaroscuro Cruikshank focuses the reader's attention on the activities of the pursuers as they attempt to locate the fugitive in the darkness and lower the drawbridge, even as one of the guards at the top of the turret discharges a musket. Although Cruikshank does not show bullets hitting the surface of the water, he dramatically highlights the large cloud of gun-smoke.


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Last modified 19 October 2017