Today we have a special guest post written by Adam LC (Grey)! Adam is the creator of the treasure hunting site Areas Grey where he writes about treasure legends around the world and his wild adventures in search of them. With a passion for travel and a keen eye for solving puzzles, combined with experience as a Private Investigator and a Wilderness Guide, if there’s treasure to be found, he’s the guy for the job. Adam is going to talk to us about the dramatic story of Alice Tankerville, 16th century pirate….
THE MISSING GOLD CROWNS
A shipment of 366 gold crowns with a collective value over £900,000 in today’s terms arrived in London docks sometime in October 1531 destined for King Henry VIII’s royal treasury. The gold crowns had been transported from the continent in an iron bound chest which was securely locked, chained to the floor of the ship and kept under constant guard. However, much to the guards’ surprise, when the iron bound chest was opened the gold crowns had inexplicably vanished.
It took two years of a huge investigation to gather very little circumstantial evidence which pointed towards a possible perpetrator of this heist, a petty thief, thug, and pirate by the name of John Wolfe, a merchant of the steelyard who had been a part of the crew aboard the ship while it was anchored in the London docks. John Wolfe became a prisoner in the Tower of London by early summer 1533 for the theft of 366 crowns from Cologne. Luckily for John Wolfe he had a frequent visitor who brought him clothes, food, and other comforts while imprisoned. After befriending the guards, John Bawde and William Denys, she was even able to bring him wine and other lavish items. This friend was his common-law partner, Alice Tankerville, A native Londoner who was also a pirate, murderer, thief, and soon to be the only woman recorded to have ever escaped the Tower of London.
Due to a lack of evidence the case against Wolfe was dropped almost six months after his arrest and he was released. Perhaps this was too close for comfort for Wolfe as he fled to Ireland almost immediately after he was released. In fact, Wolfe was long gone by the time new evidence was found in the case of the missing gold crowns, only a few weeks after his release, which not only pointed directly at Wolfe himself but also implicated Alice Tankerville as his accomplice.
John Wolfe returned a year later when he and Alice Tankerville, with several co-conspirators, would murder and rob Jerome de George and Charles Benche, two foreign wealthy merchants from Italy in an act of piracy on the River Thames which would result in the pair being captures and locked away in the Tower of London.
ESCAPE FROM THE TOWER
Alice was placed and enclosed within two wards inside Coldharbour Tower, shackled to the walls by her hands and feet with iron manacles with only a slither of light entering the cell from the tiny barred window of the heavy oak door. In order for anyone to get to Alice’s cell they would need to first pass through Middle Tower, Byward Tower, and Bloody Tower. It’s unclear why Alice was so feared that she needed to be locked away so securely in the tower or why her treatment was so unusually severe, even for the standards of the 16th century. One prosecutor even wrote a letter to Cromwell which stated “If the diabolic woman escape, we shall be in great jeopardy”. The court case against her in which she was declared a pirate also stated that “there was no remedy for her but death”.
After befriending two of the guards, William Denys and John Bawde, at the Tower of London during her visits to see John Wolfe when he was previously imprisoned there, she was able to concoct a plan to escape. William Denys was aware of a possible escape route that could be taken which with the assistance of Bawde was able to carry out. On the night of March 23, 1534, with two lengths of rope and a copy of the key to her restraints, Bawde and Tankerville made their escape out of the tower, first onto the leads of St Thomas tower (now known as “Traitors Gate”) and rappelling down the rope to the wharf below made their way into a small boat in which they crossed the moat.
Once across the moat they waited for the night watch to pass before making their way along the road lined with cottages towards where Bawde had tied up a couple of horses ready for their hasty escape from London. Unfortunately for Bawde and Tankerville, just short of reaching their horses and freedom they were approached by a group of night watch guardsmen with lanterns. As they were sure to recognize Bawde as their colleague at the Tower and soon make the connection to Alice as the prisoner they attempted to allure suspicion or undue attention by huddling together as though in a lovers embrace. It may have been too late as Bawde was recognized by his fellow guardsmen and despite their efforts to elude detection they were caught and the escape plan had failed at the last hurdle.
Documents recount the events of the night and the sentences of punishment for Wolfe, Tankerville, and Bawde as follows:
“On Friday about (two) of the clock in the morning one Bawde, the Lord Lieutenant’s servant came with counterfeit keys and opened the prison door, where Wolfe’s wife was, and conveyed her out of the Tower with ropes tied to the embattlements: and after he had conveyed her down, went down himself.” On the wharf below they hid for an hour. Then Bawde found a boat, and rowed them to the water-stairs, at the end of the Tower causeway. They were walking up Tower Hill, toward a Mrs. Jenyn’s house, where Bawde had left two horses, when they encountered the Watch. By Grenville’s account, Alice was “apparelled like a man” and for that reason The Watch was suspicious, and took both Alice and Bawde into custody, and took them to the Lord Lieutenant.” “Wolfe and his wife shall hang upon the Thames at low water mark in chains. And Bawde is in Little Ease, and after he hath been in the Rack shall be hanged.”
Alice Tankerville was hanged in chains at low tide upon the Thames alongside John Wolfe on March 31st, 1534 where the murky waters steadily rose and eventually consumed them both.
WHAT ABOUT THE TREASURE?
The final legal proceedings and documentation surrounding the trial, legal processes, and sentencing of their deaths in the end never mentions their initial charges for the theft of the 366 gold crowns in 1531 despite all of the efforts of the legal system and investigators at the time. Why this is the case is unclear. As such, the question if John Wolfe or Alice Tankerville were involved in the crime is debatable.
What does not seem to get the attention it deserves is the mystery of the missing 366 gold crowns that went missing in 1531. It’s easy to speculate that if Alice Tankerville and John Wolfe had been involved in the theft, then perhaps with their many co-conspirators in the murder of the foreign merchant men case the crowns could have been stashed away while John Wolfe was locked up. Once he was released due to a lack of evidence he was quick to leave for Ireland. Had he taken the gold crowns with him to Ireland and sold them before returning to London for Alice Tankerville when they committed their act of piracy on the river Thames which led to their capture and eventual execution?
Beyond what is mentioned here, there appears to be very little information on the missing 366 gold crowns. For a treasure hunter such as myself to find those crowns now would be an unimaginable feat. If anyone is out there looking for these crowns and has a lead I’d love to hear about it.
Previous Blog Post: The Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches
You may like: Vikings and America: The People who beat Columbus
https://www.grunge.com/428399/the-craziest-ways-prisoners-escaped-the-tower-of-london/ https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HUk7AwAAQBAJ&pg=PT58&lpg=PT58&dq=%22366+gold+crowns%22&source=bl&ots=lMO45GiaSI&sig=ACfU3U2WyMO6TicnK2w0n0Z2cVQaVncTLg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiD_9etuJLzAhVTlFwKHUkKBTMQ6AF6BAgCEAM#v=onepage&q=%22366%20gold%20crowns%22&f=false https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1448528/royal-news-henry-viii-missing-gold-crown-tower-london-river-thames-spt