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Bishop Flambard: The Tower of London's First Prisoner

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The 11th century castle in London was used as a prison for many centuries. Its first inmate was Ranulf Flambard who also was the Tower of London's first prisoner to escape.

The White Tower in which Bishop Ranulf Flambard was held captive.

The White Tower in which Bishop Ranulf Flambard was held captive.

Who Was Ranulf Flambard?

Born in about 1060 CE, Ranulf was the son of a priest in Normandy. That was a century before the Roman Catholic church became seized with that notion that priestly celibacy is “a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour” (Code of Canon Law).

He entered the service of William, Duke of Normandy who conquered Saxon England to become King William I.

It seems Ranulf was highly intelligent and handsome and his high-spirited nature led to his acquiring the nickname “Flambard” meaning incendiary or torch bearer. Although, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, explained that Ranulf's nickname was a reflection of his cruelty that he said was like “a consuming flame.”

The contemporary historian, Orderic Vitalis, wrote that Ranulf 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.”

Historian Lucy Worsley is also not a fan. She says he “wormed his way into the position of top adviser to King William II, but, he does sound like nasty piece of work. He abused his position.”

Ranulf Flambard “skinned the rich, ground the down the poor, and swept other men's inheritances into his net.”

— Twelfth century historian William of Malmesbury

Service to King William II

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, he was succeeded by his third son, known as William Rufus. As a child, William had a mop of red hair (red in Latin is rufus) and the name stuck with him throughout his life.

English historian Frank Barlow wrote a biography of William Rufus in which he described the king as “a rumbustious, devil-may-care soldier, without natural dignity or social graces, with no cultivated tastes and little show of conventional religious piety or morality—indeed, according to his critics, addicted to every kind of vice, particularly lust and especially sodomy.”

William Rufus.

William Rufus.

As Lucy Worsley has told us Ranulf worked his way into a senior position under William II as Keeper of the King's Seal; the two seemed compatible in their awfullness.

Ranulf bought the lucrative bishopric of Durham and numerous other offices from William Rufus. William of Malmesbury called him “manager of the whole kingdom.” From this exalted position, Ranulf had control of the royal finances, and that meant he was in charge of taxation, a job that never leads to wide popularity. However, Ranulf succeeded in making the tax collector role even more hated than most who have held the post.

One of his schemes was to raise a militia, which meant the district from which men were drawn had to pay 10 shillings each for upkeep of the soldiers. When he had gathered his force together, Ranulf collected the money and then disbanded the militia.

Bishop Ranulf enjoyed his run of good luck with William Rufus on the throne, but then it all came to a sudden end.

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William was out hunting when he got in the way of a fast moving arrow that proved fatal. Some say it was an accident, others that dark motives were involved. Immediately, William's brother declared himself Henry I and assumed the crown. This spelled trouble for Bishop Ranulf.

Prisoner in the Tower

Within ten days of his accession, Henry I had Ranulf Flambard arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of embezzlement. The new king wanted to put distance between himself and his unpopular brother and his prime adviser.

Bishop Flambard was the first person to be incarcerated in the Tower of London, a place that was never used as a lock-up for common criminals; it was reserved to hold enemies of royalty and the state.

The accommodation was not bad. Strike images of damp dungeons from your mind; Flambard enjoyed a suit of room and the attentions of servants. Still, being a prisoner was not to his taste, so, after about six months, he decided to escape.

One story has the Constable of the Tower, Sir William de Manville, simply allowing him to walk free. But, there's a much better yarn that starts with Ranulf's pals smuggling a barrel of wine into the Tower, within which a rope was concealed.

The bishop invited his guards into his quarters for a wine tasting—by all accounts it was more of a good old booze up. The guards got plastered and fell asleep. This was Ranulf's queue to remove the concealed rope, anchor it, throw it out of his window, and abseil down it. His trusty friends waited below with horses and they all galloped off to catch a boat to France.

Henry stripped him of his possessions and titles.

Ranulf Flambard Returns to England

In France, Ranulf Flambard found sanctuary with Henry I's older brother, Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy. Robert was a belligerent fellow who was not happy that his younger brother, Henry, had managed to make himself king of England. So, it took little persuasion from Ranulf for Robert to decide to invade England to claim the crown.

Ranulf organized the fleet that invaded in July 1101. But, the attack ended without bloodshed as Robert met Henry and the Treaty of Alton was signed in which Robert renounced any claim to the English throne in exchange for considerable annual payments.

Through the treaty, that wily campaigner Ranulf, got his bishopric back and resumed his ecclesiastical career, but took no further part in governing the country.

Given his involvement in so many intrigues, and his unpopularity, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that Bishop Ranulf Flambard died peacefully in his bed at the age of 68.

Bonus Factoids

  • The historian Orderic Vitalis wrote that Ranulf Flambard was “addicted to feasts and carousals and lusts.” One story has Ranulf staying over with his former concubine, Alveva, on a trip from Durham to London. His lascivious eye fell upon Alveva's teenage niece, Christina. The randy bishop attempted to seduce the young woman, but she outfoxed him. As he was getting physical with her she told him she was going to lock the door to ensure privacy. This she did, but from the outside, leaving the horny cleric to cool off his ardour.
  • Before we go, let's rehabilitate Bishop Flambard a little bit. He is believed to have been closely involved in the compilation of the Doomsday Book, sometimes the Domesday Book. It is a detailed survey of the ownership of land and its use in England and parts of Wales. It has proved to be an priceless resource for historians.
The Doomsday Book of 1086.

The Doomsday Book of 1086.


  • “Lucy Worsley's Royal Palace Secrets.” BBC, September 2020.
  • “Today (February 2) in London History – 1st Escape from the Tower.” London Walks, February 2, 2022.
  • “Was King William II Murdered in the New Forest?” Ellen Lloyd,, August 5, 2021.
  • “The Story of the First Man to Escape the Tower of London and His Impact on Durham.” Chris Lloyd, The Northern Echo, November 29, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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