Today in London’s criminological history: Ranulf Flambard pioneers the prison escape, 1101

Ranulf Flambard was hardly a radical. But he was the first to be jailed in, and the first to escape from, the Tower of London.

A medieval Norman Bishop of Durham and an influential government minister of King William Rufus of England. Ranulf was the son of a Norman priest of: his nickname Flambard means incendiary or torch-bearer, and may have referred to his having a stroppy personality. He started his career under king William I of England (known then as the Bastard, though to posterity whitewashed as the Conqueror.)

Ranulf probably worked on the compilation of the property survey known as the Domesday Book, a concise record of just how much of the land the king and his cronies had seized and declared as their own (from which all titles and wealth in the kingdom derives, much of it till this day. The Norman Yoke…) Later he became the keeper of the king’s seal. On the death of William I, Ranulf continued to work for the new king of England, William Rufus. He also became involved in the financial administration of the kingdom, where he quickly made a name for himself by his novel methods of raising revenue. He was given custody of a number of vacant ecclesiastical offices, administering at one point sixteen vacant bishoprics or abbeys. During Rufus’ reign, Ranulf oversaw the construction of the first stone bridge in London and oversaw the construction of the king’s hall at Westminster. In 1099 he was rewarded with the bishopric of Durham.

On the death of Rufus in 1100, Ranulf was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 15 August 1100, on charges of embezzlement by Rufus’ successor Henry I of England. Ranulf was singled out as a convenient scapegoat for the financial extortions of Rufus’ reign.

He became the first person to be imprisoned in the Tower, and the first prisoner to escape from it! His custodian, William de Mandeville, was suggested to have allowed the bishop to escape on 3 February 1101. A popular legend has the bishop descending from the window of his cell by a rope which mates had smuggled to him in a flagon of wine. Ranulf gave the wine to his guards, and after they were drunk and asleep, climbed down the rope to escape. His friends had arranged a ship to transport Ranulf, some of the bishop’s treasure, and the bishop’s elderly mother to Normandy.

Siding with Rufus’ and Henry’s older brother Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy. Ranulf became a leading advisor to Robert, and assisted in his unsuccessful invasion of England, an attempt to oust Henry from the throne. The brothers reconciled, but although Ranulf was restored to office he spent the next few years in Normandy, returning only after Henry had defeated Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray. Ranulf subsequently retired from political life, with only occasional appearances in public.

Not the type of guy we normally celebrate… a manipulator and comptroller for the grabbystocracy… but legging it from pokey by such trickery raises a larf. Mind you, the Tower of London was then brand new, paint barely dry, and was a fortified palace, firstly; only secondarily a jail, because of its guards and high walls. Built to impress the conquered Saxons with the might of genocidal Bastard William’s rule over them… It’s rep became fearsome. Always remember though, that in 1381, revolting peasants were able to overcome all fears to storm it…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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