The Life of Edward Francis: Black history at the Tower of London

Misha Ewen, Curator of Inclusive History, reflects upon her research on the life of Edward Francis—an enslaved African man who lived at the Tower of London in the late seventeenth century.

In the depth of winter, a sixteen-year-old African boy ran away from the household of Thomas Dymock, Keeper of the Lions, at the Tower of London. Apart from a notice that appeared in the London Gazette seeking the apprehension of this boy, who was enslaved by Dymock and wore a collar around his neck, there is no further record of him—not even his name.

An artist’s illustration of Edward Francis, based on the description from the London Gazette © Historic Royal Palaces

But the chances are that this boy was found and returned to the Tower, where he later lived as an adult and was known as Edward Francis. In 1691, three years after he had tried to escape, Edward began adding rat poison to the food and drink of Thomas and his wife Jane, in a desperate attempt to free himself from slavery.

Challenging Slavery

To really understand Edward’s story, we have to appreciate that this was a time when the English law offered little protection to enslaved Africans. When an enslaved woman named Katharine Auker appeared before magistrates and pleaded for her freedom, describing the cruel treatment she had suffered at the hands of her enslaver, Richard Rich—in her words, ‘torture’—the judges refused to comply. Instead, she was permitted to seek paid work elsewhere until Richard returned from Barbados.

Katharine came to court in 1690, the year before Edward began poisoning the Dymocks. She was baptised at St Katherine’s, next to the Tower of London, and lived in the city. It’s tantalizing to wonder whether Edward ever met her on one of the days he ventured outside the Tower walls. Certainly we know that he had another Black acquaintance named Tom, who lived on Mincing Lane, just east of the Tower.

This map from 1682 shows where the corner of Mincing Lane meets Tower Street to the west, the Lion Office at the Tower of London in the centre, and St Katherine’s church to the east. William Morgan, London Actually Surveyed, 1682 © Wikimedia Commons

Either way, Katharine’s case helps to contextualise why enslaved women, men and children would go to such extreme lengths—such as poisoning a household—to gain their freedom. Katherine’s case was a lesson for Edward and others that they would never be free if they tried reason and the law.

Rebellion and Resistance

Emancipation in the seventeenth century demanded more extreme action. Having access to the Dymock kitchen, including serving Thomas, and permission to go into the city, probably on errands, provided Edward with the opportunity to acquire rat poison and contaminate the family’s food and drink.

What Edward did is one example in a long history of enslaved peoples’ resistance. In 1692, the same year that Edward appeared in court and was tried for the poisoning, slave-owners in Barbados uncovered what they thought was a plot for an organised violent revolt.

This seventeenth-century map of Barbados shows the figures of two enslaved men running away and being chased by an armed man on horseback. Detail from Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, 1657 © John Carter Brown Library

Running away was also an act of rebellion: an open challenge to the authority of slave-owners. As the historian S. I. Martin recently remarked, enslaved people ‘made what must have been the most extraordinary decision of their lives to run away, to go for their own freedom’.

Finding Edward in the Archive

The historical archive wasn’t built to tell the story of people of African descent in England. Generations of historians have worked hard to bring their stories, and very existence, to light. I stumbled across Edward Francis by accident, when I was reading about Thomas Dymock and his connection to the Tower of London menagerie. That Edward had poisoned Thomas was mentioned briefly and I was stunned. I already knew about the young boy who was enslaved by Thomas in 1687/8, but here was evidence that there was much more to his story.

To piece back together Edward’s life, I had to pick up the tools of the social historian: the fine-grained, close-up, reading-between-the-lines analysis that you need to recover the lives of ordinary people in seventeenth-century England.

For a start, this meant scouring the records of St Peter ad Vincula (the chapel at the Tower of London) and St Vedast, Foster Lane, which was the Dymcok family church, in the hope that I might find some record of Edward’s baptism or his burial. When this delivered no result, I also tried the digitised parish records from the London Metropolitan Archive’s Switching the Lens project. Still no luck.

The Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula © Light Perceptions Ltd

Peeling apart the layers of Edward’s story—and digging more into the history of the Dymock family—would have been impossible without access to digitised records. The newspaper notice, that offers the first insight into this man’s desperate attempt to seek freedom, and the court transcripts that detail Edward’s and the Dymocks’ version of events in their own words—even the baptism and burial records that allowed me to piece together the Dymock family tree—were all freely available online.

Reflecting on the Evidence

When I found Edward’s confession on the London Lives website—not in his own hand, but in his own words—it took my breath away. Nothing really compares to the feeling of holding original documents from hundreds of years ago but seeing Edward’s testimony on a screen—and especially the wobbly, inky lines of his ‘mark’—still provoked a powerful emotional response.

Detail of Edward Francis’s confession, highlighting his ‘mark’. The Examination and Confession of Edward Francis, 16th January 1691/2, London Lives, 1690-1800, LMSLPS150030020 (London Lives, version 1.1, 17 June 2012) © London Metropolitan Archives

What I wasn’t expecting, was to find detailed accounts from Rebecka Dymock, Thomas’s second wife, and their maid Joanna Lickfield. Rebecka’s testimony was difficult to read, especially the part where she said that Edward had attempted ‘breaking locks and many thefts’ before.

I experienced several emotions—sadness, anger, hopelessness—as it hit me that this young man was certainly the same person who had already tried, several times, to escape. He had failed when he ran, but he hadn’t stopped trying. I sensed from the records that he had become more desperate and worn down. He confessed that he hoped to be free if he succeeded in killing Thomas and, it appeared, he didn’t care what it cost him—even his life.

There’s still so much I want to untangle about this story. What was the significance, for example, of Edward (at first) telling Thomas that he had used tobacco and pepper to make them sick? And who did Thomas go to in order to establish that this wouldn’t have been an effective poison?

As someone who has researched and written about seventeenth-century English women as colonisers and slave-owners, these records are also revealing for what they tell us about the very everyday ways that women in England (like their counterparts elsewhere) also worked to uphold slavery, not least through their careful surveillance of Edward’s behaviour.

Black History at the Tower of London

To mark Edward Francis’s life at the Tower of London and share his story with our visitors, we have created a new permanent panel about him. It will allow anyone who visits the Tower to stop and contemplate his courageous, ongoing resistance to his enslavement, in the very place where the events occurred.

Edward Francis panel at the Tower of London, located near the main entrance on Tower Hill.

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the history of people of African descent at the Tower of London more broadly. Edward’s story is, in many ways, exceptional – but there are aspects of his life that are also remarkably ordinary. He was not the only Black servant who lived at the Tower in the seventeenth century, and others, undoubtedly, were also enslaved. It could be that their lives were much less eventful than Edward’s, but, nonetheless, it’s imperative that we find out more.

Bringing Edward’s story to the attention of our visitors is important. In a recent interview, speaking about the significance of continuing to spotlight Black British history, David Olusoga asked us to imagine what it would have meant to the Windrush generation who made their homes in London, Bristol, and Liverpool (or, like my teenaged grandfather with his mother and grandmother, in Manchester) to know that others had been there before them: ‘Imagine what strength they might have drawn from that history had it been known’.

Misha Ewen
Curator of Inclusive History
Historic Royal Palaces

Further reading:
Edward Francis: An enslaved African who lived at the Tower of London

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