Prisons – or gaols – in Medieval England operated very differently than they do today: in fact today’s prisons – even the toughest ones – would seem like a holiday camp in comparison. The primary function of a gaol in the 14th century was to hold a prisoner until they could be either brought to justice or else pay a fine or debt. In addition, the prisoner (or their family) had to pay for the unfortunate’s admission, bed, food, chains, and eventual release (some prisons were even known to turn away prisoners who could not pay!). Hence, conditions – never pleasant at the best of times – could be even worse for those with little money. Gaolers were often corrupt and violent men, and any notion of single cells for one or two prisoners (as we have today) was non-existent. Men and women often shared the same, insanitary rooms: murderers, thieves, debtors and prostitutes were thrown together without much control on who did what to whom.
Long term imprisonment was rare – certainly for the lower classes. Even when used as a punishment it didn’t usually exceed a month or so (although there is the odd exception). Longer term incarceration was normally reserved for political prisoners or high born lords who didn’t deserve execution, but who weren’t safe to be let free either. Such as these generally found themselves in the Tower of London. Other long-term prisoners might be clergy who had committed a serious felony but, because of the Benefit of Clergy, could not be condemned to death.
All towns and cities had their own gaols, but it is London – with its large population – which is the most interesting to look at. Irritatingly, details such as what these prisons looked like etc, are few and far between for this century – but glimpses can still be obtained through records and also later accounts – such as Stow’s Survey of London and a Map of Henry VIII’s London.
This first post looks at the prisons serving the west of London: Newgate, Ludgate and the Fleet:
Newgate prison was situated – as suggested by the name – at the Medieval city gate of Newgate. It was originally built in 1188 on the orders of Henry II and was expanded in 1236. Newgate had two sheriffs – elected annually – who then appointed ‘keepers’. The keepers had to pay the sheriffs for the privilege, but were allowed to recoup the price from the prisoners themselves – for food, a bed – and even for being released. This system changed later, however, in the 14th century when certain gaolers were found to be guilty of charging fees way above the permitted maximum.
During Edward II’s reign, Newgate was primarily used for prisoners convicted of serious crimes – such as treason or murder. In fact most of the inmates housed there were awaiting execution for their crimes – usually on the gallows at Tyburn. The conditions within the prison were notoriously extremely harsh: one can only imagine the hell some of the prisoners must have endured at the hands of both the gaolers and the other inmates.
Repairs were always a concern – and were the responsibility of the Mayor and Aldermen of the City. They were allowed to collect certain taxes by Edward in order to pay for any such works – although any repairs or construction obviously had to be given the royal seal of approval. In the Letter Books of London there exists a writ dated 28th March 1316 from Edward to the Mayor telling them to postpone work on a new turret on the City wall and to instead repair the chamber and sewer of Newgate Gaol.
But despite its fearsome reputation, it wasn’t always secure. Several prisoners managed to escape its clutches, including Stephen Dunheved, of the Dunheveds who tried to free Edward in 1327.
Newgate remained a prison until the late 1800s, being rebuilt and expanded many times during that period. It was also one of the buildings destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Eventually it was demolished and in 1907 a new building was constructed on the site – the current Old Bailey – or, more officially, the Central Criminal Court.
Not far from Newgate and situated at the westernmost gate of the old city wall was Ludgate prison. In Edward’s time it was not very big and probably consisted of rooms over the gate itself. It became established as a serious concern in 1378 when it was decided that it was to be used for Freemen of the City and clergy who had found themselves in debt or who had committed any minor offences. Anything more serious meant a stay in Newgate. It had a gentler reputation than Newgate but despite this was demolished in 1760.
The Fleet Prison was purpose-built in 1197 on the eastern bank of the Fleet River (which now runs under the streets of London– as a storm relief sewer – rather than on top!). Unlike Newgate and Ludgate it was situated just outside of the City walls, in Farringdon Street. One source (London Geezer blog) states that, according to archaeological evidence it was a square tower with four polygonal turrets – but the page cited is no longer in existence so I can’t vouch for this fact. In its early days it was a royal prison, second only to the Tower in its importance and status. Its keeper was known as The Warden of the Fleet. Its use was generally for debtors and those sent there by the Courts of Chancery and Common Pleas.
The area around the Fleet was not a particularly nice place to be as it not only contained many of the prisons but also plenty of butchers’ businesses and these butchers were often in the habit of throwing entrails into the water. In addition, the consequence of privies being emptied into it as well made sure that it was one nasty, odourous place. Needless to say, there were often complaints and once even the Prior of the nearby Hospital of St John of Jerusalem petitioned the king on behalf of the prisoners. (The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Terence Scully, DN Dumville, 1997). Later on in the 14th century, laws were passed to try and stop the fouling of the Fleet and surrounding area but it continued to be a problem for centuries.
The Fleet was closed in 1842 and demolished in 1846. Today a brand new office block called Ludgate West stands on the site.
By the way, if you are interested in the application (and I use that term loosley) of law and justice in the 14th Century, I recommend Ian Mortimer’s book – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (reviewed here). He has an excellent chapter on the subject