Elizabethan/Jacobean Prisons

A stay in prison had a different significance to a London citizen. Experienced by innumerable members of all social strata (the playwrights Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Marston, Lyly, and Tourneur were familiar to its workings), prisons were used more as a holding place before a court date than as a means of punishment. The crimes were the focal point of interest, not the prison stay, in judging a man. The language and conditions of the prison were familiar to any pedestrian since the jails were not segregated from the public.
According to John Taylor, the waterman and poet, there were eighteen prisons in and around the city of London in Shakespeare's time including the Tower but excluding Bridewell. In theory, all prisons as well as the bodies of his subjects were owned by the King. Like the court system, each prison usually specialized in a type of criminal. The most well known was Newgate, for felons, debtors and those awaiting execution, Ludgate for debtors and bankrupts, and the Fleet which contained offenders in the courts of Chancery and Starchamber. Other less known prisons were the The Wood Street Counter, Bread Street Prison, and the Gatehouse at Westminster.
Considering its reputation, it is not surprising that Southwark had more prisons than London. The more well known locations were the Clink which housed religious offenders, the King's Bench for "debt, trespass and other causes," the Marshalsea for debtors, religious prisons, and pirates (maritime offenses), East Smithfield Prison for "theefe or paltry debters," and New Prison for heretics. Others include The Counter in the Poultry, The Compter, the White Lion, the Hole at St. Katherines, and the Lord Wentworth's.
The Tower held the most important political prisoners and was the earliest building used as a prison. Two prisons of a different category were Bethlehem Hospital (or Bedlam as it was commonly called), a madhouse which operated as a concession under its Tudor administration. Many paid to see the inmates as a form of performance, a showcase for madness. The last example is Bridewell, a house of correction for prostitutes and vagrants - "idle knaves" - who were beaten before being brought and forced to perform labor as an early form of rehabilitation.

to Life Page to Home Page