Prisons in Tudor England

Tudor England was a violent place. Many people had private arms, and nobles kept armed retinues. Duels were fought between swaggering swordsmen on points of honour – many people were very sensitive to the merest slights or insults.

Gangs roam the countryside. Riots were common. Murder rates were high and punishment is brutal. In prisons, people were 'kept lying in filthy straw, worse than any dog'.

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
Star Chamber.

Newgate Prison is one of the most infamous prisons of English history. The prison was built at Newgate in 1188 on the orders of Henry I, and was significantly enlarged in 1236. It was used for a number of purposes including imprisoning people awaiting execution (although it was not always secure: burglar Jack Sheppard escaped from the prison three times before he went to the gallows in 1724). The original prison was demolished and a new one constructed on the site between1770 and 1778. It was soon attacked by rioting mobs during the Gordon riots, the prison set on fire, many prisoners died during the blaze and c. 300 escaped to temporary freedom. In 1783 the city of London's gallows were moved from Tyburn to just outside of Newgate. The public spectacle of prisoners' executions drew large crowds. From 1868 executions were carried out in private within Newgate. In 1902 the prison was demolished and the Old Bailey now stands upon its site.

Fleet Prison was a notorious London Prison. It was built in 1197 and situated off Faringdon Street, on the eastern bank of the Fleet River after which it was named. It came into particular prominence from being used as a place of reception for persons committed by the Star Chamber, and, afterwards, for debtors and persons imprisoned for contempt of court by the court of chancery. In 1381, during the Peasants' Revolt, it was destroyed, and in 1666, during the Great Fire of London, it was burned down, but rebuilt. During the 18th century, Fleet Prison was mainly used for debtors and bankrupts. It usually contained about 300 prisoners and their families. Some inmates were forced to beg from their cells that overlooked the street, in order to pay for their keep. It should be noted that at that time prisons were profit-making enterprises. Prisoners had to pay for food and lodging. There were fees for turning keys or for takings irons off. And Fleet Prison had the highest fees in England. There was even a grille built into the Farringdon Street prison wall, so that prisoners might beg alms from passers-by. But prisoners did not necessarily have to live within Fleet Prison itself; as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for loss of earnings, they could take lodgings within a particular area outside the prison walls called the "Liberty of the Fleet" or the "Rules of the Fleet". From 1613 on, there were also many clandestine Fleet Marriages. The head of the prison was termed the warden, who was appointed by patent. It became a frequent practice of the holder of the patent to farm out the prison to the highest bidder. This custom made the prison long notorious for the cruelties inflicted on prisoners.

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.

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