The Prison System of Early Modern London
In London and within a mile, I weene,
There are of Iayles or Prisons full eighteene,
And sixty Whipping-posts, and Stocks and Cages,
Where sin with shame and sorrow hath due wages. (Taylor 267–70)
In his pamphlet
The Praise and Vertue of a Jayle and JaylersJohn Taylor, the Water Poet, lists the eighteen prisons of London: the Tower, the Gatehouse, Fleet, Newgate, Ludgate, Poultry Counter, Wood Street Counter, Bridewell, White Lion, the King’s Bench, Marshalsea, Southwark Counter, Clink, St. Katherine’s, East Smithfield, New Prison, Lord Wentworth’s, and Finsbury.  Of these prisons, the final four listed were lesser prisons, and there are few surviving records about them or the White Lion and Southwark Counter prisons (Dobb 88). Imprisonment was not a punishment for offenders, but a detainment “until they were either brought to trial or released” (Salgado 176). Newgate was the only prison where the most notorious of criminals were sent to be held before execution.
In Elizabethan times, people were arrested for many different reasons, such as “vagrancy, petty theft, [...] slander, debt, [and] assault.” It was easy for a person to swear out a warrant against someone and have him or her arrested, as long as one had the money to pay for it (Salgado 164). Constables, like the incompetent Elbow in Measure for Measure and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, were responsible for making arrests, although they most likely did not arrest nearly the number of people that competent constables could have. Salgado explains that for those caught in the act of committing a crime, such as a theft, “the least they could expect was to be burned through the gristle of the ear, branded or whipped till their backs ran blood” (21). After they were punished, those who were arrested were sent to the appropriate prison (i.e., religious offenders to the Clink, both religious and maritime offenders to the Marshalsea, debtors to the King’s Bench or the Counters) (Dobb 89–90).
Each of the prisons in London had different levels of accommodation for its prisoners. Which section of the prison that the prisoner ended up in depended not on the offence with which he was charged, but on how much money the prisoner was willing or able to give to various people in the prison administration, such as “gaolers, keepers, tipstaffs, and others” (Salgado 168). Dobb notes that, officially, keepers were to charge fees only for the prisoners’ committal, discharge, and exemption from fetters (94). However, prisoners had to pay more money if they wanted their own cell, meat and claret at every meal, and tobacco (169). Prisoners lived comfortably in this manner as long as they were able to pay for it. When they could no longer afford to live at this level of the prison, they had to move to one of the lesser but relatively comfortable areas, and finally to the worst area of the prison, once they could no longer afford to live in moderate comfort. Although each of the prisons had a lowest level, at the Counters this section was known as the Hole, where the poor prisoners were cramped together into a small space and often died of starvation and cold (170), or from the lack of exercise and poor sanitation (Dobb 98). The little food that was available at the common Gaol at Newgate and the Hole at the Counters was provided by charities and gifts from the Lord Mayor, the Sheriffs, and the City companies (98).
There was no set limit for how long a person stayed in prison. Thus the length of a prison sentence varied from prisoner to prisoner. Debtors were not able to leave prison until they settled with their creditor(s) (Dobb 92). Some of those who were to be executed were able to avoid their punishment by becoming hangmen, like Pompey in Measure for Measure (Salgado 176). Some people were able to buy their way out of execution, like Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, who apparently bribed her way out of Newgate with two thousand pounds (42–43).
Pressing or Peine Forte et Dure
The practice of pressing, also known as peine forte et dure (strong and hard pain), was a torture used for many years in England. It originated around 1272, during the reign of Edward I, when accused persons refused to plead at trial, reasoning that if they refused to plead there could not be a trial, and that therefore they could not be convicted. They did this because convicted felons and their families lost all of their possessions. The authorities decided to start forcing pleas out of the accused by heaping weights on their chests. Although some of the prisoners succumbed under the pressure and gave their pleas, many died as a result of it (Walker 47). Baker explains that it was those prisoners who were standing trial for such offences as petty treason that actually received peine forte et dure (34). In the reign of Henry IV, pressing began to be used as an unofficial form of execution (Laurence 228).
Prisoners who remained mute when asked to plead were warned three times of the punishment they would receive and given several hours to consider before they were pressed (Parry 98). The prisoner would receive the Judgement of Penance:
That you go back to the prison whence you came, to a low dungeon into which no light can enter: that you be laid on your back on the bare floor, with a cloth round your loins, but elsewhere naked; that there be set upon your body a weight of iron as great as you can bear and greater; that you have no sustenance save on the first day three morsels of the coarsest bread, on the second day three draughts of stagnant water from the pool nearest to the prison door, on the third day again three morsels of bread as before, and such bread and such water alternately from day to day till you die.
(qtd. in Parry 98–99)
The procedure of pressing was sometimes varied so that the prisoners would have their arms and legs tied to four corners of the room where they were being pressed. Parry cites an example of a man who withstood the pressure of four hundred pounds for two hours before pleading not guilty, as well as that of another man who withstood the pressure of five hundred pounds for half an hour before agreeing to submit a plea (101, 102).
Pressure was obviously considered to be a normal practice in Elizabeth I’s and James I’s reign since it was often alluded to by such important authors of the time as Dekker, Nashe, Milton, and Shakespeare (Dobb 91). In Richard II, the Queen says “Oh, I am pressed to death /Through want of speaking!” (3.4.71–72), and in Measure for Measure, Lucio tells the Duke that “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1.533–34). These are just two examples of how Shakespeare refers to pressing to explain the circumstances of standing mute or of being tortured by an unwanted situation.
The practice of pressing, with the purpose of eliciting a plea from prisoners, continued until the eighteenth century, when it was replaced with the more humane practice of tying the thumbs together and twisting the cord (Parry 102). Pressure was officially abolished by George III, and it was later enacted under George IV that any prisoner standing mute would be considered to be pleading “not guilty” (103).
Measure for Measure and the Elizabethan Prison System
Although Measure for Measure is set in Venice, it is apparent that Shakespeare’s descriptions of the business of the prison are representative of London’s prison system at that time. The position of local constable was an elected office, and most of the merchants, tradesmen, and farmers who were elected were reluctant to serve in that office. As a result, they often paid deputies to serve in their place, who would in turn pay other deputies to serve the position, until an incompetent man who could not find any other mode of employment would serve the year-long term (Critchley 10). Shakespeare was obviously aware of the problems associated with the hiring of incompetent constables when scripting his conversation between Elbow and Escalus:
(2.1.255–69)ESCALUS Come hither to me, master Elbow; come hither, Master Constable. How long have you been in this place of constable?ELBOW Seven year and a half, sir.ESCALUS I thought, by the readiness in the office, you had continued in it some time. You say, seven years together?ELBOW And a half, sir.ESCALUS Alas, it hath been great pains to you. They do you wrong to put you so oft upon’t. Are there not men in your ward sufficient to serve it?ELBOW Faith, sir, few of any wit in such matters. As they are chosen, they are glad to choose me for them. I do it for some piece of money and go through with all.
Through this dialogue, Shakespeare is obviously commenting on the lack of competent men willing to perform their duty as constable in London. It is important to note that problem of bumbling constables was present throughout all of England, and not just in London (Critchley 10).
Through Pompey’s prison speech, Shakespeare also shows that many people were arrested and imprisoned for debt during the Elizabethan and Jacobean times:
I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession. One would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here’s young Master Rash; he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, nine-score and seventeen pounds, of which he made five marks, ready money. [...] Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-coloured satin, which now peaches him a beggar.
Shakespeare makes it clear how it was possible for someone to be jailed for debt because of get-rich-quick schemes, and that they could have been jailed because a creditor had a warrant sworn out against them. Pompey himself portrays a reality of the London prison system since he manages to avoid execution by becoming an executioner (4.2).
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare does not portray the prison life of London exactly as it would have been, since he places a pirate, a bawd, a sexual offender, and debtors all in the same prison even though in life they would most likely have all been placed in separate prisons. However, it does provide the reader as well as the playgoer the opportunity to see aspects of the London prison system at that time.
- Critchley, T.A. A History of Police in England and Wales 900–1966. London: Constable, 1967. Print.
London’s Prisons.Shakespeare in his own Age. Shakespeare Survey 17. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964. 87–100. Print.
- Laurence, John. A History of Capital Punishment with Special Reference to Capital Punishment in Great Britain. 1932. Rpt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1971. Print.
- Parry, Leonard Arthur. The History of Torture in England. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1975. Print.
- Salgado, Gamini. The Elizabethan Underworld. London: Dent, 1977. Print.
- Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print. 414–54.
- Shakespeare, William. Richard II. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print. 740–83.
The Praise and Vertue of a Jayle and Jaylers.All the Workes of Iohn Taylor The Water Poet. London, 1630. STC 23725. Sigs. 2M1v–2M2r. Print. Single-volume facscimile rpt. of 4 vols. London: Scolar, 1973. 2.–35. Print.
- Walker, Peter N. Punishment: An Illustrated History. Whitstable, UK: David & Charles, 1972.
- The last five prisons are not yet represented on our map or index. [JJ]
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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