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Bridewell, once a palace, later a prison, was an intriguing site in the early modern period. It changed hands several times before falling into the possession of the City of London to be used as a prison and hospital. The prison is mentioned in many early modern texts, including plays by Jonson and Dekker, as well as the surveys and diaries of the period. Bridewell is located on the Agas map at the corner of the Thames and Fleet Ditch, and labelled as BrideWell. The building was originally a palace built for King Henry VIII, but it became a workhouse and prison as the early modern period progressed. Bridewell also appears in texts as Brydewell, Bride Well, Bridewel, and Bride-well.

Royal Beginnings

Stow tells us that a royal dwelling long stood on the site of Bridewell by Saint Brides in Fleetstreet (Stow 1:69). St. Bride’s Church was one of the oldest churches in London, taking its name from Saint Brigid (sometimes written Bride) of Kildare.1 What once was a tower, Stow writes, was replaced with the house called Bridewell (Stow 1:69). This house fell into ruin, but the property was acquired by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1510, transferred to King Henry VIII in 1515, and completed in 1523 after Henry VIII added several wings and buildings. Situated near Westminster, Bridewell Palace often hosted foreign monarchs and dignitaries, and it provided an alternate dwelling for royalty. According to Stow, the palace was builded for the entertainement of the Emperour Charles the 5 (Stow 1:70). In A famouse chronicle of oure time, Johannes Sleidanus writes about this visit from Emperor Charles the Fifth, Holy Roman Emperor, to England in 1520:
In the begynning of the springe time, The emperour taketh shippinge in Spaine to sayle into Englande, where he was royally receiued of kynge Henry the eight, who had maried hys Aunte Katherine, which amonges other kyndes of his princelike liberalite builded a goodlye lodginge purposely for him vpon the Riuer of Themse, called Bridewell, and from thens he sayled into Flaunders, where he was ioyefully receyued of almen.
(Sleidanus sig. xviij)
Hall also records King Henry VIII’s personal use of Bridewell. He first notes a Christmas at which the kyng and many young gentlemen with hym, came to Bridewell, & there put hym, and .xv. other, al in Maskyng apparel (Hall sig. Cliij) before taking the royal barge down the Thames for a large masque and dinner. Henry VIII stopped at Bridewell, and there he & his nobles put on there robes of parliament, and so came to the blacke Freers church, where a Masse of the holy ghost was solemplie song by the kynges Chappell (Hall sig. Clxxxvii). Stow adds that In the yeare 1529. the same king Henrie and Queene Katherine were lodged there, whilest the question of their marriage was argued in the Blacke Friers (Stow 2:44).
Bridewell was also a site where King Henry rewarded and raised peers of the realm. In The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancatre [and] York, published in 1548, Edward Hall records several of the nobles who received titles at Bridewell. Hall describes Lord Henry Fitz Roy, the child of King Henry VIII and his mistress Elizabeth Blount, thus:
when he was .vi. yere of age, the kyng made hym knight, and called hym lorde Henry Fitz Roy, and Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (KL)[…] at the Manor or place of Bridewell, the saied Lorde ledde by twoo Erles, was created Erle of Notyngham, and then he was brought backe again by the saied twoo Erles: then the Dukes of Norffolke and Suffolk, led hym into the great chamber again and the kyng created hym, Duke of Richemond and Somerset.
(Hall CXliij)
Hall lists several other nobles who gained titles on the same day, including a child of twoo yere old who was given the title of Earle of Lincolne (Hall sig. CXliij).
In 1553, King Edward VI gave Bridewell to the City of London as a workhouse, school, and prison. As Stow records,
The tenth of Aprill, Sir George Baron (being Maior of this Citie) was sent for to the Court at White hall, and there at that time the king gaue vnto him, for the Comminaltie and Citizens to bee a Workehouse for the poore and idle persons of the Citie, his house of Bridewell.
(Stow 2:45)
However, Edward died before the transaction was completed, and thus when Sir William Gerrarde Maior and the Aldermen entred Bridewell, and tooke possession thereof according to the gift of the saide king Edwarde it had to be confirmed by Queene Mary (Stow 2:45). Bridewell would become one of the most famous prisons of the early modern period, and its fame persisted into the Victorian era.

Bridewell as Hospital and Prison

John Taylor recounts Bridewell’s history in his The Praise and Vertue of Jayle and Jaylers.:
Bridewell vnto my memory comes next;
Where idleneſſe and lechery is vext:
This is a royall houſe, of ſtate and port,
Which the eighth King Henry built, and there kept Court
King Edward ſomewhat ere his timeleſſe fall,
Gaue it away to be an Hoſpitall:
Which vſe the City puts it well vnto,
And many pious deeds they there doe doo:
But yet for Vagabonds and Runnagates,
For Whores, and idle knaues, and ſuchlike mates,
’Tis little better than a Iayle to thoſe,
Where they chop chalke, for meat and drinke and blowes
In this houſe thoſe that ’gainſt their wils doe dwell,
Loue well a Bride (perhaps) but not Bridewell.
(Taylor sig. 2M2r)
What was once a royal palace would now be known as the Bridewell Royal Hospital and Bridewell Prison. Bridewell, along with other prisons and hospitals, would be funded by the rents of Savoy lands. Stow records that King Edward VI gave to London 700. Markes land late of the possessions of the house of the Sauoy Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (KL)[…] towards the maintenance of the sayd Workehouse of Bridewell, and the Hospitall of S. Thomas in Southwarke (Stow 2:45). The institute of Bridewell began operating only on Royal Charter; while it did not have the endorsement of a Parliamentary act, as pointed out by Griffiths in Contesting London Bridewell, 1576-1580, Bridewell maintained a legal court in which defendants could be tried and prosecuted. It also had capacity to house two hundred prisoners, contained a school for orphan or vagabond children, and featured facilities where prisoners were put to work to earn their bread (Griffiths).
Bridewell was one of London’s first prisons, and thus the term bridewell became synonymous with prison and punishment. In 1638, John Clarke included the phrase Ille send you to Bridewell in Phraseologia puerilis, Anglo-Latina, in usum tirocinii scholastici, his work of selected Latine and English phrases wherein the purity and propriety of both languages is expressed (Clarke 46). In his 1587 bilingual dictionary, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, Thomas Thomas explained the Latin term Ergastŭlus as a Seruant, or slaue kept in person, & forced to worke: a Bridwell birde (LEME). In fact, the noun bridewell is defined in the OED as a A prison, a jail; esp. a house of correction in which inmates are put to work (OED bridewell, n.). Bridewell was so popular in the early modern era that it was employed anachronistically. In The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine, the eldest sonne of King Brutus, a character says, I think you were broght vp in the vniuersitie of bridewell, you haue your rhetorick so ready at your toongs end (W.S. sig. F2v). Brutus was a legendary Trojan hero known as the founder and first king of Britain, ruling long before Bridewell was established.
Most early modern literary texts depict Bridewell negatively; the prison is often the dwelling place for the morally unsound. For instance, in the ballad A Mad Crue, an anonymous writer lists those who will be tryde in Bridewell, including an old Maltman who drinks while he works; a Carrier that travels by night very late who steals ale and rides boats on the Thames; and a wench of plaine dealing who practices prostitution (A Mad Crue). Dekker invokes Bridewell similarly in If it be not good, the Diuel is in it, in which a man finds that his daughter is beating hemp in Bridewell to choke theeues, likely put away for prostitution and put to work while serving her sentence (Dekker sig. L4v). Ben Jonson, as well, refers to Bridewell in Bartholemew Fair, discussing it as a place where women are lash’d, and slash’d (Jonson sig. I4v). Being sent to Bridewell for punishment, as Griffths argues, was a common fate for women prosecuted in the early 1600s—many of whom were charged with prostitution (Griffiths 313).
However, not all references to Bridewell were wholly negative. In The Second Part of Honest Whore, Dekker seems to hold a good opinion of Bridewell. While Bridewell could be a place of fear and coercion, Dekker believes it to be a space of reconciliation and redemption. Bridewell serves as a cautionary tale for Gaspero Trebazzi, who praises the prison:
Your Bridewell? that the name? for beauty, strength,
Capacity and forme of ancient building,
(Beſides the Riuers neighbourhood) few houſes
Wherein we keepe our Court can better it.
This play depicts the institution in a favorable light.
(Dekker sig. I3v)
In The burnynge of Paules church in London, James Pilkington preaches against Catholicism and points to the good done by the Protestant institution of Bridewell:
Looke into London, and see what hospitals be there founded in the Gospell time, and the poore in dede releued, youth godly brought vppe, and the idls set to worke. Poperye would some time fede the hungry, but seldome correct the vnprofitable drones that sucked the honye from the labouring bees, nor bring vp children in the feare of God, but to fill the bellye, and not to teache vertue is to encrease vice. Wel worth Bridewell therfore, for it is a good schole.
(Pilkington sig. O7r)
Pilkington evidently conceives of Bridewell as an institution that offers a future to the destitute rather than one that indiscriminately incarcerates.
Accordingly, religious tracts held seemingly ambivalent views of Bridewell. While Thomas Adams describes Bridewell in The deuills banket described in foure sermons as broad Hell (Adams 7), in Diseases of the soule a discourse diuine, morall, and physicall, he considers Bridewell a place of growth: To cure the Idle Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (KL)[…] there is no medicine like a good whips, to let out his lazy bloud; and a good dyet of daily labour, which some skilfull Bedle must see him take; put him into the bath at Bridewell, to take away the numnesse of his joynts and scowre off his ruse, and so he may be recovered (Adams 22—23). While this remedy prescribed for idle persons might shock modern audiences, it was regarded as a likely sentence in the early modern period. In a didactic tract published by an anonymous writer titled A full relation or dialogue between a loyallist and a converted phanattick, the Phanattick speaks fondly of his brethren who would wrong no man sacretly, but in the streets kill them openly, and the loyalist replies, Why truly it is the general report of the City, especially for these thrée v v v, Vice, Villany, and Vani[t]y, and for thrée b b b, Bloody, Base, and Busie, and for thrée t t t, Trouble, Treason, and Treachery, whereby you may search Bedlam, Bridewell and Newgate, and hardly find any to exceed them (A full relation 9—10). The moralizers of the early modern period appear to have approved of Bridewell, as they condemned the vices that led people to the prison.


Bridewell was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 but was soon rebuilt and continued to serve as a prison, workhouse, and school throughout the mid nineteenth century.2 The prison closed in 1855, and the school moved in 1867, becoming King Edward’s School, Witley. Today, a building known as Bridewell Court sits on the site where Bridewell Palace once stood. With the passing of centuries, it is now a considerable distance from the Thames. However, it does sit on the aptly named Tudor Street.


  1. An early Christian town in east-central Ireland (BAE) (KLM)
  2. More information about Bridewell from 1690 to 1800, as well as the institutionʼs governance and role in society, can be found at the London Lives project. (CS)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Smith, Caitlin. Bridewell. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Smith, Caitlin. Bridewell. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Smith, C. 2022. Bridewell. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Smith, Caitlin
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Bridewell
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#SMIT18"><surname>Smith</surname>, <forename>Caitlin</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Bridewell</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>

Disambiguation for Bridewell

The site of Bridewell Palace became the site of Bridewell the prison and hospital.