Prisons and Punishments in Late Medieval London

Prisons and Punishments in Late Medieval London

Prisons and Punishments in Late Medieval London

By Christine Winter

PhD Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012

Abstract: In the history of crime and punishment the prisons of medieval London have generally been overlooked. This may have been because none of the prison records have survived for this period, yet there is enough information in civic and royal documents, and through archaeological evidence, to allow a reassessment of London’s prisons in the later middle ages.

This thesis begins with an analysis of the purpose of imprisonment, which was not merely custodial and was undoubtedly punitive in the medieval period. Having established that incarceration was employed for a variety of purposes the physicality of prison buildings and the conditions in which prisoners were kept are considered. This research suggests that the periodic complaints that London’s medieval prisons, particularly Newgate, were ‘foul’ with ‘noxious air’ were the result of external, rather than internal, factors. Using both civic and royal sources the management of prisons and the abuses inflicted by some keepers have been analysed. This has revealed that there were very few differences in the way civic and royal prisons were administered; however, there were distinct advantages to being either the keeper or a prisoner of the Fleet prison.

Because incarceration was not the only penalty available in the enforcement of law and order, this thesis also considers the offences that constituted a misdemeanour and the various punishments employed by the authorities. Incarceration did not necessarily entail enforced inactivity and the ways a prisoner might occupy his time, including writing, working or even planning an escape, are discussed. Lastly, an investigation is made into the causes and numbers of prison deaths in the medieval period.

Top Image: The Blue plaque on the former site of the prison in London that was known as The Clink. Photo by J.P.Lon / Wikimedia Commons

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