Tag Archives: Newgate Prison


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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History contd.

Administration and Governance

Under the Normans, and indeed the Plantagenets, the  City of London remained outwardly little changed, at least initially, still largely confined within the Roman walls and laid out according to the Saxon street plan.   There were, though, sweeping changes to the way the City, and indeed the country, was run, at least initially, under  the autocratic Feudal System.  Under the Feudal System, the King and his place-men, the barons and knights,  essentially owned all the land; and granted the peasantry, that is to say, in descending order of status,  the manorial serfs, villeins, and bordars, access to it only in exchange for rent, labour, produce or services, or for some combination thereof.  At the time of the the “Domesday” survey in 1086, the population of England was 2,000,000, of which, considerably less than 1% belonged to the royal, noble and ecclesiastical elite, and 20% were classified as semi-free serfs, 40% as villeins, and 30% as bordars, also known as cottars (all numbers are approximate).  Also at this time, 10% of the population were unfree slaves, owned and sold like chattels.   However, shortly afterwards, in 1102, the Church Council of London, convened by, issued a decree ordering “Let no man dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals”.  And by the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, slavery appears to have been effectively eliminated (most former slaves by this time having been granted small-holdings, and become bordars). Under the Normans and Plantagenets, the  ruling elite, though powerful, was small, and more than a little  wary of the large and potentially rebellious population now nominally under its control.  In consequence, successive Kings  made a series of placatory  political moves to maintain  and even extend  the rights and privileges that the City  had enjoyed under the Saxon King Edward “The Confessor”.

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But lest the City go getting ideas above its station, there were everywhere within it and without reminders of the Royal presence, and of where the real power lay: the Tower of London, and the gallows and scaffold on Tower Hill, in the east; and Baynard’s Castle, Montfichet’s Tower, and the Royal Wardrobe, in the west.

As noted in the section on “History” above, the  City of London  became in essence at least in part self-governing in Medieval  times, under the Corporation and its officials, namely the Mayor, Sheriffs (Shire-Reeves), Aldermen and Common Councilmen, who were initially appointed and subsequently elected, albeit elected by,  and from within, a wealthy and influential elite, including representatives of the trades guilds or Livery Companies.


Perhaps the most famous of London’s Mayors was Richard or Dick Whittington (c. 1354-1423).  Whittington, a Mercer, was  appointed Mayor in 1397, on the death of the incumbent, and elected to the post on a further three occasions, later in 1397, in 1406 and in 1419.  Among the many public works undertaken by Whittington, in or out of public office, were the reconstruction of the Guildhall; the conversion into a Market and Garner of the Leaden Hall; the establishment of the College of St Spirit and St Mary, on what is now College Hill, where he lived; the  reconstruction of the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, also on College Hill; the reconstruction of Newgate Prison, which had been damaged during the “Peasants’ Revolt”; and the bequest of a library valued at £400 to Christ Church Newgate Street.  Not to mention the construction of a 128-seater public lavatory, popularly known as “Whittington’s Longhouse”, in the parish of St Martin Vintry!  The Magna Carta of 1215 had granted the City “all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water”.

In exchange, the Crown required that, each year, the newly elected   Mayor present himself or herself at court to ceremonially “show” his or her allegiance.  This  event eventually became the Lord Mayor’s Show we know today.  Interestingly, the  associated parade of the mayor and his or her entourage, from the City to  Westminster, used to take place  on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude at the end of October, whereas now it takes place on the second Saturday in November.  The parade also used to take place on the water, whereas now it takes place  on land – although the mobile stages are referred to as “floats”.  It travels, accompanied by much pomp, from the Lord Mayor’s official residence, Mansion House,  past St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Cities of London and Westminster meet.

The Corporation became responsible for the infrastructure of the City and the health and welfare of its Citizens, including the maintainence of the City walls, and communal buildings and gardens; the oversight of  industrial activity within the walls; street-cleaning; the provision of   water-supply and sewage systems; and the implementation of measures to prevent or control  disease – at least insofar as this was possible.  It also became at least partially responsible for the more general prosperity and orderliness of the City, including  the education of the populace, and the maintenance, if not the establishment, of the law.

The Corporation and its benefactors, many of them associated with burgeoning  trades guilds or Livery Companies, with vested interests in vocational training, were responsible for founding a number of educational establishments from the twelfth century onwards, some of which are still running (although none on their original sites).

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The City of London School was founded through  the benefaction of the Town Clerk, John Carpenter,  in 1442, on  a site adjacent to the Guildhall; and the  school attached to St Paul’s Cathedral  was re-founded by Dean John Colet in  1511. And St Peter’s College, or Westminster School, attached to Westminster Abbey, was founded in the twelfth century.  Literacy rates have been estimated to have  been of the order of 50% by the end of the Medieval period or beginning of  the post-Medieval.  Functional literacy rates would have been even higher.

The law of the land was established centrally, by Parliament.  It was essentially maintained locally, through  the fore-runners of the police, namely, the sergeants, and constables or  night-watchmen; and through the courts.  As the then  Mayor, Henry Galeys, put it, in his “Provision for the Safe-Keeping of the City”, in 1282: “As to the safe-keeping of the City:- All the gates of the City are to be open by day; and at each gate there are to be two serjeants to open the same, skilful men, and fluent of speech, who are to keep a good watch upon persons coming in and going out that so no evil may befall the City.  At every parish church, curfew is to be rung at the same hour as at St Martin’s le Grand; so that they begin together, and end together; and then all the gates are to be shut, as well as taverns for wine or for ale; and no one is then to go about by the alleys or ways.  Six persons are to watch in each ward by night, of the most competent men of the ward thereto; and the two serjeants who guard the gates by day, are to lie at night either within the gates, on near thereto”.  There were only a few tens  of sergeants (including one for each of the twenty-five wards, and a comparable total based at the Guildhall), and a few scores of constables or  night-watchmen, to police a population of a few tens of thousands.  They had to deal with every type of crime, from petty theft, through adulteration or false weighing of foodstuffs (or other breaches of manufacturing and retail regulations), to counterfeiting currency, and   assault and murder.


The right of every Englishman accused of a crime  to a trial by jury in a court of law was first codified in the Magna Carta of 1215, the great charter that ultimately gave rise  to our modern legal and – democratic – parliamentary systems: two of the four surviving copies of which are  now in the British Library in London.  This and some of the other  provisions of the Magna Carta that have resonated  down the centuries read – rather wonderfully – as follows: “39 – No man shall be taken or imprisoned … or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers … .  40 – To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny right or justice. … 52 – If anyone has been … deprived by us without lawful judgement of his peers of lands, castles, liberties or … rights, we will restore them to him at once … . … 61  [“The Security Clause”] – … We give and grant … the following security: namely, that the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm that they wich, who with all their might are to observe … and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted and confirmed to them by this our present charter … . … 62 – Wherefore we wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free, and the men in our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions well and peacefully, freely and quietly, fully and completely, … in all things and places for ever, as is aforesaid … .  Given under our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign”.

The right to legal counsel and representation, by attorneys (solicitors) and pleaders-before-court (barristers), became established in the later thirteenth century; formal training of pleaders-before-court, in so-called Inns of Court,  strategically situated between the Cities of London to the east and Westminster to the west,  at Temple  in the early fourteenth, at Gray’s Inn in the late fourteenth, and at Lincoln’s Inn, in its present location, in the fifteenth.  John Fortescue, a sometime Governor of Lincoln’s Inn, wrote of the Inns of Court in 1470:  “In England, laws are learned in three languages, namely English [which was in fact the everyday language of the court from the late fourteenth century onwards], French and Latin [and] not in universities, but in a certain public academy situated near the King’s courts [in Westminster].  That academy is not situated in the city, where the tumult could disturb the student’s quiet, but in a suburb.  There are in this academy ten lesser Inns of Chancery to each of [which] at least a hundred belong.  These students are for the most part young men learning the elements of the law, who, becoming proficient as they mature, are absorbed into the greater Inns of Court, of which there are four in number, and to the least of which belong 200 students or more. … [I]n these greater inns there can no student be maintained for less expenses by the year than 20 marks.  And if he have a servant to wait upon him, as most of them have, then so much the greater will his charges be.  Now by reason of these charges the children only of noble men do study the laws … .  For the poor and common sort of the people are not able to bear so great charges … and merchant men can seldom find in their hearts to hinder their merchandise with so great yearly expenses.  And thus it falleth out that there is scant any man found within the … laws, except he be a gentleman born … . Wherefore they more than any other kind of men have a special regard to their nobility and to the preservation of their honour and fame.  And to speak uprightly there is in these greater  inns, yea and in the lesser too, beside the study of the laws, as it were an university or school of all commendable qualities requisite for noble men.  There they learn to sing, and to exercise themselves in all kinds of harmony.  There also they practise dancing, and other noble men’s pastimes, as they do which are brought up in the King’s house”. 

The  law was upheld through a judicial system that placed particular emphasis on punishment as a deterrent to crime, although in its defence it also at least attempted to make the punishment fit the crime, with  the  least serious or petty crimes punishable by fines or corporal punishment, and only the perceived most serious – of which it has to be admitted there were scores – by capital punishment.    Corporal punishment included the use of the pillories and stocks, which restrained convicted criminals and allowed them to be harangued or to have missiles thrown at them by the general public.   In 1327: “John Brid, baker, was … put upon the pillory, with … dough hung from [his neck]; … until vespers at St Paul’s … be ended”, for “falsehood, malice and deceit, by him committed, to the nuisance of the common people”, for stealing dough from persons using his premises to bake their bread.  Capital punishment took one of a number of forms, for example, hanging, for murderers, and also for common thieves – of any article valued at over 1s – and other felons; boiling, for poisoners; burning, for religious dissenters of unfortunately unfashionable persuasions; peine forte e dure (pressing, under increasingly heavy weights), for those accused who refused to confess; beheading, for those of noble birth; and, most gruesomely, hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering, with or without the refinement of castrating, for traitors, that is, those found guilty of high treason.  Executions were  carried out not only in prison but also in public,  in various parts of the city, most famously on  Tower Hill and in West Smithfield, or  at Tyburn, at the western end of Oxford Street, near the modern Marble Arch.  Among those executed at West Smithfield were William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter, who was hanged, drawn and quartered here in 1305, for high treason; and one Margery Jordemaine, the “Witch of Eye”, who was burned at the stake here in 1441 for allegedly plotting to  kill the then King, Henry VI,  by means of  witchcraft.   Contrary to popular belief, comparatively few women were burned for withcraft in  Medieval England  (although many more were hanged).

Interestingly, imprisonment was originally only of those awaiting trial, sentencing, or sentence of execution,  and not intended as a punishment in its own right, although in actual practice it was such, on account partly of the inhumane conditions under which prisoners were kept, and partly of the brutal treatment meted out to them.   Most of London’s many prisons were deliberately located outside the walls – and jurisdiction – of the City, so as not to sully its gilded streets (the same also being true, incidentally, of other undesirable buildings, industries and activities, not to mention persons).    Some of the more famous – or infamous – ones were on the south side of the river in Southwark, including at one time or another the Borough Compter, Clink, King’s Bench, Horsemonger Lane, first and second Marshalsea, and White Lion.

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The surviving part of the wall of the second, nineteenth-century, Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens’s father was incarcerated for debt, may still be seen, adjacent to the church of St George the Martyr.  There were also the Bridewell and Fleet to the west, and the Tothill Bridewell in Westminster (one  of the surviving gates of the Tothill Bridewell  may still be seen, in Little Sanctuary, a short distance from its original location).   Perhaps the most infamous prison of all, Newgate, on the western edge of the City, was originally built in 1188, and subsequently rebuilt in 1236,  and  again,  at the behest of Dick Whittington,  in 1422, after having been destroyed  during the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  Newgate became a byword for everything bad about the prison system, with Dick Whittington writing in 1419 “by reason of the foetid …  atmosphere …  in the heinous gaol … many persons are now dead who would be alive” (many more would die here yet, of “Gaol Fever”, or  Typhus).  Throughout the Medieval period, condemned prisoners  were dragged on a pallet all the way from Newgate, past baying crowds, to Tyburn to be executed, some of them  being allowed to stop at a tavern on the way to drink themselves into a merciful early oblivion.

St Sepulchre

Another in an occasional series on London churches outside the City walls that survived the Great Fire of 1666…

St Sepulchre The executioner's bell croppedSt Sepulchre, on Newgate Street, was originally built in the early twelfth century, on the site of an earlier Saxon church dedicated to St Edmund, and originally known as St Edmund and the Holy Sepulchre, after the “Knights of the Holy Sepulchre”, who had a home here from 1103-73.  And  rebuilt by Sir John Popham, the Treasurer to Henry VI, in the fifteenth century, in around 1450.  It was damaged  in the Great Fire of 1666, and repaired, using the surviving structure and materials,  between 1667-74 (although much modified subsequently, particularly in the Victorian period).

The west tower and south porch still survive essentially intact from the fifteenth century (although modified).

On the stroke of midnight on the day of the execution of a prisoner from  nearby Newgate Prison, the church sexton would ring his handbell and recite lines urging the condemned man to repent his sins, ending with the words “And when St Sepulchre’s bell in the morning tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your soul”. The  same handbell is on exhibit in the church.