The Heinous Gaol of Newgate

By reason of the foetid and corrupt atmosphere that is in the heinous gaol of Newgate many persons are now dead who would be alive.

(Proclamation of Richard Whittington, Mayor of London, 1419)

A merciless race of men and, by being conversant with scenes of misery, steeled against any tender sensation.

(William Blackstone’s description of the qualities of a gaoler, c. 1770)

Alexander, the severe keeper of Newgate, died miserably, swelling to a prodigious size, and became so inwardly putrid that none could come near him

(Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, c. 1554, noting the fate of a cruel gaoler of Newgate)


In the first years of the twentieth century, as the old gaol of Newgate was being demolished to make way for the Old Bailey, excavation of the site revealed unmistakable traces of Roman construction, suggesting strongly that the original gate was built by the Romans in the wall which they had built to protect the community of Londinium on the banks of the Thames.1 Six Roman gates are still remembered by names associated with surviving street names or areas of the City. To the east, Aldgate gave access to the roads that led towards Colchester and from 1374 the gatehouse itself accommodated Geoffrey Chaucer and his family when the poet was Controller of Customs for Richard II. To the north, Bishopsgate opened on to Ermine Street, while Aldersgate opened on to Watling Street, with Cripplegate not far away. To the east, Ludgate (allegedly founded by the mythical Kind Lud in 66 bc) and Newgate gave access to the west and to important towns such as Silchester, Cirencester and Bath. Excavations for the construction of Holborn Viaduct in the nineteenth century revealed that Newgate was itself aligned with Watling Street. There was probably also a gate, later known as the Postern gate, north of the present site of the Tower of London. To the south, the City was bordered by the River Thames and there was probably a gate which opened on to London Bridge, later referred to as Bridgegate. By Anglo-Saxon times other gates had been created at Dowgate, Billingsgate and Moorgate.

In 1087, the final year of the reign of William the Conqueror, the Saxon cathedral of St Paul in the City of London was destroyed in a fire. The first, built in 604, had lasted only 71 years before being burned down. It was rebuilt before being destroyed by Vikings in the tenth century and reopened in 962. This Saxon cathedral, therefore, survived for a little more than a century before suffering a fate common to many buildings at a time when wood was the principal component in construction work and precautions against fire were rudimentary. The Norman Bishop of London, Maurice, decided to build a magnificent stone cathedral on a much greater scale than its Saxon predecessors. It was completed in 1310 and would survive until it was itself destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was replaced by Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.

Maurice’s ambitious cathedral required a much greater expanse of land than did its modest Saxon predecessors. In particular, the site of the new cathedral lay across the thoroughfare which gave access to the Ludgate at the foot of what is now Ludgate Hill. In the twelfth century, as Maurice’s successors oversaw the construction of the new cathedral, the ever-expanding building site, occupying something like the area of Wren’s later cathedral, began to cause problems to those wishing to travel from the busy trading area of Cheapside, to the east of the cathedral, through the Ludgate on their way to the growing community of Westminster. This was by now becoming the royal residence and seat of government.

As Ludgate became less accessible, Newgate became more important for travellers entering and leaving the City to the west. John Stow, in his Survey of London, first published in 1598, explains that:

The next gate, on the west and by north, is termed Newgate, as latelier built than the rest, and is the fifth principal gate. This gate was first erected about the reign of Henry I … This gate hath long been a jail or prison for felons and trespassers.2

Stow was wrong about the date of construction, as we have seen, since Newgate had existed in one form or another since Roman times. The most likely explanation for Stow’s error is that, as a result of the construction of St Paul’s, Newgate replaced Ludgate as the principal access point to the west of the City.


The legal reforms instituted by Henry II (1154–89) gave the king a far more important role in the administration of justice than had applied in the chaotic reign of his predecessor, Stephen, whose nineteen-year rule had amounted to little more than a prolonged civil war over who should be king. Henry’s Assize of Clarendon (1166), reinforced in 1176 by the Assize of Northampton, required that gaols be constructed in every locality in which the king’s judges would administer the process known as ‘gaol delivery’. Those confined within the gaols would have their cases considered by the king’s justices at regular intervals, normally twice a year, according to a common set of principles (‘Common Law’), which would gradually come to apply throughout the kingdom. These courts came to be known as assizes and they continued until they were replaced by the Crown Courts in 1971. Hence Henry II may claim to be the father of the Common Law. Some communities resented the intrusion of royal judges, despatched from Westminster, into local justice and it was probably for this reason that Edward III agreed that one of the justices responsible for gaol delivery at Newgate would be the mayor of the City of London.3 The gaol in the gatehouse of Newgate may have been one of the first to be established to meet the needs of gaol delivery since the first reference to it serving this purpose occurs in 1188, the penultimate year of Henry’s reign. It was not London’s first gaol. Apart from the Tower of London itself, whose many roles included that of prison, there is a record of repairs being made to the Fleet prison, to the north of the present site of Ludgate Hill, as early as 1155. Newgate appears to have acquired early its bad reputation as a place of incarceration since an early letter book held at the Guildhall refers to the ‘heinous gaol of Newgate’.4 It was sufficiently unpopular to be attacked by Wat Tyler’s followers in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

John Stow (c. 1525–1605): John Stow was born in the vicinity of Cornhill, the son of a tallow chandler (a candle maker). John himself became a tailor and was admitted to membership of the Merchant Taylors’ company. In 1561 he took to literature, his first work being an edition of the works of Chaucer and it was at this time that he began to assemble his substantial collection of books, spending as much as £200 a year on this hobby. He contributed to Holinshed’s Chronicles, a somewhat fanciful account of British history which was first published in 1577 and on which Shakespeare drew for his history plays. Thereafter, Stow was exclusively concerned with historical works including Chronicles of England from Brute unto the Present Year of Christ (1580) and the work for which he is best remembered, his Survey of London (1598), which is based partly upon his own observations of Tudor London and partly upon his extensive collection of original sources. He died in 1605 and was buried in the church of St Andrew Undershaft.

Over the centuries that followed, Newgate was a frequent object of official and, particularly, royal attention. In 1218 the young Henry III (1216–1270) ordered the Sheriffs of the City of London ‘to repair the gaol of Newgate for the safe keeping of his prisoners’5 and in 1253 a much angrier Henry sent the City Sheriffs to the Tower of London for a month because they had allowed the escape from Newgate of a prisoner who had had the temerity to kill the Queen’s cousin.6 The prison, or threat of it, was also employed when His Majesty needed to raise some money by exploiting some sinister prejudices. In 1241 some Jews had been hanged in Norwich for allegedly circumcising a Christian child. Henry took the opportunity to inform their London brethren that they would have to pay him 20,000 marks ‘or else to be kept perpetual prisoners in Newgate’.7 The unfortunate Jews appear to have paid up. Newgate was also used as a warning to potential malefactors. In 1345 four servants were executed at Tyburn for murdering their master, a member of the King’s household. The murder of a master by a servant was classified as ‘petty treason’, as against high treason, which was committed against the King. Their heads were exhibited on poles at Newgate.8

An examination of Medieval records reveals the wide variety of offences for which incarceration in Newgate (usually for an unspecified and thus indefinite period) was the remedy. Thus in 1378 a parish clerk was sent to Newgate because he spoke ill of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a younger son of Edward III, who was thought by orthodox clergy to be unduly sympathetic to the heretical John Wycliffe and the Lollards. This clerk did not claim ‘benefit of clergy’, an arrangement by which clergymen were exempt from the harsher provisions of the criminal law. This clerical privilege had lain at the heart of the dispute between Henry II and Thomas à Becket. Nuns also qualified. Since clergymen were among the few citizens who were literate, the benefit was effectively extended to anyone who could read or write. The arrangement eventually deteriorated to the point where anyone who could read the first verse of Psalm 51, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness’, was deemed to qualify for benefit of clergy. Experienced but illiterate criminals therefore took the precaution of learning these few words (known as ‘the neck verse’) by heart. Many judges went along with this deceit in order to mitigate the savagery of the law since the ecclesiastical courts imposed far milder sentences than did the king’s.

The crimes for which people were sent to Newgate reflected, then as now, public anxieties. Thus towards the end of the reign of Edward I there was public concern about street robberies, which we would call muggings. Accordingly, the act of drawing a dagger was punished with fifteen days in Newgate while drawing blood was punished with forty days. One Roger le Skirmisour was sent to Newgate for keeping a fencing school, an activity that was forbidden by a statute of 1287 since it was thought to encourage sword fights. Riotous assemblies were rewarded with a year and a day in the gaol.9

Others were not so coy as John of Gaunt’s critic about taking advantage of this legal anomaly. In 1406 William Hegge, a burglar, was sentenced to death by hanging, but when he claimed benefit of clergy he was sent to Newgate to await the arrival of an ‘Ordinary’ (a representative of the bishop), who could impose a sentence in an ecclesiastical court. In 1487 those claiming benefit were branded on the thumb and thereafter forfeited benefit of clergy for future offences unless they could prove that they genuinely were clergy. The ecclesiastical courts kept much of their jurisdiction until 1576 and benefit of clergy was not finally abolished until 1827.10


Some penalties were savage and reflected both the barbarous practices of the time and also a desire to avoid the expense of providing prisons for long sentences. In the reign of William the Conqueror mutilation replaced the hangings that had been favoured by the Anglo-Saxons for many offences, so castration, amputation of hands or ears, slitting of noses, excision of eyes and branding with a hot iron became common punishments for many offences of dishonesty. 11 Vagabonds were branded with a V, thieves with a T and brawlers with the letter F to signify ‘fraymaker’. The letter S signified a serf without a master. The Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, reintroduced hanging for those who poached royal deer and his successor, his brother Henry I, adopted it for a wider variety of crimes. The first hanging at Tyburn was recorded in 1196, though other sites were also used for prisoners from Newgate, notably at St Giles’ Fields near the present site of Tottenham Court Road Underground station. From the thirteenth century capital punishment became more common, particularly for crimes against property or its owners. By Tudor times the death sentence could be imposed for theft of property worth 1s (five new pence) or more. Smithfield, close by Newgate, was a common execution place in Medieval times where crowds could assemble to watch the spectacle.

Those hanged or beheaded could count themselves fortunate. The gruesome penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering for treason was introduced by Edward I in his campaigns against the Welsh and Scots, being inflicted on William Wallace at Smithfield in 1305. In November 1330 Edward’s grandson, Edward III, seized power from his mother and her lover Roger Mortimer, who had deposed and murdered the King’s father, Edward II, three years earlier. The Queen Mother was sent into exile while Mortimer was found guilty of the murder and executed at Tyburn. He was spared the ritual disembowelling and suffered the less gruesome penalty of a public hanging. In 1531 the cook to the Bishop of Rochester, a man called Rouse, was boiled alive at Smithfield for attempting to poison his master and inadvertently poisoning several colleagues. Near Newgate there was one possible refuge from these grisly penalties. From 1439 the College of St Martin-le-Grand, founded in 1056 in the reign of Edward the Confessor by two of that king’s cousins, offered sanctuary to those fleeing justice administered both by the royal and ecclesiastical courts. Thieves and debtors were granted sanctuary, but Jews and traitors were turned away. One of those who sought refuge there and ‘rotted away piecemeal’, according to the account of Sir Thomas More, was Miles Forest, one of the alleged murderers of the Princes in the Tower. Enterprising criminals continued to take advantage of this opportunity to escape the noose, the axe, or worse, until the arrangement ended in 1697.

Lesser crimes, such as vagrancy, were punished with a public whipping, the stocks or the pillory. From 1405 every parish was required to maintain stocks and most had a pillory and whipping post as well.12 Whippings were regarded as a form of public entertainment, drawing large crowds. Elizabeth Fry successfully campaigned to end the public whipping of women in 1817.13 The Museum of London’s exhibits include such a whipping post. The object of the stocks and the pillory was to humiliate the culprit by exposing him to the ridicule, as well as the missiles, of the crowd, but the outcome was sometimes fatal. In 1384 two defendants failed to appear at their trials because they had been left in the stocks and forgotten. Their feet had rotted in the cold winter weather and they died.14 The pillory was more hazardous since this device constrained the victim’s hands and neck so that he had no means of defending himself from the assaults of the crowd and it was not unknown for an angry or drunken mob to launch such an onslaught that the victim died. As late as 1570 an unfortunate prisoner called Penedo, who had counterfeited the seal of the court of Queen’s Bench, was nailed to the pillory by his ears and was only able to escape at the expense of losing them.

In 1380 some malefactors were lodged in Newgate for three nights and brought out to be pilloried for three days for ‘pretending to be dumb’. They had exhibited what they claimed were their tongues, mounted in silver frames, which had supposedly been extracted by a hook, also on show. The whole enterprise had been designed to improve their earnings from begging. Sometimes the pillorying was attended by some ceremony as with John de Hakeford in 1364. He was sent to Newgate for perjury for one year and ‘within the year to be pilloried four times, once in every quarter of the City’. He would be preceded on the journey to his place of punishment by two trumpeters with a stone hung round his neck covered by a placard reading ‘false liar’.15 Jurors could themselves be pilloried if they did not carry out their task conscientiously. In 1468 jurors who had returned a false verdict in return for a bribe were obliged to ride from Newgate to the pillory at Cornhill with ‘miters’ (dunces’ caps) on their heads.16 The pillory survived into the nineteenth century. In 1790 two valets convicted of homosexuality were pelted by a huge mob with potatoes, stones and, more expensively, eggs (one of the culprits was called Bacon), and barely escaped with their lives.17 Twenty years later, 1810, two men were pilloried in Leadenhall in London and fifty women assailed them with stones, dung, dead cats (a favourite missile) and offal thoughtfully provided by butchers from the nearby market. They were taken away blinded and unconscious. The pillory was finally abolished in 1837.


One of the most gruesome practices was associated with Newgate’s ‘pressing room’. Felons (an archaic term used to describe those who had committed serious crimes, including theft) who were found guilty forfeited all their property, leaving families destitute. Such forfeiture was not abolished until 1870.18 The only way to avoid this penalty was to refuse to enter a plea. Prior to 1426, those who took this course were starved to death, one victim being Hugh de Beone who died in Newgate in the late fourteenth century19, but so many prisoners made this grim choice that the authorities decided to subject such recalcitrants to ‘peine forte et dure’. In the words of Sir Thomas Smith, written in 1583, ‘he is judged mute, that is dumb by contumacy, and to his condemnation is to be pressed to death, which is one of the cruellest deaths that may be’.20 The prisoner was made to lie prostrate and almost naked on the ground beneath a board on which metal or iron weights were placed. More weights were added each day, a process which continued until he was pressed to death. An eighteenth-century occupant of the prison, the robber John Hall, described these wretched prisoners ‘having no Food or Drink but Black Bread or the Channel Water which runs under the gaol, if his fainting pains should make him crave to eat or drink’. Few could endure the suffering, but some hardy souls died in this way in order to secure the welfare of their families. The penalty was last used at Cambridge Assizes as late as 1741, after which it was abolished. For obstinate female prisoners pressing could be replaced by the practice of tying cords tightly round the thumbs – a penalty inflicted on Mary Andrews in 1721 until her thumbs snapped.21

Not all offences attracted such savage punishments. In the reign of Edward III one Nicolas Mollere was sent to Newgate ‘until such time’ as the Sheriffs saw fit to release him for the offence of ‘circulating lies’ – in particular for spreading a rumour that Newgate was to be closed and its occupants all sent to the Tower of London. Others were sent to Newgate for cheating at dice, highway robbery, ‘nightwalking’ (being out and about after 9 p.m.) and, a more modern offence, for using fishing nets with too fine a mesh so that the smaller fish (referred to as ‘fry’) could not escape: hence the expression ‘small fry’. In the fourteenth century, traders who sold bread or cheese which was of poor quality or less than the appropriate weight were liable to be sent to Newgate with their defective merchandise, which was used to feed their fellow prisoners.


By the early fifteenth century the conditions in Newgate were causing concern to the mayor, Aldermen and Sheriffs who were responsible for administering the gaol. Thomas Knowles, a grocer, paid for a supply of fresh water to be piped to the gaol from St Bartholomew’s Hospital,22 though this did not stop one of the later keepers from charging the inmates for its use. In 1406 three worthy citizens expressed their concern that male and female prisoners were being housed together. A tower was built adjacent to the Medieval gaol to accommodate the women.23 In 1382 a prison had been opened in what remained of the old Ludgate to accommodate citizens (male and female) who had been imprisoned for debts, trespasses, contempt and what would now be called false accounting. These culprits had offended their fellow citizens rather than infringed the king’s peace – broadly speaking they had committed civil rather than criminal offences. These were the ‘respectable’ criminals, many of them tradesmen and freemen of the city who had fallen on hard times. They had once associated with the mayor, Sheriffs and members of the governing body, known as the Court of Common Council, which ran the Square Mile, as it still does. Unfortunately, some of them were too comfortable in their surroundings, as explained in an ordinance passed in June 1419 by the mayor, William Sevenoke. Referring to the complacent residents of Ludgate he declared:24

Many false persons of bad disposition and purpose have been more willing to take up their abode there, so as to waste and spend their goods upon the ease and licence that there is within, than to pay their debts.

Sevenoke duly closed the comfortable quarters at Ludgate and transferred its occupants to the harsher conditions at Newgate where, later the same year, more than sixty of them succumbed to ‘gaol fever’ (probably typhus). The new mayor, who had been elected to the office for the third time, was Richard Whittington, a man of more humane disposition, who was to play a significant role in the history of Newgate as well as that of pantomime.

Many of the facts that are known about Richard Whittington (he was never Sir Richard) fit the later legend. He was born in Pauntley, Gloucestershire, in about 1359. He was the son of a local landowner and Member of Parliament Sir William Whittington and he married Alice Fitzwaryn, the daughter of another Gloucestershire landowner. Richard’s father died at about the time of his celebrated son’s birth, thus possibly creating the ‘orphan’ legend, and Sir William’s estate (in which certain creditors appear to have had an interest) all passed to Richard’s elder brother, this combination of misfortunes perhaps explaining the impoverishment of the legend. In fact, Richard went to London in the 1370s, as many younger sons of gentry did, and quickly became wealthy and well connected. He became a member of the Mercers’ Company (literally dealers in small quantities, or retailers) and himself traded in cloth, which at the time was England’s principal export. By 1385 he was a wealthy member of the Court of Common Council and in 1397 he was appointed mayor by King Richard II upon the death in office of the previous mayor.25

The officers of the City of London: the oldest office in the City of London (the ‘Square Mile’) is that of Sheriff, which dates from Saxon times. Two Sheriffs were appointed by the king to administer the City and collect taxes. Aldermen also date from this period though their role in the governance of the City in the Court of Aldermen dates from the thirteenth century. The Sheriffs were the executive officers of the court whose responsibilities included running Newgate and other gaols. The first mayor, Henry Fitzalwyn, was appointed in 1189. Since 1395 the City has been administered by the Court of Common Council on which now sit twenty-five Aldermen, one elected for each City ward, and a much larger number of elected Council members. The two Sheriffs, whose office is now largely ceremonial, are elected on Midsummer Day each year in the Guildhall by the City livery companies. Their responsibilities include attendance at the Old Bailey sessions, as in the time of Newgate. Election to the post of Sheriff is normally followed by eventual election to the post of Lord Mayor who remains Chief Magistrate of the City of London.

A number of contemporary legends quickly grew up about his fabulous wealth, notably the claim that, at a banquet which he gave in honour of Henry V, Whittington consigned to the fire £60,000 worth of the King’s bonds, representing money borrowed to pursue his expensive foreign adventures in France. The mayor thus, according to this account, wrote off this early portion of the national debt. What is certain is that Richard Whittington was held in such high esteem by his monarch, for whatever reason, that in 1415 he was nominated as one of only four grandees whose permission had to be sought before any buildings in London could be demolished and he was also put in charge of the construction works for the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. He is also credited with commissioning the Liber Albus (White Book), which was compiled by John Carpenter at about this time and remains one of the principal sources of information about the customs of the Medieval City of London.

Shortly after he was elected mayor for the third time (thus making four mayoralties, because the first time he had been appointed by the King), Richard reversed the decision of his predecessor to close the Ludgate prison. In November 1419 he issued a new ordinance which proclaimed that:

‘By reason of the foetid and corrupt atmosphere that is in the heinous gaol of Newgate many persons are now dead who would be alive.’ He therefore decided to reopen Ludgate ‘to keep therein all citizens and other reputable persons whom the Mayor, Aldermen, Sheriffs or Chamberlain of the City shall think proper to commit and send to the same’.

The lesson was not learned since a few years later, in 1431, after Whittington’s death in 1423, Ludgate prisoners were again sent to Newgate for a time. Whittington, however, did not forget the unfortunate prisoners at his death. Most of his estate, valued at the huge sum for the time of £5,00026, was left to the Mercers’ Company and was the foundation of the enormous wealth of this, the first in precedence of all London’s livery companies. However, a substantial sum of Whittington’s money was used by his executors to ‘re-edify [rebuild] the gaol of Newgate which they did with his goods’.27 We have no record of this later Medieval gaol, but when Newgate was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 one of its features was a figure with a cat, supposedly placed there in honour of Richard Whittington, the earlier benefactor.


The Newgate prisoners did not have to wait for the sentence of the court to begin their punishment. For some of them the pillory would have been a blessed relief compared with the torments inflicted upon them by their gaolers. The head gaoler (known as the ‘keeper’) was chosen by the Sheriffs and formally appointed by the City’s Court of Aldermen. However, at a time when taxes were low and sources of revenue for the Corporation very few, it was common practice for a candidate to purchase the office and then set about recouping his outlay by exploiting the prisoners in his care. In some cases this amounted simply to charging prisoners for privileges, such as being freed from iron shackles. To avoid the worst abuses of this practice, the Court of Aldermen in 1393 set the fee for removing irons at a maximum of £5 – a substantial sum for the time.28 Another source of profit arose from the supply of food to prisoners who were otherwise dependent upon charitable gifts, which were themselves likely to be pilfered by the keepers and their turnkeys. In an attempt to prevent the worst profiteering an edict of 1370 forbade brewing, baking and victualling within the prison, but the experiment cannot have been successful since it was amended in 1393 with the proviso that exorbitant prices should not be charged for these services.29 The Sheriffs themselves, who were technically responsible for the prisoners, sometimes took advantage of their positions by offering accommodation in what came to be known as ‘sponging houses’ to more acceptable prisoners, notably debtors, in return for sometimes exorbitant payments.30

Some keepers resorted to desperate measures to profit from their investment. In about 1330 Edmund Lorimer, Keeper of Newgate, was himself sent to the Fleet prison for torturing and blackmailing prisoners.31 One of his predecessors had actually been hanged in 1290 for murdering one of his charges.32 His successors did not learn from this example, because in 1449 the keeper was imprisoned for raping some of the female prisoners confined in their tower, following which the Court of Aldermen appointed a board of visitors to carry out inspections of the gaol. William Blackstone described such gaolers as ‘a merciless race of men and, by being conversant with scenes of misery, steeled against any tender sensation’. Nor were they noted for their deference to authority. In 1447 the keeper, James Manning, left the corpse of one of his prisoners in the road outside the gaol ‘causing a nuisance and great danger to the King who was passing there’. When he refused to remove it and after ‘shameful words’ had been exchanged with the King’s messenger, Manning and his wife were themselves gaoled.33

John Stow, the chronicler of Tudor London, was himself involved with the case of the keeper of another gaol in Bread Street. This wretched man, Richard Husband, was brought before a jury of which Stow was a member and found guilty of maltreating prisoners whereupon he was himself set in irons in Newgate. This prompted Stow to note that ‘gaolers buying their offices will deal hardly with pitiful prisoners’.34


The advent of the Tudor dynasty in 1485 led to some changes at Newgate, notably the construction of the first Old Bailey court-house which would eventually replace the gaol. This arose from a petition by the City Aldermen for a suitable building from which the task of gaol delivery could be carried out. The result was the construction, in 1539, of a ‘sessions house’. Sessions houses, where magistrates and judges presided over Quarter Sessions, were once a feature of many substantial towns. The former Middlesex Sessions House, dating from the eighteenth century, is an attractive feature of Clerkenwell Green in London, where it remains in use as a Masonic building. The Newgate Sessions House was built ‘over against Fleet lane in the Old Bailey’ on part of the present site of the Old Bailey itself. The name is a reference to a fortification in the Roman Wall derived from the Latin word ballium meaning a wall for defence. This building, conveniently situated for the adjacent gaol, remained in use until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

William Blackstone (1723–80): born in 1723, four months after the death of his father, Blackstone was sent to Oxford by his uncle and in 1741 entered the Middle Temple, being called to the bar in 1746. He was a notably unsuccessful barrister when, in 1758, he began to give a series of lectures at Oxford, which later became Blackstone’s ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England’. It was published in America as well as England and soon translated into French, German and Russian, earning Blackstone the huge sum of £14,000. In 1761 he was elected to Parliament and, on the strength of his Commentaries, became a King’s Counsel and later a judge. His great work set out the principles of the Common Law and, among other things, argued for religious toleration and against slavery at a time when these were not popular causes. It influenced the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, led the new nation to adopt a justice system based on the English Common Law and prompted the American jurist and Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, to comment that no other book but the Bible had so influenced the United States of America. In 1834 Abraham Lincoln, when asked how to set about becoming a lawyer, replied, ‘Begin with Blacksone’s Commentaries.’ Blackstone died in 1780 of dropsy, an abnormal swelling of the body caused by the accumulation of water. His early influence in America and the continued appearance of his name on legal texts published in the twenty-first century suggests that hisCommentaries is possibly the most influential law book ever written in the English, or perhaps any language.

The changing religious convictions of Tudor monarchs ensured that a growing number of their subjects would pass through the new sessions house and be consigned to Newgate before their gruesome deaths at nearby Smithfield. Some of the most vivid, if not the most reliable, accounts of this time are to be found in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which describes not only the sufferings of the Protestant martyrs of Mary’s reign but also the fates which befell some of their tormentors.


The first monarch to persecute Protestants was Henry VIII who, even after his break with Rome, adhered to many Catholic doctrines, such as belief in the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the mass, and was averse to the practice of reading the scriptures in English. Like all good authoritarians, Protestant or Catholic, Henry believed that if the common people could understand the scriptures in their own language they might start to ask questions about them. Andrew Alexander was appointed Keeper of Newgate in Henry’s reign and was in the worst traditions of his oppressive Medieval predecessors. Alexander was a man with two passions: music and the maltreatment of prisoners, especially if they were heretics. One prisoner was favoured with the prison’s best quarters in return for entertaining Alexander and his wife by playing the lute, but this fortunate gentleman was nevertheless overcome by a ‘burning ague’ brought on by the prison’s evil smells. At this time, also, there was a report of eleven monks being chained in a standing position in the gaol and left to starve to death.35 Prisoners who were unable to pay Alexander to have their fetters removed were consigned to Newgate’s deepest dungeon to await death. Foxe, in Book of Martyrs, described Alexander’s excesses, but added with some satisfaction that ‘Alexander, the severe keeper of Newgate, died miserably, swelling to a prodigious size, and became so inwardly putrid that none could come near him. This cruel minister of the law would go to [bishops] Bonner, Story and others, requesting them to rid his prison, he was so much pestered with hereticks.’36

John Fox (or Foxe) (c. 1517–1587): born in Boston, Lincolnshire, John Fox studied at Oxford and became a Fellow of Magdalen College, but the college expelled him when his heretical (anti-Catholic) opinions became known before such views were acceptable. He became tutor to the children of Sir Thomas Lucy at Charlecote, near Stratford-upon-Avon, a gentleman who was quite possibly lampooned in the character of Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor after a dispute with the young William Shakespeare. Fox later became tutor to the children of the future Duke of Norfolk. During the reign of Mary, Fox fled to the Continent, settling in Basle, Switzerland, with a group of his Protestant countrymen. He returned to England and to the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk upon the accession to the throne of the Protestant Elizabeth. His Book of Martyrs, which he began to compile during his Swiss exile and first published in 1554, is best remembered for its lurid tales of the Inquisition and the English martyrs of Mary’s reign, though it begins with the early Christians and subsequent writers have added to it so that later editions of the work include accounts of John Bunyan, the oppression of the Quakers and the work of John Wesley. Fox died in 1587 and was buried in St Giles’, Cripplegate, where he had once been vicar.

The favoured way of ridding Alexander of his troublesome hereticks was to burn them at nearby Smithfield, though sometimes they were sent back to the place where their offence had been committed. Sometimes, mercifully, the victim would be suffocated by smoke before the flames reached him, but Richard Bayfield, who had been identified as a trader in banned books, was denied this comparatively humane fate. Bayfield had repented of his heresy, but then resumed it, ‘like a dog returning to his vomit’, in Sir Thomas More’s unflattering phrase.37 Bayfield was burned at Smithfield in December 1531 and ‘there, for lack of a speedy fire, was two quarters of an hour alive’.38 There arose the legend of a black dog, which supposedly walked the surrounding streets before an execution, though in later centuries the expression ‘making the black dog walk’ signified the brutal treatment inflicted by existing inmates on new prisoners. Eighty years later a highwayman called Luke Hutton turned to writing while awaiting execution and attributed this mythical beast ‘ringed about the nose with a golden hoop’ to ‘a black conscience, haunting none but black conditioned people, such as Newgate may challenge to be guests’ and composed some sinister and unmemorable verses in its memory.39

An early victim of Queen Mary’s concern with heresy was John Rogers, Vicar of St Sepulchre’s, which still stands opposite the site of Newgate and whose bell was, in later centuries, rung to signal forthcoming executions. Rogers had befriended William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, translators of the Bible into English and, while chaplain to the Merchant Adventurers in Antwerp, had translated part of it himself. He held unorthodox views on the nature of the Eucharist. The Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner (c. 1500–69), known at the time as ‘Bloody Bonner’ had him committed to Newgate, ‘there to be lodged among thieves and murderers’ in Foxe’s words, before being burned at Smithfield in February 1555. John Rogers’s wife and eleven children met him on the way to his death and when the driver of the cart which was bearing him from Newgate to Smithfield stopped to enable Rogers to take leave of his family, a City Sheriff, named Woodroffe, struck the driver on the head. Foxe records that shortly afterwards Woodroffe was ‘struck with a paralytic affection, and languished a few days in the most pitiable and helpless condition’ before expiring. Royal connections were no guarantee of safety from suspicion of heresy. In July 1546, during the penultimate year of Henry VIII’s reign, a huge crowd gathered at Smithfield to see Anne Askew led to the stake. The fact that she had worked in the household of Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, did not save her when the authorities discovered that she denied the Real Presence at mass.

One of her questioners was ‘Bloody Bonner’, to whom Foxe referred as ‘this Catholic hyena’. Bonner had denounced papal supremacy in the reign of Henry VIII, but upheld it under Mary when he was among the most zealous in the persecution of Protestants. During the intervening reign of Edward VI (1547–53) he had been confined to the Marshalsea prison to which he was again sent by Elizabeth for the last ten years of his life. Bonner had been instrumental in securing the committal to Newgate of a fellow bishop, Hooper of Gloucester, before sending him back to be burned in his diocese, but he also found time to deal with less exalted prisoners. John Rough, a clergyman from the north of England, was brought before Bonner and Watson, Bishop of Lincoln, whom Rough had sheltered during the Protestant persecutions of Edward VI’s reign. When the grim pair condemned him, Rough cried to Watson, “Is this, Sir, the reward I have for saving your life?” before being taken to the stake at Smithfield. A teenage youth named William Hunter was sent by Bonner from Newgate to Brentwood in Essex to face the stake.

One of Foxe’s particular bêtes noires was ‘that arch-persecutor’ Stephen Gardiner (1497–1555), Bishop of Winchester, who had at one time been a threat to Foxe himself while he was tutor to the children of the Duke of Norfolk and who vied with Bonner in his zeal to burn Protestants. Foxe reported that, on the day that Latimer and Ridley were burned in Oxford, Gardiner declined to begin his dinner until he heard that the fires were lit, following which Gardiner was seized with mortal illness. Gardiner survived the two martyrs by barely a month. Other persecutors and perjurers, according to Foxe’s account, suffered such fates as ‘a fit of the palsy’, and a broken neck, while in another case ‘his bowels suddenly gushed out’.

In the reign of Elizabeth, Catholic martyrs were executed at Tyburn. On 1 December, 1581, the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn, there to be hung, drawn and quartered. As he passed the arch of Newgate, he raised his racked body to salute the image of the Virgin. The charges against Campion were trumped up and his heroic death led others to adopt the Catholic faith. He was canonised in 1970. Five years later there was not much doubt about the guilt of those involved in the plot of 1586, led by the Catholic Anthony Babington. The crowd, and the Queen, were so appalled by their suffering at their execution on 20 September, 1586, that the remaining conspirators were executed by the comparatively civilised method of hanging the following day.

Sir Anthony Babington (1561–1586): born into a Catholic family in Derbyshire, Anthony Babington became a page to Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1577 and seems to have become infatuated with the exiled Queen and her cause. From about 1580 he was a fashionable courtier who was accepted at Elizabeth I’s court despite his Catholic sympathies, though he aroused the suspicion of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster. In the 1580s Babington travelled frequently on the Continent where he seems to have made contact with Spanish and other Catholic elements who were planning to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, who had a claim to the throne. He carried letters to Mary on behalf of others and exchanged letters with her. This was his downfall, since Walsingham was aware of the plot from a very early stage and intercepted and deciphered the correspondence which damned Babington, his fellow plotters and Mary herself. In September 1586 he and his fellow plotters were arrested and Babington pleaded for his life, begging Elizabeth to spare him and placing the blame for the conspiracy on others. On 20 September he was hung, drawn and quartered and the following February Mary was herself beheaded after Elizabeth had, with great reluctance, signed the warrant for her execution.

It was not only those who offended against the current sovereign’s religious views that were sent to Newgate. In the reign of Henry VIII, 278 apprentices were arrested for inciting riots against immigrant workers who were supposedly undercutting their wages. Such was their number that Thomas Wolsey sent some to the Tower and others to Newgate before parading them through the streets accompanied by a mobile gallows, as a reminder of their possible fate. Most were reprieved and the gallows packed away, and the disorder appears to have ceased.40 At about the same time, in 1526, some bakers were sent to Newgate because they had boycotted the Bridge House, the official supplier of wheat, in favour of cheaper and better supplies from elsewhere. The authorities were anxious to support the Bridge House since profits from this source were used to maintain the nearby London Bridge. At the end of the century, Thomas Green, a goldsmith, was drawn from Newgate to Tyburn on a hurdle and there hanged, drawn and quartered for the ‘petty treason’ of ‘coining’ – clipping coins in order to create more, thereby undermining the currency and the economy.


In the reign of James I, disorder within the decaying gaol led the Lord Mayor to issue a proclamation ‘for Reforming Abuses within the Gaol of Newgate’, a state of affairs that was attributed to the practice of the keepers ‘permitting them [the prisoners] strong wine, tobacco, excessive strong drink and resort to women of lewd behaviour’. At a time when disagreements about religion underpinned many controversies more commonly associated with politics, the authorities were concerned to learn that, in 1611, the keeper was allowing Catholic mass to be celebrated in Newgate and there was even a suggestion that a Catholic priest had conducted a marriage ceremony in Newgate in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign.41 This was, at the time, scandalous, but others were sent to Newgate for crimes that were more innocuous but resonate with the concerns of later centuries as well as Stuart politics.

Thus, in the reign of Charles I, some coachmen were briefly imprisoned for taking the wrong route to Richard Burbage’s theatre at Blackfriars. This sounds like an early attempt at traffic management, but may have more to do with the controversial character of the theatre itself. It had been founded in the reign of Elizabeth by Richard Farrant (1535–80), a court musician and Master of the Choristers at Windsor. Theatres were unwelcome within the precincts of the City and were normally banished, with other undesirable activities such as bear-baiting and brothel-keeping, to the south bank of the river at Southwark. This was the site of the Globe and the Rose theatres, but Farrant successfully campaigned to convert the old Blackfriars monastery into a theatre featuring children ‘for the better training them to do her Majesty service’ at the chapel royal. The boy actors were popular with the public and royal patronage protected it from the disapproving City authorities, but they seized the opportunity to close it in 1608 when the French ambassador complained about an offensive production. By this time Farrant was long dead, but it was reopened by the actor Richard Burbage in company with a number of partners, including William Shakespeare who had lived nearby. Skirmishes between the authorities and the company over controversial productions continued and the erring coachmen may have been among the casualties of these encounters. The theatre was closed in 1642, demolished in 1655. Its former site is marked by Playhouse Yard.

At about the same time one William Cooke, a stationer, was arraigned for what sounds like an infringement of twentieth-century planning regulations. Cooke had erected a wooden shed in which to store his stationery near Furnival’s Inn, an Inn of Court associated with Lincoln’s Inn and situated on the present site of Holborn Bars (formerly the Prudential Building) in Holborn. Cooke was sent to Newgate pending the demolition of the offending structure, but his incarceration appears to have been a failure since, in the complaining words of Inigo Jones, ‘He lies in prison and the shed continues’.42

In 1628 a Committee of Aldermen was created ‘to view the ruins of Newgate’ and, as a result, the City fathers began to execute some repairs. These were piecemeal and could only be carried out by releasing some prisoners from the notoriously overcrowded gaol. Its residents often numbered twice its approximate capacity of 150, particularly before the sessions at the Old Bailey which would despatch many of them to Tyburn. Many were freed by royal pardon provided that they joined the army or navy. William Dominic, a young boy sentenced to death for stealing a purse containing four pounds, was released, ‘this being his first offence and he an excellent drummer, fit to do the King service,’ in the words of the time.43 The need for recruits grew as a result of the foreign adventures of Charles I and his favourite Buckingham, whose misguided attempts to use the Royal Navy to relieve the beleaguered Protestants of La Rochelle from Cardinal Richelieu’s siege failed despite the infusion of ex-convicts into the ranks of the sailors.


Others had to depend upon the politics of the gaoler to secure their release. Just as, in the Tudor era, the occupants of Newgate had reflected the religious whims of sovereigns so in the reign of Charles I they were victims of Charles’s disputes with Parliament over taxation. Thus, in the 1630s the Keeper of Newgate was reprimanded for releasing one Richard Chambers who had been gaoled for refusing to pay ship money. This was a tax that had traditionally been levied on coastal communities under the royal prerogative (that is without the need for Parliamentary consent) to equip a navy. Charles levied the tax on all counties as a form of general taxation in order to avoid the need to bargain with Parliament. It became a major source of controversy in the process that eventually led to the Civil War and Richard Chambers, along with more celebrated opponents such as John Hampden, was one of the casualties. His release from Newgate presumably reflected the Parliamentary sympathies of the keeper.

A less obvious victim of Charles’s financial difficulties was Edward Powell, who was sent to Newgate because he had been agitating in Ely against plans ‘for the losing of the fens’. This referred to a proposal by the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the Great Fen of East Anglia in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Much of the land in these counties lay below sea level and was flooded for most of the year. The Isle of Ely was, literally, an island surrounded by lakes, rivers and marshes. In 1629 Vermuyden, who had already undertaken drainage work on similar land in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, informed Charles that, with the King’s support, he could create almost 300,000 acres of rich agricultural land from the flooded areas, which would yield substantial revenue to the Crown after the existing landowners, such as the Earl of Bedford, had themselves been paid off. This would have gone a long way towards solving Charles’s financial problems. The scheme was opposed by Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell who was Member of Parliament for the area and a resident of Ely and who did not want to support any plan that would make the King less dependent on Parliament. The King could not imprison Oliver Cromwell at this delicate stage in his quarrel with Parliament, so Edward Powell was sent to Newgate as a more vulnerable opponent of his plan. The argument continued and on 25 January 1641, the year before the dispute with the King became a war, the Long Parliament decided, ‘Sir Cornelius Vermuyden shall be forthwith summoned to attend this House, to give an Account by what Authority he goeth on with his Works in the Fens’.44 Paradoxically, once he had defeated the King, Cromwell supported the drainage plans and even supplied Vermuyden with some labourers in the form of Scottish prisoners captured at the battle of Dunbar in 1650. Edward Powell’s brief confinement in Newgate thus represented a small incident in the sequence of events that led to war.

Further problems followed in 1642 when the reprieve of six Jesuit priests caused other prisoners to riot in the increasingly decrepit gaol. This was another indicator of the politics of the time since Charles’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, was a French Catholic who was known to be sympathetic to the Jesuit cause. In the same year some sailors were apprehended travelling from France to Ireland by boat and were sent to Newgate by order of Parliament upon suspicion of intending to join a rebellion against its authority. One of the more frequent occupants of Newgate at this time was ‘Freeborn John’ Lilburne, who managed to spend time in Newgate by offending both Parliamentarians and Royalists. In 1637, together with William Prynne (who had his ears cut off), Lilburne was charged with distributing Puritan pamphlets which opposed the policies of archbishop William Laud. He was sentenced to be pilloried, but his punishment turned into a demonstration against the policies of Laud and the King so he was sent to Newgate. When the Long Parliament was summoned in 1640, Cromwell denounced Lilburne’s oppressors and he was released from the prison by order of Parliament. During the Civil War which followed, Lilburne was an effective officer in the Parliamentary army and fought at Edgehill and Marston Moor, in which latter engagement he fought with Cromwell. In 1645, as the Parliamentary cause gained the advantage after the battle of Naseby, he fell out with Parliament and refused to give an account of his actions before the House of Lords, explaining, ‘I cannot, without turning traitor to my liberty, dance attendance to their lordships’ bar’. For this offence he was now sent by Parliament to Newgate, which was also, at that time, filling up with captured Royalist officers. Lilburne was eventually banished and upon his return in 1653 he was sent to Newgate yet again, this time by Cromwell, despite his acquittal at a trial in the London Guildhall amid popular rejoicing. Never has anyone been sent to Newgate so many times for so many different reasons by so many different people, his fate reflecting the politics of the time, as did that of the Fifth Monarchy men.

This strange sect was a quasi-political movement which flourished during the period of the Protectorate, 1649–61, and whose beliefs were based on a passage in the Old Testament Book of Daniel which predicted five kingdoms, the last of which, the Fifth Monarchy, would make way for a new kingdom on earth. However one of their concerns was the more earthly desire that Cromwell’s New Model Army should receive its arrears of pay. The movement’s early support for Cromwell collapsed after he put down mutinies in the army and suppressed the Leveller movement. After Cromwell’s death a group of Fifth Monarchy men, led by a cooper named Thomas Venner, tried to seize power in January 1661 to prevent the restoration of Charles II. Following the suppression of the rebellion, many of the Fifth Monarchists spent time in Newgate before their execution at Tyburn and one of them, John James, was asked for twenty pounds by the hangman. Upon James (who was probably innocent) protesting that he did not have this sum, the hangman suggested a minimum payment of five pounds unless he wanted him to ‘torture him exceedingly’.45

Amid all this confusion and in circumstances in which tax revenues were being devoted to more pressing and warlike activities, repairs to the decaying gaol proceeded slowly, a contemporary chronicler recording only that Newgate was ‘now well-faced and headed’ as the Civil War approached.46 Work was further interrupted by the exigencies of the war itself, the Protectorate and the restoration of Charles II. A few years after Charles resumed his throne force majeure ensured that the rebuilding of Newgate could no longer be postponed.

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