The Prisons of Edward II’s London – Part Three – Central and East
And now, for the final post on London prisons:
The Tower of London is probably one of the best known landmarks of the city – and it wasn’t any less iconic in the time of Edward II. Prison, royal palace, fortress, treasure house – the Tower has such a vast importance that it could easily take up a post on its own. Therefore, I shall just concentrate on its use as London’s premier Medieval prison – the place of confinement reserved for those of high status or high importance.
It is often assumed that anyone who was imprisoned in the Middle Ages was either thrown into a dungeon or kept in chains and filthy rags. Well, of course, for the majority that was the truth – or pretty close to it. However, the highborn could expect a far gentler confinement (but still nothing like the luxury they were used to!). Depending on the seriousness of their crime, they could either find themselves locked in a cell (and yes, sometimes in chains) or else confined to a room with a few small items of comfort and even a servant (especially in the case of women prisoners). But at least the conditions were a bit more sanitary and less crowded than London’s other prisons!
Although William Wallace was executed on Tower Hill after being confined at the Tower in 1305, the building’s bloody reputation didn’t really take off until later (especially during the Tudor period). Many of the men (and women and children – the families of prisoners or traitors were also often held here) were usually those that the King did not know what to do with – ones that maybe he didn’t want to execute but, on the other hand, didn’t want running around free either.
There were several notable prisoners during Edward’s time: Llywelyn Bren and his family were held here after his rebellion in Glamorgan. He’d been promised a pardon for his surrender so could not be executed and yet it would have been folly to have allowed him to return to Wales to potentially make more trouble in the future. Of course, Hugh Despenser the younger solved Edward’s problem for him by removing Bren to Cardiff without royal consent and executing him there.
Another prisoner of note was Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, confined after his surrender to Edward’s troops in 1322. He had been a dangerous opponent to Edward and Despenser and was one of the leaders of the Contrariants during the Despenser War. His treasonable behaviour should have earned him an execution – but Edward decided instead to keep him captive – a decision I’m sure, he was later to regret. In August 1323, with the collusion of Gerard d’Alspaye, the sub-lieutenant of the Tower, he drugged the lieutenant and the guards and effected a daring escape. The rest, as they say, is history.
The information regarding this prison comes from John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1598. Despite searching, I’ve not been able to find any contemporary records of his version of events. However, this does not mean that his account should be discarded as he may have had access to documents that I’ve not seen – or else have since been lost.
According to him, the Tun was built by the then mayor of London Henry le Galeys (or Waleys) to hold ‘night-walkers and other suspicious persons.’ It was allegedly called the Tun because it was a round building that looked a bit like a tun standing on end. However, it seems that it wasn’t just people doing naughty things after curfew who ended up in there, but also priests suspected of ‘incontinencie’. This practice was complained about to Edward I in 1297, who then wrote the citizens of London a letter to the following effect (according to Stow):
Edward by the grace of God, &c. Whereas Richard Grauesend Bishop of London, hath shewed vnto vs, that by the great Charter of England, the Church hath a priuiledge, that no Clarke should be imprisoned by a lay man without our commandement, and breach of peace, which notwithstanding some Citizens of London vpon meere spite doe enter in their watches into Clarkes chambers, and like fellons carrie them to the Tunne, which Henrie le Walleys sometime Maior built for night walkers, wherefore we will that this our commaundement be proclaymed in a full hoystings, and that no watch hereafter enter into any Clarkes Chamber, vnder the forfeyt of 20. pound. Dated at Carlile the 18. of March, the 25. of our raigne.
Two years later, a group of men broke into the Tun and freed some of the prisoners. For this they were also imprisoned and fined a whopping sum of 20,000 marks!
Later in the 15th century it was converted into a cistern called ‘The Conduit’.
The Poultry Compter
Compters (or Counters) were small prisons run by city sheriffs (in this case, the Sheriff of London). Most of the time they only took in small-time offenders – such as debtors, drunks and vagrants, although they could also be used to hold more serious felons if Newgate was full.
The Poultry Compter was established in the 14th Century (although I don’t know when, so it is possible that it could be a little later than Edward’s reign). It was situated in an area known as ‘Poultry’ (hence the name) in Cheapside – a place known for its… well, poultry.
I can’t find any other records regarding this place in Medieval times but later on it became notorious for its foul condition. One contemporary description given by Ned Ward in 1698 gives you a pretty good idea what a noisome place this was:
"the mixture of scents that arose from mundungus*, tobacco, foul feet, dirty shirts, stinking breaths, and uncleanly carcases, poisoned our nostrils far worse than a Southwark ditch, a tanner's yard, or a tallow-chandler's melting-room.”
By 1817 its continued descent into decay had got so bad that it was pulled down and replaced by Whitecross Street prison.
* No, not the character from the Harry Potter book but a type of stinking tobacco in use at the time.