CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London punishment prisons officers imprisonment prison conditions fees sheriff maladministration extortion
Subject: Prison conditions
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, ff. 257-258
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 522-24.
Original language: French
Location: London
Date: 1393


From now on the Counters are not to be put to farm by any sheriff, or anyone else on their behalf, to porters of the Counters or to any other officer of the sheriff. The sheriffs must bear the cost of the rent, candles, and other costs such as the porters of the Counters have born in times past, due to their having the farm.

Prisoners who stay in the Counters for one night need not pay any fees to the porters or sheriffs pertaining to their stay in the Counter, except for a penny the first night for a bed. If it is their preference to be held in the Counter rather than be sent to Newgate or Ludgate – whether for debt, trespass, or any other cause (with the exception of felony or treason) – then the sheriffs are allowed to leave such prisoners in the Counter, for their comfort, [in return] for a payment to the sheriffs of 4d., 6d., 8d., or 12d. per person, per week (and no more), to be used to cover the rent of the building. This [amount] is to be assessed by the clerks of the Counter, taking into consideration [the reason for] their arrest and also their status.

If a prisoner makes such an arrangement with the sheriff or his clerks to be held in the Counter, as is mentioned above, the prisoner may be permitted to have his own bed [brought] there, if he owns one. If he does not, then it is permissible for the porter to provide him with a bed, taking a penny a night for it, as is done in all lodging houses.

Neither the porter nor any other officer of the Counter may sell prisoners bread, ale, coal, firewood, nor any other foodstuffs whatever, except by [honest] measure and at a reasonable price, upon penalty of imprisonment and imposition of a fine at the discretion of the mayor and aldermen.

Newgate and Ludgate

Because there has been much complaint in the past about many wrongs and extortions committed by the gaolers at Newgate and Ludgate, and their officers and servants, causing serious impoverishment to the king's poor subjects, it is ordained and agreed to by the mayor, aldermen and community of the city that henceforth no prisoner committed to Newgate or Ludgate (for whatever cause) should pay any money for lighting within those gaols, nor for any bed therein. But all prisoners committed to the same shall pay to their gaolers, upon release, 4d. (and no more) as the fee, in all cases except for treason or felony. Providing always that no prisoner, sent to the gaolers by order of the mayor, aldermen or sheriffs, to be punished and disciplined, has to pay anything to those gaolers, nor to their officers or servants, for lighting, bed, or fee. If any of those gaolers, officers or servants, takes [money] from any prisoner contrary to this ordinance, and is convicted of so doing, he is to be deprived of his office without [hope of] restitution; and furthermore is to pay ten times the amount that he extorted: half to the Chamber for the use of the community, and the other half to him by whose complaint he has been convicted.

But it is permissible for the gaolers to take reasonable surety from prisoners in their custody, in the sum of 100 shillings or more, for removing their irons – as has been the practice in other of the king's gaols previously.


London was endowed with more prisons than any other English city, in part because its large size and population meant a larger number of offenders, but also because it was the seat of royal justice. There were different types of prison in the city, with different levels of discomfort and security, and some specialization in the types of criminals they hosted. The above reforms were part of larger set, promulgated in 1393 and later copied into the Liber Albus; they also addressed other aspects of the judicial system, such as procedures in certain cases, fees payable to court officials, and the duties of barristers (or pleaders as they were then known).

The Fleet prison was originally intended for offenders from London and Middlesex, but was later also used for outsiders sentenced by royal courts. It was designed as a prison, and surrounded by a moat. It became home to a large number of debtors, since the Exchequer and the Court of Common Pleas (both entertaining cases of debt) made use of it. Ludgate, founded in 1380 or shortly before, was on the other hand for freemen of London; it too came to be designated as a prison for lesser offenders, notably debtors or the better class of citizens and, after a brief abolition, was re-established as such during the mayoralty of Richard Whittington in 1419. The two Counters were minor gaols at changing locations (in the fifteenth century in Cheapside and the Poultry), under supervision of the sheriffs and therefore used for any type of offender who came into the sheriffs' court – although this was primarily debtors or other minor offenders (e.g. vagrants or drunks arrested by the night-watch) who could expect to be fined and released back into society. The Counters were not purpose-built structures; in earlier days the sheriffs had to use their own houses to hold such offenders, while in 1412 one of the Counters was in a house that had formerly been a tavern. The Tun on Cornhill was a temporary lock-up for those breaking curfew or offending againsts morals – typically, in both cases, whores, pimps, and johns; nearby was the city pillory.

Newgate, the oldest and largest of the city prisons, was also under shrieval jurisdiction, as were all the prisons run by the city. It was an adaptation of a city gate and adjoining buildings. As an already strongly-built structure, it received the more serious offenders, including informers and those they accused, the dregs of society; it was a correspondingly harsh environment. Some parts of Newgate were evidently quite unpleasant, but there was doubtless no inclination to make comfortable those destined for hanging – indeed many did not survive the prison conditions long enough to meet that fate. Being "thrown into prison" was perhaps literal in the case of the worst offenders, for we hear of one who died of a broken neck. The foundation of Ludgate was probably intended to prevent citizens being subject to Newgate conditions.

The executors of Richard Whittington obtained permission in 1423 to put part of the fortune he left to the rebuilding of Newgate, with the intent of creating more humane conditions for at least some of the unfortunate housed there. During his lifetime, Whittington seems to have funded the creation of separate quarters there for women. In 1424 the prisoners held there were transferred to the Counters while the work was undertaken.

After completion of the new gate and prison, the civic authorities enacted reforms (1431) that throw light on prison conditions. London freemen and others of similar socio-economic status were to be housed in rooms in the north side of the prison, which were furnished with fireplaces and privies, close to a fountain presumably installed to supply the prisoners with water. Women of similar status were to be housed in rooms of comparable condition in the south side. Prisoners from among these two groups were not to be in irons if gaoled only for small debts. And – it being recognized that imprisonment in damp basements or cells with little or no light could prove unhealthy – they were to be allowed a daily visit (without fee) to the prison chapel, and exhorted to pray there for the souls of their benefactors, Whittington and his wife. Prisoners of lower status and non-Londoners were consigned to rooms of lesser quality, while serious offenders were committed to cells in the basement and more secure spaces on the south side, and were not to be allowed to mix with the other prisoners.

Particular concern was shown for the alms that were the prisoners' livelihood. Those who, presumably having no independent means, wished to be transferred from the Counters to Newgate, in order to benefit from alms, were to be moved within 24 hours. Since it seems that much of the alms collected never reached the prisoners themselves, being purloined by the collectors or by prison officers, it was ordered that two pairs of prisoners should be allowed to beg for alms, at different locations, with each pair provided with a box and a saucer identifying them as prisoners. The collection boxes were to be secured so that only the city sheriff or chamberlain could open them, on a monthly or quarterly basis, and supervise the application of the money to purchase of provisions (food, heating supplies, candles). Prisoners were to be allowed to buy these from whatever source they chose, instead of being forced to buy from prison officials; only the supply of beer remained in the latter's hands.

The upper-scale prisoners were to be allowed to bring in their own beds, without charge. Otherwise the keeper could supply a bed with blankets, but at no more than 1d. per night, as was the fee at hostelries. Lamps and benches were also to be available at specified fees. Ludgate underwent improvements later in the fifteenth century.

The offices of gaoler were often farmed out by the city, so it was natural for such officials to look upon their posts as opportunities for private profit, by charging all sorts of fees for services. Several gaolers were dismissed for corrupt practices or were the target of complaints; an instance of this in 1388, with regard to Ludgate's keeper, may have been what led to the set of reforms above. Reforms did not attempt to abolish the charging of fees, which was a well-established feature of medieval administration, only to prevent it from being extortionate. Those who could afford to pay the fees could expect a more comfortable stay in gaol. While in the thirteenth century we hear horror stories of prison conditions, and the coroners rolls often refer to deaths of prisoners (without any hint of regret), by the close of the Middle Ages there is an impression of more humane conditions – except for those destined for the gallows – reminiscent of the Dickensian debtors prison.



"put to farm"
That is, the administration of (and associated revenues from) the prison be farmed out to a third party. Similar provision had been made in regard to Newgate in 1356, on grounds that farmers were suspected – probably with cause – of extorting unwarranted fees from the prisoners; the sheriffs were ordered instead to appoint a keeper of good character.

That is, their economic means; fines and fees were often graduated according to the wealth or poverty of the offender.

"100 shillings"
This was not a fee, but an amount put up to guarantee that the offender, once freed of chains, would not escape.

The two Counters – a name derived from the act of keeping records (in this case, of judicial proceedings) – were in fact each an office and court-house for one of the sheriffs; the gaols were only part of these facilities. A third Counter (or Compter, as later spelled) was in Southwark.

"in irons"
The keeper would have preferred to keep as many in irons as possible, simply since it was a customary right to exact a fee for removing the irons upon release.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 2, 2014 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2014