Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Stone walls do not a prison make": The Infamous Westminster Gate-House

By Nancy Bilyeau

This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on December 28, 2013

In 1663, in the flush of the Restoration, a woman named Mary Carleton went on trial for bigamy. Born in Canterbury of humble parents, she’d married a shoemaker and given birth to two children before disappearing to Cologne. There she had a torrid affair with a nobleman, turning down his offer of marriage but keeping his rich gifts and some money besides. She then returned to England, claiming to be an orphaned German princess and marrying one John Carleton. A discovered letter betrayed her first marriage and she was arrested.

Bigamist and impersonator Mary Carleton, 1663
© National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under CCA.

Mary’s colorful life—she was acquitted of bigamy after a spirited defense and went on to marry, steal from, and abandon a string of new husbands before being transported to Jamaica and, finally, hanged for theft in 1673—is not, however, the focus of this post. It is her place of incarceration before going on trial, a strange prison within a very short distance of Westminster Abbey where men and women had been held for three centuries before Mary’s celebrated trial, captured in the book The Arraignment, Tryal and Examination of Mary Moders, Otherwise Stedman, Now Carleton, (styled, the German Princess) At the Sessions House in the Old Bayly, Being Brought Prisoner from the Gate-House Westminster, for Having Two Husbands.

The Tower of London holds claim to being the prison of greatest tragic renown, where queens were feted and beheaded and Jesuit priests screamed on the rack. But the Westminster Gate-House has many stories to tell too, holding errant clerks, religious dissidents, poets and legendary Englishmen such as Sir Walter Ralegh and Samuel Pepys before imprisoning a great many miserable, anonymous debtors.


In a description of the Gate-House Prison written in 1768, it "is situated near the west end of the abbey, entering into Tuttle Street, and the Almery...it is the chief prison for the City of Westminster liberties, not only for debt, but treason, theft and other criminal matters."

In the beginning, the prison was more connected to Westminster Abbey, which makes sense. Some say it was a powerful abbot who transformed the gatehouse into a prison, but documents point to William Warfield, the cellarer of Westminster Abbey. In 1370 he arranged for the gatehouse’s upper storey to house a jail.

But why?

By the time of the reign of Edward III, Westminster was in full medieval throttle. William Rufus' majestic Great Hall, where Parliament met and kings sat on marble thrones, was raised near the spectacular Westminster Abbey, founded by Edward the Confessor in 1065.

Westminster Abbey today.
Image by ChrisO, licensed under CCA.

In Walter Thornbury's Old and New London (1878), he speculates about the preeminence in Plantagenet times of Westminster Abbey and the importance of even the "butler," who was most probably this same William Warfield: "A magnificent apex to a royal palace, the abbey church was surrounded by its own greater and lesser sanctuaries and almonries; its bell towers (the principal one 72 feet 6 inches square, with walls 20 feet thick), chapels, gatehouses, boundary walls, and a train of other buildings, of which we can at the present day scarcely form an idea. In addition to all the land around it, extending from the Thames to Oxford Street, the Abbey possessed 97 towns and villages, 17 hamlets and 216 manors. Its officers fed hundreds of persons daily, and one of its priests (not the abbott) entertained at this pavilion the king and queen, with so large a party, that seven hundred dishes did not suffice for the first table, and even the abbey butler, in the reign of Edward III, rebuilt at his own expense the stately gatehouse which gave entrance to Tothill Street."

Tudor-era historian John Stow wrote that the eastern part of the north gate was used as the bishop of London's prison for "clarks convict." So was it originally an ecclesiastical prison? That's contradicted by another report that during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, rioters set the Westminster prisoners free. It's difficult to picture the peasant rebels fired up to liberate errant clerks. But in 1596, a Southwark preacher confined in the Gate-House did write an abject letter to Lord Burghley "for keeping Wednesday a fast, and transferring the observation of it unto Thursday." Hardly a violent felon.

Another Tudor troublemaker, Giles Wigginton, a Cambridge-educated clergyman, was twice confined in the Gate-House, once for refusing to swear he was not the author of The Marprelate Tracts, pamphlets attacking the kingdom's traditional Anglican leaders. While imprisoned in the 1590s, Wigginton was joined by other fiery Puritans, such as William Hacket, who claimed to be the messiah, called for the removal of Elizabeth I, and on the way to his execution insulted the clergyman determined to comfort him.

A 16th century prisoner of opposite views was Nicholas Vaux, a chorister of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, imprisoned for "propagating the Romish religion." He died in the Gate-House "of cold and hunger" in 1571.

Sir Walter Ralegh

The first "celebrity" prisoner of the Westminster Gate-House was Sir Walter Ralegh. After a lengthy imprisonment in the Tower of London under James I, he was released to lead a disastrous expedition to Venezuela to find gold. But on his return to England, he was re-imprisoned in the Gate-House, perhaps because he was to be executed in the Old Palace Yard in Westminster.

Tradition has it that Ralegh wrote this poem shortly before he met his end on Oct. 29, 1618:
Verses Found in His Bible in the Gate House at Westminster 
"Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust."
 On the scaffold, Ralegh was shown the ax that would soon decapitate him and said, "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries." Ralegh was buried in St. Margaret's Church nearby, and never moved.

Richard Lovelace

The next poet adventurer to be held at Westminster--but not, fortunately, beheaded--was Richard Lovelace, a wealthy knight's son who at the age of 13 became a "gentleman wayter extraordinary" to King Charles I. In his twenties, Lovelace was arrested for destroying a pro-parliamentary petition. During his several months' stay in the Gate-House, he is believed to have written his most famous poem:
To Althea, From Prison 
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
and in my soul am free,
angels alone that soar above,
enjoy such liberty."
Ruined by his undaunted support of the royalist cause, Lovelace died in poverty in 1658, two years before the restoration of the monarchy in Charles II.

In the late 17th century, the two most famous prisoners were condemned to the Gate-House.

Jeffrey Hudson and the Queen,
by Anthony van Dyck

The first was court dwarf Sir Jeffrey Hudson. He was presented to Queen Henrietta Maria as a surprise when he was a child 18 inches tall: he emerged from a pie, dressed in armor. Hudson became a cherished member of the royal household and eventually traveled with the Queen to French exile. At some point, Hudson tired of insults about his size; responding to a taunt from the queen's master of horse, he entered a duel and shot his opponent in the head. He then fled France. Sometime later, Hudson was on a boat seized by Barbary pirates and it took him many years to escape and make his way to England. But this was now the time of Titus Oates, and Hudson was arrested for being a "Roman Catholick." He died in 1682, two years after being released from the Gate-House.

The last illustrious prisoner was the erudite Samuel Pepys, jailed in 1690. A longtime civil servant, wit and bibliophile, he kept a diary that is one of the leading records of the Restoration, the Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. A correspondent of Newton's, he also wrote about his personal problems--bladder problems, fights with his wife, squalid extramarital affairs--and his love of wine and theater. But he too fell afoul of anti-Catholic paranoia. He was suspected of being a Jacobite in secret contact with the exiled James II; because of his poor health, he was given bail.

In the 18th century, the occupants of the Westminster Gate-House were almost all debtors. In 1769, this article was published about the grim conditions to be found in Westminster:
"The Gate-House, near Westminster Abbey, is the jail whereunto those poor wretches, who cannot pay their small debts, are committed, for forty days, unless they do what is all too often impossible; namely, pay the debt sooner. Add to this, that these prisoners have no other maintenance but what they derive from charity...for strange as it is, yet true it is, that there is no provision by law for the subsistence of prisoners in this jail..."

The Gate-House in its final dreary decades.

Charity for the prisoners was obtained by way of a box hanging from a pole forty feet long, let down by a chain, to those who wished to give. Even more incredibly, "gin and other spirits" were allowed into the Westminster Gate-House as freely as at the "public houses." The prison keeper or under keeper would go to the window and shout into the street, "Jackass! Jackass!" so that an employee of a public house would come to receive orders.

In the year 1776, as the question of freedom was raging across the ocean, the Westminster Gate-House also was liberated. The prison was closed, some say after a public campaign by the author Samuel Johnson who said "a building so offensive ought to be pulled down."

Dr. Johnson died eight years later and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of mysteries set in the 16th century: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, for sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain.

The Crown was an Oprah pick: "The real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of murder, lust, conspiracy and betrayal."

The Chalice won the RT Reviewers Award for Best Historical Mystery. The Tapestry was released in paperback in March 2016.

For more information, please visit Nancy's website at http://www.nancybilyeau.com/



3 comments:

  1. Great post! It was nice to learn that Sir Walter Ralegh was such a man of faith.

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  2. Great post, bookmarked it for future reference.

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  3. I'm in love with your writing already! I can hardly wait to dig into this new (to me) series. I love reading about the British. ;)

    ReplyDelete