Bridewell – the Palace that Became a Prison

For our February ’24 talk Dr. Duncan Salkeld gave us a fascinating insight into Bridewell Prison. In 1553 the former Palace (of Henry V111) called Bridewell was given to the city of London by Edward VI to shelter the poor, vagrants and orphans and to be a house of correction which would offer training and help to inmates to find work, a novel idea at the time. The Prison no longer exists as it was burnt down in the Fire of London in 1666.

     The Bethlem Hospital records have details of trials at the prison between 1550 – 1576.

     Duncan showed us a number of slides recording cases brought to trial at Bridewell and in particular those of a repeat offender by the name of Jane Trosse. There are several records of her punishments. Could she have been the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets? Was Lucy Negro, Black Luce of Clerkenwell, also referred to as Abbess of Clerkenwell, possibly the model for the character of Luce in the Comedy of Errors. Luce was a brothel owner and prostitute. The Henslowe (Philip) Diaries (1591-1609) provide an interesting historical record of theatrical performances in London including early performances of Shakespeare plays and records of related financial transactions.

     Another case of literary interest was that of Christopher Beaston, one of Shakespeare’s actors, accused of rape by Margaret White. Beaston was ejected from the Shakespeare Players before the trial. The case was not proceeded with as Beaston summoned supporters and well connected nobility to speak well of him and he subsequently became a successful theatre impresario. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure was informed by this case.

     Fairly minor offences such as stealing milk for children born out of wedlock (Joan Helliker) or running away by servants or being a harlot were punished by whipping or parading through town on a cart.

     Mention was made of the Rose Theatre, on the opposite side of the river, which staged Shakespeare’s plays and was close to the present day site of The Globe Theatre.

     Duncan gave us an interesting and lively account, with informative slides of original prison records, with transcriptions, describing cases dealt with by the prison authorities and detailing the offences and punishments meted out to prisoners in Shakespeare’s London.

Lois Coulthart