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CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London punishment prisons officers imprisonment prison conditions fees sheriff maladministration

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: tempore Henry VI


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.


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. Newgate, the largest of the city prisons, 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.

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, was on the other hand for freemen of London; it too came to be designated as a prison for 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 who could expect to be fined and released back into society. In earlier days the sheriffs had had to use their own houses to hold such offenders. 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.

It was fairly common for officials to look upon their posts as opportunities for private profit, by charging all sorts of fees for services. Those who could afford to pay these bribes could expect a more comfortable stay in gaol.



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.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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