London 1746 Rocques map
You can search the London and Pub history sites by name, address OR street names

Chapter 19. Fleet Prison History. - John Ashton 1888

This London history site is a wiki of early London streets.

This prison was of great antiquity, and its genealogy, like all respectable ones, dates back to William the Conqueror, at least; for we find, under date 1197,[84] "Natanael de Leveland & Robertus filius suus r.c. de LX marcis, Pro habenda Custodia Domorum Regis de Westmonasterio, & Gaiolae de Ponte de Fliete, quae est haereditas eorum a Conquestu Angliae; ita quod non remaneat propter Finem Osberto de Longo Campo." Or, in English, "_Nathaniel de Leveland and his son Robert, fined in sixty marks, to have the Custody of the King's Houses at Westminster, and the Prison at Fleet-bridge, which had been their inheritance ever since the Conquest of England; and that they may not be hindered therein by the Counterfine of Osbert de Longchamp._"

There seems to have been some double dealing in this transaction, in which, as was only natural in those days, money went into the King's pocket.[85] "And Osbert de Longchamp fined in five hundred marks, to have the King's favour, and seizin of all his lands and chatels whereof he was disseised by the King's Command, and to have seisin of the Custody of the Gaol of London, with the Appurtenances, and of the Custody of the King's Houses of Westminster: provided that Right be done therein in the King's Court, in case any one would implead him for the same."[86]

Robert de Leveland, the son of the foregoing Nathaniel, was bitten by the then fashionable craze for Crusading, for he is found, in 1201, petitioning King John for leave to delegate the care of the King's Houses at Westminster, and the Fleet Prison, to Simon FitzRobert, Archdeacon of Wells, for the space of three years, during which time he should be in the Holy Land. His prayer seems to have been granted; but he evidently drew a little money before he went away, for, in the Chancery Rolls of the same year, he was paid L15 10s. by the City of London, on account of the King's Prison of Flete, and he also received other sums of L10 12s. 10d. for the Custody of the King's Houses at Westminster, and L7 12s. 1d. for the Custody of the Gaol of _London_.[87] By which, and also by the foregoing notice of Osbert de Longchamps, it is evident that, at that time, the Fleet prison was the principal, if not the only, prison in London.

Robert de Leveland re-entered upon his duties after his three years' leave, and a document is extant[88] in which he is excused payment of L10 he had borrowed; but (possibly in lieu) he was bound to serve beyond the seas--_i.e._, in foreign parts--with horses and arms. When he died is not known, but his widow evidently succeeded him as custodian, for in December, 1217,[89] his wife Margaret has the same allowance given her in regard of the King's Houses at Westminster "as the said Robert had been accustomed to during his life." Thus she was the first female Warden of the Fleet; there were others, as we shall see by and by.

It is a moot question, and I put it forward with all reserve, as to whether there was not even an earlier mention of the Fleet before the very authentic case of Nathaniel de Leveland; but as it is open to objection that there were more Fleets than one, I only give the cases, and make no comment.[90] 1189: "William de Flete gave a Mark to have his plea in the King's Court touching a hyde of land, versus Randolph de Broy." And again,[91] in 1193: "Richard de Flet fined in one hundred Marks, that his daughter might be delivered from Ralf de Candos, who said he had espoused her."

In the Rolls are many cases which mention the Fleet, but, although it was a House of Detention, for debtors, especially to the King, and persons committing minor crimes, it never seems to have been degraded into what we should now term "a Gaol." No felons seem to have been incarcerated there, and there is no mention of gyves or chains, but they were used in after years.

It would seem that another "lady" Warden of the Fleet existed in Edward II.'s time, for, in 1316, "Johanne, late Wife of John Schench deceased, who held of the King in chief the Serjeanties of the Custody of the King's Palace of Westminster, and of his Prison of Flete, married Edmund de Cheney, without licence obtained from the King, in that behalf. Whereupon the said serjeanties were taken into the King's hands, and straitway the Treasurer and the Barons committed the Custody of the Palace of Richard Abbot, who was sworn _de fideliter_, &c., and the Custody of the Flete Prison to John Dymmok, Usher of the Exchequer, who was sworn in the like manner. Afterwards the said Edmund made Fine for the said Trespass, and the said serjeanties were restored." By which we see that thus early "women's rights" were fully recognized, and "employment for females" in occupations hitherto enjoyed exclusively by men, seems to have been in force.

Although not in Chronological Order, I may as well add another, and the only other mention that has come under my notice of a female Warden (1677):[92] "A Woman Guardian of the Fleet, marries her Prisoner in Execution; he is immediately out of Execution; for the Husband cannot be Prisoner to his Wife, it being repugnant that she, as jaylor, should have custody of him, and he, as husband, the custody of her."

Without some effective supervision, as is the case with our Prison Commissioners, abuses were bound to creep in, and the Governor or Warden of any Prison, (who doubtless had paid heavily for the appointment) had to recoup himself by squeezing the unfortunate prisoners, and we shall find several examples of this in the Fleet. The earliest seems to have been in the second year of Henry IV. (1400) when a petition was presented to Parliament[93] which prays, in its quaint Norman French that "les fees de Gardien de Flete sorent mys en certain" that the fees might be settled.

It is possible that extra fees were taken for a certain amount of liberty allowed to the prisoners by the Warden, who would allow him to go out of gaol on certain conditions, and we may be certain, for a _consideration_ also. The Warden was answerable for his Prisoner, and if he escaped, he had to pay the debt, so that we may be certain that his ephemeral liberty was highly purchased. That this was the case we find in 7 and 8 Hen. IV. (1406)[94] "que si ascun Gaoler lesseroit tiel Prisoner aler a large par mainprise[95] ou en baile, que adonques le persone envers qi le dit Prisoner estoit condempne aureoit sa action et recoverir envers le dit Gaoler." Or in English, "_That if any Gaoler allowed such Prisoner to go at large, either by mainprize or bail, that, then, the Person to whom the Prisoner was indebted might have his action, and recover against the said Gaoler._" Yet, notwithstanding this, there were many actions brought against the Wardens for allowing their prisoners to escape. A relic of this power of the Wardens to accord a certain amount of liberty to their prisoners, obtained till the last hours of the Fleet. There was, in the _Rules_, a defined district surrounding the Prison, in which prisoners, on providing approved sureties for the amount of their debt, and paying some fee, might reside, on condition that they did not overstep the boundaries. That this custom of granting temporary _exeats_ was very ancient, is indisputable, for, in the 1 Richard II. (1377) a complaint was made that the Warden of the Fleet "sometimes by mainprize, or by bail, and sometimes without any mainprize, with a Baston of the Fleet," _i.e._, accompanied by a prison official, would allow his charges to go abroad, "even into the country."

It is impossible to give a list of all the prisoners of note who were committed to the Fleet, and they must only be glanced at, but with the accession of Mary, some illustrious and historical names appear. First, and foremost, and almost immediately after her accession to the throne, we read, thanks to the preservation and collation, of State Papers,[96] that on the 29th of July, 1553, a letter from the Privy Council was sent to the "Wardene of the Flete, for the apprehensyone and commyttyng of the Lord Russell, Anthonye Browne of Essex, and John Lucas." All these prisoners seem to have been treated with great leniency, for there is a letter (July 31) to the Warden of the Fleet bidding him to give Mr. Lucas and Mr. Cooke _the libertye of his Garden_, so that there must have been a garden then attached to the Fleet prison--and a postscript orders that "he shall delyuer Mr. Anthonye Browne, and suffer hym to goo to his awne Howse."

Nor were the others kept long in durance, for on the 3rd of Aug., 1553, the Council wrote to the Warden willing him "To set at libertye John Lucas, and John Cocke, Esquiers, giueing them Commaundement withall to repaire to their Mancion Howses and their to make theire aboode vntill they shall here further of the Queene's Pleasure." And even the incarceration of Lord Russell was mollified, for a letter was written on 9th Aug. to Mr. Garret, one of the Sheriffs of London, "whereby the Countesse of Bedforde is licensed to have free access twise or thrise in the week, unto the Lord Russell, her son, remayning in the said sheriff's custodie, so the sheriff be present at their Talke and Conference."

I give the above so as not to spoil the continuity of the story, but there is mention of the Fleet prison long before; for instance, in 1355, Edward III. wrote "to his well-beloved and trusty, Simon Fraunceys Mayor of the City of London, Hugh de Appleby, and Robert de Charwaltone, greeting. Whereas we have been given to understand that the Foss[97] by which the mansion of our Prison of Flete is surrounded, and which, for safety of the said prison was lately made, is now obstructed and choked up by filth from latrines built thereon, and divers others refuse thrown therein, that there is cause to fear for the abiding there of the persons therein detained, by reason of the same; and because that, by reason of the infection of the air, and the abominable stench which there prevails, many of those there imprisoned are often affected with various diseases and grievous maladies, not without serious peril unto themselves. We, wishing a befitting remedy to be applied thereto, and that the said Foss may be restored to its former state, in which it was when it was first made, and so improved; and, for making provision thereon, desiring upon the matters aforesaid more fully to be informed, have assigned you, and any two of you, to survey the Foss aforesaid, &c."

This warrant was followed by an Inquest held at the Church of St. Brigid in Fleet Street on Tuesday, the 9th of January, 1356, on the oath of Richard le Cok, (Cook) Nicholas le Sporiere (Spurrier), and Thomas le Glaswrighte (Glassblower) and nine others. From it we learn that the "Foss of Flete" ought to be ten feet in breadth all round the Prison; that it ought to be so full of water that a boat laden with one tun of wine might easily float round it; and that the shelving banks of the Foss were then covered with trees. Also that it was quite choked up with the filth of laystalls and sewers discharging into it; and that no less than eleven necessary houses (or _wardrobes_, as they seem very generally to have been called in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) had been illegally built over it "to the corruption of the Water in the Foss aforesaid; and to such an extent is the flow of water obstructed and impeded thereby, that the said Foss can no longer surround the Prison with its waters, as it should do."[98]

The Acts of the Privy Council throw some light on the Fleet, giving several instances of Committals thereto, one of the first being 9 Hen. V. Oct. 14, 1421.[99] Wherein Hugo Annesley, who probably was then Warden of the Fleet, was directed to incarcerate therein one Grey de Codenore, who had been exiled, and having received his passport, remained in England, notwithstanding.

In 1 Henry VI.,[100] 19 May, 1423, the "gardein de notre prisone de Flete" was commanded to bring before the King some prisoners whom he had in custody, namely Huguelyn de Chalons, Johan Billy, Johan de Cheviers, Regnault de Graincourt, Hellyn de Bassiers, Pierre de Mombreham, and Pierre de Pauniers "noz prisoniers prisez a la reddicion de notre ville de Harefleu."

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are many notices of committals to the Fleet, so numerous that I can only mention a few, one only of which I give in the original spelling. 32 Hen. VIII. Sept. 9, 1540.

"L[~r]es was also brought from the Lord P^ivey Seale, declaring a certayn affray to be made by S^r Geoffrey Poole in Hampshyre upon one Mr. Gunter a justice of peax, for that (as Poole sayd) one of Gunter's srvants had spoken evill of hym, and for that also that hymself Gunter had disclosed to the King's Counsail in the tyme of Poole's trouble certain secret conference which Poole had w^t hym. And answer was made to the sayd Lord P^ivy Seale that calling the complaynt eftesones before hym the lordes and others the gen[~t] and justices of peax in the c[=u]trey to thentent the cryme of S^r Geffrey might be notorious to all the C[=u]trey there he should c[=o]mytt the said S^r Geffrey to the Flette to remayne there until further knowledge of the Kings pleas^r."

Evidently great interest was made for this naughty Sir Geoffrey, for we learn on Sept. 24th that "It was declared to the Lady Poole, the wife of Sir Geoffrey Poole, that the King's higness had pardoned her husband of his imprisonment," and the Lord Privy Seal was directed to release him. But he seems to have been a very cantankerous knight, for we find him in hot water again next year. April 8, 1541, "Whereas Sir Geoffrey Poole, Knight, had violently and contrary to the King's Highness' peace assaulted and hurt[101] Sir John Mychaill clerk, parson of Racton in the County of Sussex," and he had to put in sureties to keep the peace towards the said parson, and to answer the bill preferred against him. But it seems that he had some provocation, for a letter was written to him requiring him to remember, as far as he could, the "haynous and traytorous woords spoken by S^r John Michaell."

On Nov. 7, 1540, Browne, the son and heir of Sir Matthew Browne of Surrey, was committed to the Fleet, together with some of his servants, for burning a certain stack of wood in Surrey. On Jan. 8, 1541, John Gough of London, printer, was sent to the Fleet for printing and selling a seditious book. On March 18, 1541, there seems to have been a riot among some of the servants of the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, and three of them were committed to the Fleet. On April 24, 1541, a smuggler was put into ward here, one Giles Hasebarde of Southampton, a "berebruer," who had put on board "a ship of Holland, named the Mary of Dordroyt," five pockets of wool, without a licence, intending to send them to Flanders. For this he was sent to the Fleet, the wool confiscated to the King's use, and the Master of the ship was mulcted in half the value of his vessel; but Hasebarde was not long in durance, as he was liberated on April 30th. To thoroughly understand the reason of this man's imprisonment in the Fleet, we must remember that he was sent there as being a _Debtor_ to the King, and in the fifteenth century it was a very common practice for delinquents who were confined in other London prisons to confess themselves, by a legal fiction, debtors to the King, in order to get into the Fleet prison, which was more comfortable. But to show the variety of so-called crimes, or misdemeanours, which were punishable by imprisonment here, there is the case of John Barkley of Canterbury, innholder, who was committed to the Fleet for having molested the King's Highness with sundry troublous supplications, and it was found that he "appered manyfestly to be a c[=o]men barrater[102] and a malicious [=p]moter of false and injust mattiers to the gret vexa[=c]on of the Kings faithfull subjects."

It was also used as a house of detention, for we find Oct. 17, 1541, that Cowley the Master of the Rolls in Ireland, was examined, but because the time was too short to do it thoroughly, the Lord Chancellor sent him to the Fleet "untill syche tyme as the King sholde co[=m] to London." It seems to have been a refuge for misdemeanants, for April 3, 1542, John Bulmer Esquire, for his wilful disobeying of an order taken between him and his wife by the Council, was committed to the Fleet. And does not Shakespeare make Sir John Falstaff a denizen of this prison? (Second Part _King Henry the Fourth_, last scene).

"_Chief Justice._ Go, carry Sir _Iohn Falstaffe_ to the Fleete Take all his Company along with him.

_Falstaffe._ My Lord, my Lord.

_Chief Justice._ I cannot now speake, I will heare you soone: Take them away."

Sir Rd. Empson, so well known in Henry the Seventh's time, was indicted for sending, without process, persons accused of murder, and other crimes, "to the late King's Prisons, to wit the Fleet, the Compter, and the Tower of London." And, from the Articles of Impeachment against Cardinal Wolsey, it would seem that he was in the habit of committing to the Fleet, those who thwarted him in his demands. One case (Article 38) is: "Also that the said Lord Cardinal did call before him Sir John Stanley K^{nt} which had taken a Farm by C[=o]vent Seal of the Abbot and C[=o]vent of Chester, and afterw^{ds} by his Power and Might, contrary to Right, committed the said Sir John Stanley to the Prison of the Fleet by the space of a Year, unto such time as he compelled the said Sir John to release his C[=o]vent Seal to one Leghe of Adlington, which married one Lark's daughter, which woman the said Lord Cardinal kept, and had with her two Children; whereupon the said Sir John made himself Monk in Westminster, and there died."

Here is another example of the Cardinal's highhanded method of dealing with those who did not exactly bend to his will, in Article 41 of his Impeachment: "Also where one Sir Edward Jones, Clerk, parson of Orewly in the County of Bucks, in the 18th year of your most noble reign, let his s^d parsonage with all tithes and other profits of the same to one William Johnson, for certain years; within which years, the Dean of the s^{'d} Cardinal's College in[103] Oxenford pretended title to a certain portion of Tithes within the s^d parsonage, supposing the s^d portion to belong to the parsonage of Chichley, which was appointed to the Priory of Tykeford, lately suppressed, where (of truth) the Parsons of Orewly have been peaceably possessed of the s^{'d} portion _out of the time of mind_: Where upon a Subpoena was directed to the said Johnson to appear before the Lord Cardinal at Hampton Court, out of any term, with an injunction to suffer the said Dean to occupy the said portion. Whereupon the said Johnson appeared before the said Lord Cardinal at Hampton Court, where without _any_ Bill the said Lord Cardinal committed him to the Fleet, where he remained by the space of twelve weeks, because he would not depart with the said Portion: and at last, upon a Recognizance made, that he should appear before the said Lord Cardinal, whensoever he was commanded, he was delivered out of the Fleet. Howbeit, as yet, the said Portion is so kept from him that he dare not deal with it."