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Chapter 20. Fleet Prisoners. - John Ashton 1888

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The Fleet was, evidently, a handy prison, elastic enough to suit all cases, for on Aug. 19, 1553, at the Star Chamber, "Roger Erthe, alias Kinge, servaunt to Therle of Pembroke, and William Ferror, servaunt to the Lord Sturton, were, for making of a Fraye, committed to the Charge of Warden of the Fleete."

In September, 1553, the Fleet received a prisoner whose name is historical wherever the English language is read, for the Privy Council being held at Richmond, on the 1st of Sept. "This day appered before the Lordes, John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, and Miles Coverdale, Bishop of Exon. And the said Hooper, for Considerations the Councell moving, was sent to the Fleete."

Turning from Mary's reign to that of Elizabeth, we find equal religious intolerance, for we read in Strype's "Annals of the Reformation, A.D. 1582," that Fleetwood, the Recorder of London, sent a letter to the Lord Treasurer, informing him that one Osborn, a priest and Franciscan friar, had been examined, and confessed that "_in crastino Epiphaniae_, he said Mass in the Fleet (where many recusants were committed) in the Lord Vaux's Chamber, (to whom he was related) before that Lord, Mr. Tresham, Mr. Tyrwhit, and others," which three, at the London Sessions, in Guildhall, were convicted on Osborn's evidence.

Fleet parsons were evidently an institution in the sixteenth century, for besides the above-mentioned Osborn, there was another committed to the Fleet, on May 27, 1584, one Sir R. Stapleton. His fault seems to have been that he had preached against the Archbishop of York, for which he was arraigned in the Star Chamber, and was, with others, ordered to read an apology--which he did--but in such a contemptuous manner, that he was sent to the Fleet.

In the seventeenth century, many Puritans were incarcerated here, especially after the Restoration, when their gloomy fanaticism ill accorded with the ideas of the age. The bow had been strung too tightly during the Commonwealth, and when it was unstrung the reaction was great. So many were put into prison for conscience' sake. Even in Elizabeth's reign there were many in prison, and we can hardly wonder at it when we consider it was an age of religious intolerance, and the religion professed by these devotees was of a most unattractive character. Strype, writing of A.D. 1588, says of them:

"In the Summer Time they meet together in the Fields, a Mile or more.[104] There they sit down upon a Bank. And divers of them expound out of the Bible, so long as they are there assembled.

"In the Winter Time they assemble themselves by five of the Clock in the Morning to the House where they make their Conventicle for the Sabbath Day, Men and Women together. There they continue in their kind of Prayers, and Exposition of Scriptures, all the Day. They Dine together. After Dinner make Collections to pay for their Diet. And what money is left, some of them carryeth to the Prisons, where any of their sort be committed.

"In their prayers, one speaketh, and the rest do groan and sob, and sithe,[105] as if they could wring out Tears. But say not after him that prayeth. Their Prayer is _Extemporal_."

In January, 1600, Lord Grey of Wilton was committed to the Fleet, by Queen Elizabeth's order, for assaulting the Earl of Southampton, on horseback, in the public street.

There is a fair bibliography of the Fleet prison in the seventeenth century. In 1620-1 there was a broadsheet published "A briefe collection of the exactions, extortions, oppressions, tyrannies, and excesses towards the liues, bodies and goods of prisoners, done by _Alexander Harris_, Warden of the Fleete, in his foure yeares misgouernment, ready to be proued by oath and other testimonies." This was answered by Harris, and his MS., which is in the possession of the Duke of Westminster, was published by the Camden Society in 1879, entitled the "[OE]conomy of the Fleete; or an Apologeticall Answeare of Alexander Harris (late Warden there) unto XIX Articles set forth against him by the prisoners." Of which book more anon.

Then there was a "Petition to Parliament of the distressed prisoners in the King's Bench, Fleet and other prisons"--but this has no date. In 1647 was published "A Whip for the Marshal's Court by Robert Robins Gent, being his Petition to the House of Commons." The preface to the Reader, is dated from the Author's "Iron Cage in the Fleet." In 1653 there was "A Schedule; or, List of the Prisoners in the Fleet remaining in custody May 25, 1653." Some of them were very bad cases, as "_William Gregory_ committed February 7, 1651, one Outlawry after Judgment, severall other Outlawries and Trespasses, no sums mentioned;" or "_Hustwayte Wright_ committed June 29, 1650, for L31 1s., Execution, besides Outlawries, Latitats and Cap. no sum appearing." "_Thomas Keneston_ committed Nov. 4, 1646, for 51,000 Actions, and severall Orders of the Exchequer." In 1669 appeared "A Companion for Debtors and Prisoners, and advice to Creditors, with a description of Newgate, the Marshalsea, the two Counties, Ludgate, _the Fleet_, and King's Bench prison." In 1671 was published "A Short Narrative, or Anatomie of the Fleet Prison &c.," by John Knap, M.D. In 1690 there was "A plea for the City Orphans and Prisoners for Debt." In 1691 appeared a soul-harrowing little book, called "The Cry of the Oppressed, a tragicall Account of the unparalleled Sufferings of the poor imprisoned Debtors and Tyranny of their Gaolers, with the case of the Publisher (Moses Pitt)." Here the interest is much heightened by numerous engravings showing how prisoners were beaten, made to feed with hogs, were covered with boils and blains, the females outraged by their gaolers, and many other enormities. I would fain quote at length from this book, but space will not admit of it. In 1699 we find "An Argument that it is impossible for the nation to be rid of the grievances occasioned by the Marshal of the King's Bench and Warden of the Fleet, without an utter extirpation of their present Offices."

The Case as made out by the prisoners against the Warden, Alexander Harris, in 1620-1, was, if it could have been thoroughly substantiated, most damaging to him, but they overreached themselves by their manifest exaggeration. A few examples will suffice. There were nineteen counts against him all of grievous weight, but we will only take four as a fair sample. (1) Murder; (2) Felony; (3) Robbery; (4) Excessive Rates for Chambers. First, as to the Charge of Murder, this is the accusation: "After knowne quarrels and fightings between two prisoners, lodging them in one chamber, where, quarrelling and fighting againe, and notice to him thereof giuen, and of likely further mischiefe; this notwithstanding, continuance of them together, vntil the one murthered the other."

This referred to two prisoners, Sir John Whitbrooke and another named Boughton. According to the Warden's account Whitbrooke did not deserve much pity. In July, 1618, he was given into the Warden's Custody, by the order of two Courts, to be kept a close prisoner, but he soon developed "dangerous energy," for on the 10th of the same month, almost immediately after his committal, he "came into the Warden's studdy where the Warden (in his gowne) was wryteing, and fashioned his speech, sayeing that he came to speake with the Warden about his lodging, who answeared that he would willingly speake about that, and money for it, whereupon the Warden putting dust[106] upon the wryteings and turneing his back to lay them aside, Sir John Whitbrooke strooke him on the head with the sharpe ende of a hammer, whereof one Cleft was before broken off, and the other cleft newly whett, giveing fower wounds to the scull, and some bruses before the Warden could close with him; but then the Warden thrusting him out of the studdy, did throwe Whitbrooke on the back, and took away the hammer, Whitbrooke (being undermost) did hould the forepart of the Warden's gowne soe as he could not rise; att which tyme the Warden's blood abundantly gushed downe upon Whitbrooke, and the Warden could have beaten out Whitbrooke's braynes with the hammer, but that he was neither wrothfull nor daunted.

"Then after, two maydes servants (heareing the noyse) came into the roome, and one loosed Whitbrooke's hands from the Warden's gowne, or ells the Warden must have killed him to acquitt himselfe. Soe soone as the maydes came the Warden shewed them the hammer all bloody, telling them that Whitbrooke had wounded him therewith; the butler of the howse then alsoe comeing upp to cover the table, the Warden bidd him and others (which followed) to laye hands upon Whitbrooke etc.; but to take heed they hurt him not; soe they letting him rise and rest himselfe, he took a stiletto out of his pockett and stabbed the Warden's deputie cleane through the middle of his hand, which (notwithstanding it was presently dressed by a good chirurgion) did rankle upp to his shoulder, and was like to have killed him; he also stabbed the porter of the howse directly against the heart, and drewe blood, but it pierced not: he stabbed the gaoler into the hand and twice through the sleeve of his dublett, so as then they lay violent hands upon him, put on irons and carryed him to the strongest warde of the prison (called Bolton's warde)."

And a perfectly proper punishment for any one who ran _amuk_ like Whitbrooke because there was an organized mutiny. "And upon this some three score prisoners breake upp all the strongest prisons and dores of the wards and Tower chamber, assaulting the Warden and his servants with weapons &c., according to a plott and purpose before resolved upon, as appeares by depositions."

The poor Warden had no bed of roses, more especially as the female element was afterwards introduced in the shape of Lady Whitbrooke, who of course, was a warm partisan of her husband. Harris writes:

"The lady alledgeth that in September the quarrell betweene the Warden and Whitbrooke was renewed.

"The Warden answeareth that in July, 1619, Whitbrooke and Boughton with six others (being lodged in a great Chamber) they and six more shutt out thirtie of their Companie and fortefied the gaole against the Warden, refused all perswasions of the Warden, constables, and Alderman's Deputie, the comands of the Lord Cheife Justice, of the Lord Chauncellor and his Serjeant at Armes; yet yeilded to the clarke of the councell sent from the Lords. Whitbrooke and Boughton being then in one humour; and, upon unblocking the prison, Whitbrooke desired liberty; it was offred him upon security, he would give none, then he made question where to lye, to which was answeared there were five other roomes he might make his election of, which he would; but he said he would none other but where he formerly laye (it being indeed the fayrest). They fortified these roomes againe when the Warden was out of towne, soe as during Whitbrooke's life and Boughton's being there with their adherents the Warden had noe comand in that part of the prison."

It is almost needless to say that these peculiarly unquiet spirits quarrelled among themselves. We have heard enough of Whitbrooke to know that he was a quarrelsome cur--impatient of restraint, and thoroughly lawless in his habits; but it is evident that he persuaded his wife that he was an injured innocent; for, in poor Harris's "Apologia pro sua vita," a story which he tells so naively, and so nicely, he says:

"The lady alledgeth that the Warden (for revenge) resolved and reported he would send Whitbrooke to _Boulton_ to keepe.

"The Warden answeareth that he for governement sake and to suppresse misdemeanours doth thretten to putt prisoners (offending) into _Boulton's Wards_ (Many yeares familiarlie soe called as he thinketh of bolts or irons put on them), where Whitbrooke was put when he wounded the Warden and his servants; he continued there but a small tyme, and was removed to a roome called the Tower Chamber (where Henry Boughton and many others did lye), thence Boughton was removed into the common prison in December, 1618, and Whitbrooke was removed thither June 16, 1619, soe as to that tyme they lay five moneths within one lodging, and six moneths severed in other lodgings and noe quarrell stirred.

"The Lady alledgeth that presently at their comeing together Boughton suddenly stabbed and wounded Whitbrooke, whereof he dyed.

"The Warden answeareth that over and above the eleaven months aforesaid, yet from June 16th untill September 16, 1619, being 3 moneths, they two combyned in their exploits against the Warden without falling out (for ought the Warden knewe), but 16 September Boughton fell out with Harvey (one of his chamber felowes), whom Boughton assayled with his teeth, and bitt him by the thombe, whereof Whitbrooke, Willis, Harvey, and others there lodged, advised the Warden, wishing him to take some course. The Warden sent divers messages by the gaoler to Whitbrooke to remove thence and to lye elsewhere; he would not, sayeing none should remove him but by violence, and they were so strong there, as the Warden could doe nothing, none ells durst come amongst them. Holmes and Maunsell offered him libertie amongst other gentlemen upon bonds.

"The Warden acquainted the Lord Chauncellor of their fortifications, of some other stabbing there, of this particular brawle, and besought his lordshipp to send them to Newgate. The Lord Chauncellor comanded such motion to be made at the tyme of a seale; it was moved by Mr. Woomelayson, as appeares by his briefe, then his lordshipp wished oath to be made of this offence, and called for presidents[107] to remove them, in which meane tyme Boughton (being provoked and wounded by Whitbrooke) did stabb him, whereof he dyed within 13 dayes, and it was about 14 moneths after he wounded the Warden and stabbed his 3 servants as appeareth by the generall lodgeings and places where they laye, sometymes together, and sometymes severed, ensueing to be seene in the end of this answeare to this Article, and, if the testimony (which was long after delivered to the Warden, by a prisoner in the Fleete) be true, then the same Harvey, and one Tymothy Willis and Sir John Whitbrooke himselfe, did (of sett purpose) whett on Boughton to anger and quarrell, because they scorned Boughton and meant to assayle him.

"When Whitbrooke, Boughton, &c., ymured themselves upp in the wards as aforesaid, a view or survey of the roomes was given the Lordes of the Councell, and they (_were_) satisfied.

"After the tyme of the supposed quarrell (which was about Whitbrooke's and Boughton's fortifieing the house) they contynued lyeing where they were before, amongst others.

"Wheresoever they had lyen they might quarrell when they mett, as Whitbrooke many moneths before broke Willis his head with a pott or candlestick."

These two ill-conditioned animals fell to loggerheads, and Boughton drew upon Whitbrooke, and so wounded him that eventually he died. And this shows the very lax discipline that then obtained in the Fleet. Of course, no weapons should have been allowed, but "It is alsoe alledged that Boughton did provide a sword, and it was brought him by a woeman from whom the porter of the Fleet tooke it, and delivered it to the Warden (as he did indeed) and therefore say their accusers that the Warden knew the same sword was to kill Whitbrooke.

"The Warden had it about a yeare and a halfe before this accident (of Whitbrooke's death) happened, and delivered it back againe to the woeman that brought it, with charge not to bring any thither whatsoever.

"It was avouched that the sword was Boughton's, and put to dressing to a Cutler, who sent it home againe, so as Boughton might have killed Whitbrooke with it before it went to dressing, if he had intended any such thing. Nay, Boughton had alwayes in his trunck (as appeared afterwards) a stilletto so keene, so cleane and ready, as would soone have done such a fact if he had meant it; yea, swords and other weapons want not in the Fleete, and the Warden cannot prevent it. This fact was mere accidentall, and not precogitate as the lawe hath founde it, which acquitted Boughton of Manslaughter upon his arraignement." Harris, I think, and, most probably, my readers will agree with me, has made out a very fair case in his own favour; but I must not deal with the other charges against him at such length.