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Welcome to Episode #182 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

According to The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, the phrase “the Clink” described a specific prison in an area of London called Bankside, where Shakespeare is known to have lived at least from 1597-1596. The prison itself was housed inside what used to be a manor house owned by the Bishop of Winchester. It was the closest prison to the theaters of Bankside, which included The Globe and the Rose theater, among others. This prison was best known for being a prison for debtors. While Shakespeare’s works do reference the word “clink” to describe the sound of metal clanging against other metal, there is no direct reference to the prison by name. However, in Cymbeline Act III Scene 3, Guidierius says “A prison for a debtor, that not dares To stride a limit.” While Shakespeare may or may not have been referring to the debtor’s prison located right down the road from his theater with this remark in the play, nonetheless, The Clink itself was a notorious house of incarceration during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Legendary as an entirely horrible place, the prison gained a reputation for being where prisoners were sent to die. Stories are told of the prisoners being left in their cells to starve to death, or even drown in the rising tide of the Thames that was nearby. This prison’s notoriety is the reason why we use the phrase “thrown into the Clink” today to mean that someone has gone to prison. No one knows the full history of The Clink prison and what it was like for Shakespeare better than the curator at The Clink Prison Museum in London, and our guest this week, Alex Lyon. 

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Alex Lyon joined the Clink Prison Museum in 2011 as historian in residence for the restructuring of the museum, and remains there as Head of Box Office and tour guide. Alex is a Shakespearean actor, who graduated at Manchester University and trained at the Academy Dram School.  He has payed both Starveling and Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Frederick in As You Lik It, and the titel role in his own feature film of Macbeth. In 2005, he originated the role of Nicodemus Merriweather in his own one man show ‘Shakespeare and Me’, telling the sotry of Shakespeare and his company, as seen from backstage3. In 2011, Alex Lyon joined the Clink Prison Museum as historian in residence for the restructuring of the museum, and remains there as Head of Box Office and tour guide.  Last year he began work as a photographic London history hnter.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Alex Lyon about :

  • How did the Clink prison get its name? Why is it called The Clink?
  • The Clink was originally a prison inside the manor house owned by the Bishop of Winchester. Did most manor houses have their own prison? Why was a Bishop of the church licensed to imprison people?
  • The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare describes The Clink as being known “particularly” as a “debtors” prison, but when looking over the list of known inmates at the Clink throughout the 16th century (provided at The Clink Prison Museum website that we will link to in the show notes), there are men imprisoned for not going to church, for being involved in the Babington Plot, and even one man, John Greenwood, in 1586 who was imprisoned “for reading Scripture.” Alex, exactly what kind of crime could land someone in The Clink?
  • … and more!

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And let me the canakin clink, clink; And let me the canakin clink

Othello (II.3)

 A map showing the civil parishes of Southwark as they appeared in 1870. Based on the Ordnance Survey Town Plan of London (1871-76) at 1:1056 scale. Diagram by Doc77can | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.| Source

The Clink Prison Served the Liberty of The Clink Outside London

 Alex shares that he believes that The Clink Prison gets it’s name from the sound of iron clanking together for prisoners. 

Comes from the sound of the hammer closing the rivet on the manacle or shackle that’s around your wrist or ankle. If you hit an anvil or hammer it makes a clear sound, a clink, similar to a “smack or clap” and clink works in the language for if we clinch a deal, on the down stroke of a handshake, or at an auction with slamming down the gavel, it’s a moment of transition between free and in prison. The Clink is the moment of transition. The other use of the word “clink” is a flemish word, meaning the latch (spelled Klink) and it was current in 1500 when the name got applied to a prison because there were a lot of women working in the leisure were Flemish.

The Clink was originally a prison inside the manor house owned by the Bishop of Winchester. According to Alex, the manor house conversion into a prison was born of necessity. 

The bishop of winchester is right at the top shelf of bishops, above him was the archbishop of Canterbury. He built himself a palace because he wanted to be close to the seta of power, close to London. The land he built it on happened to be where Londoners went to party and had done for a very long time. It wasn’t an area where respectable people might be visiting. The leisure industry creates a certain amount of crime and you have to put them somewhere overnight so they can sober up and you can try them in the morning. That’s the first reason for the prison being there. It wasn’t particularly tied to him being a bishop, but he was a local land owner with a significant amount of law breaking. If you just say to someone who is drink that they need to appear at court, they will run away if they even remember. SO you have to put someone somewhere to rest. A prison isn’t a village lockup and it’s not a castle dungeon, it’s a building whose sole function is to keep a lot of prisoners in, generally above ground, not an adjunct to another building. So that’s why it was considered England’s first prison.

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Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.


Tempest (I.2)

1917 map showing theatres of 16th and 17th century London, with one correction to reflect recent archaeology. | The Globe Theatre is shown at the bottom centre of this London street map. | This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: .svg changed to .png to fix a rendering issue. The original can be viewed here: London theatres C16—C17, after Redwood.svgLondon theatres C16—C17, after Redwood.svg. Modifications made by Old Moonraker. | Public Domain | Source

The Clink’s role as a debtor’s prison

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare describes The Clink as being known “particularly” as a “debtors” prison, but when looking over the list of known inmates at the Clink throughout the 16th century (provided at The Clink Prison Museum website), there are men imprisoned for not going to church, for being involved in the Babington Plot, and even one man, John Greenwood, in 1586 who was imprisoned “for reading Scripture.” Alex explains that while debt could land one in prison, it was the general riotous nature of the society in the Clink district that warranted a prison:

Prison of whatever society, is a negative image. The prison is for people that society doesn’t want, for whatever reason and the rules for what makes you unwanted changed over the centuries. It started as primarily a debtor’s prison, but by the 1500s that debtor’s prison no longer existed. It was originally setup to cope with the flotsam and jetsam of the leisure industry (prostitution and gambling) by the 13th century, they passed laws that saif if you owed money, someone could sue you, and if you didn’t pay, they could lock you up until you paid them. This seemed like a fiar idea until you put it into practice that it becomes the nightmare that it became for about 600 years. Once you’re locked up you can’t earn money and you might hope that your friends pay your debts for you, but its’ easy to forget someone who is in prison. So that debt became part of the prison world as far back as the 13th century, as a kind of thing in the background because it’s another thing you can get put in prison for. For debt, you’re in there longterm, but other crimes, they want to move you out quickly. Either find you guilty or let you go. Punishments were cheap and quick so they could process you out.

After the restoration in 1660 the whole country goes “hey, it’s party time again” and bankside has a resurgence as the heart of the London leisure industry, but it goes square shaped in 1666 when London catches fire. After that, in order to rebuild the city, bankside has to turn back into a builder’s yard, and that knocks the leisure industry on it’s head. So there isn’t leisure related crime, which is when it becomes a debtor’s prison by default because there’s no one else to keep there. Religious crimes aren’t treated so harshly, the civil war is over, leisure was closed, so that’s why it’s remembered as a debtor’s prison.

Explore more about London’s prison system.

Stanley Wells et al write about The Clink as a debtor’s prison in the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare.

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

What, will you murder me? Thou gaoler, thou, I am thy prisoner: wilt thou suffer them To make a rescue?
Antipholus of Ephesus

Comedy of Errors (IV.4)

The Blue plaque on the former site of the prison in London that was known as The Clink. Photo by J.P.Lon | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Source

The Clink Prison Gaoler (Jailer)

While Shakespeare does not refer to The Clink specifically in his works, one prison term from the 16-17th century he does use frequently is the word “gaoler” which means “jailer” in modern English. In Cymbeline Act I Scene 1, The Queen says “you’re my prisoner, but/ Your gaoler shall deliver you the keys/ That lock up your restraint” At The Clink prison, it was well known that the jailors, known as gaolers, were not very well paid. Thus, their want for money meant they could easily be bribed, and even had something of a business running out of the Clink.  Alex explains the presence of bribery in the Clink:

It’s as old as Joseph in the jail in the old testament aand it’s as contemporary as what  happens in jailsnow, it’s just the way jails are. Since the establishment of the home office where they put british prisons under that government control, of course prisons are better and more legally run and follo wetter procedures, but for the 16th ventura keeping a jail wa sa cushy jon for the old soldier. “Keep my jail” meant the money was a bit rubbish, but everything else worked on kickbacks. Examples, the blacksmith working to put on irons, he charged people to take the iurons off. And if they didn’t pay, they didn’t get out of prison. There’s one story of a Jesuit doing the prisoner’s accounts, and he had a nice room–or it was a room that was up at the top of the building, as far away fromthe thames’ water and the cellars which stunk to raise the dead, he had a keeper’s library and he had some furniture and he was living a reasonable life, and to some extent that they felt you would come back at the end of the day, they would let you outside even to conduct business, It really depends on the imagination of thekeeper and what keeper he can find to enrich his own position. We are just nextdoor to the Leisure industry and ther iver so there’s plenty of stuff to keep an imagination busy. Essentially, it’s a nice little racket if you know how to work a racket. 

Take her away; I do not like her now;
To prison with her: and away with him.

King of France

Alls Well That Ends Well (V.3)

John Bradford in prison with bishops, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs | While the source for this image doesn’t say specifically which “prison” is being depicted in this image, Since John Bradford was executed after a stay in the Tower of London, it’s more likely to be the Tower shown here than The Clink. However, we do have evidence that suggests Bradford and John Hooper were imprisoned at The Clink. See more information below. | Source | Public Domain


Most prisoners at The Clink were not executed

The Clink prison may have a reputation as a debtor’s prison, but according toMitchel P. Roth, Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, Westport CT 2006 ISBN 0-313-32856-0 (p. 64), it became the first imprison point for heretics as well. Among those imprisoned included anyone labeled as a Radical Christian, like John Bradford and John Hooper. Both of these men were executed for heresy. 

Before they were sentenced to death, however, they were at point point inmates at The Clink prison (According to this work: Henry Benjamin Wheatley, London Past and Present: Its History, Associations, and Traditions, Cambridge University Press, 1891 (p. 426)) 

Apparently, you had to be transferred out of the Clink before you were tried for crimes that might result in an execution sentence, because according to Alex, the Clink prisoners were rarely executed and torture was not part of the deal there. 

Today, the Clink Prison Museum is a tourist attraction in London based on the actual history of The Clink prison. As an attraction, the museum features a wide variety of torture scenes. Alex explains that these displays are not reflective of the real history: 

No they weren’t. The torture gadgetry at the Clink was to illustrate the nastier end of the prison system, which was really just going on at the Tower. One of the problems with English history is that it’s been distorted by Victorian penny dreadful writers. Penny dreadfuls were cheap novels quickly produced to entertain the newly working class. The idea that all prisons had torture chambers is nonsense. 

If they weren’t executed, then what happened to prisoners after they had served their sentence at The Clink? Alex explains:

No, definitely not executed. The CLink really was a corner cop shop. Local police station effectively. The thing about paying the blacksmith to take the shackles off, he’s only going to do that when the jailer says he can and there’s a bill at the end of your stay that you need to settle somehow. Put in the clink wasn’t a death sentence. It was a nasty prison, but people got out of it. You can’t leave people there to let them die if only because for a very long time we’ve had a system where people are entered into parish registers when they are born and they are written off when they die, so it can’t be a place where people disappear. SOme people were taken away and executed, taken away and whipped, or just released.

Book & Resources Alex Lyon recommends:


A few resources Cassidy thinks you might find useful: 

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