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Welcome to Episode 173 of That Shakespeare Life the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

Bridewell Palace was built in the early 16th century as a residence for King Henry VIII. The palace was a unique structure because it deviated from the architectural designs of the time period by not having a great hall and featuring an elaborate staircase. It was also constructed around a large inner courtyard. Under Edward VI in the 1550s, Bridewell Palace was given to the City of London as a home for the city’s homeless children and a place of punishment for “disorderly women.” It was run in conjunction with Bedlam Hospital throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime and formed the blueprint for later large prisons, including the Clirkenwell Bridwell prison opened as a correctional institute for prostitutes and vagrants in 1615 and Tothill Fields Bridewell prison that was opened in 1618 in Westminster. The building itself was mostly destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the reputation of Bridwell would far outlast the original structure, with the term “bridewell” continuing in use around the world into the present day as a term for a city’s detention facility, usually close to a courthouse.

Here today to explain the history of Bridewell Prison is our guest, Duncan Salkeld. 


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Duncan Salkeld is Professor Emeritus of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Chichester, and Visiting Professor at The University of Roehampton. He is author of three monographs: Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Manchester University Press, 1993), Shakespeare Among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature and Drama 1500-1650 (Ashgate, 2012), and Shakespeare and London (Oxford UP, 2018). He is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters. He runs specialist online courses in early modern palaeography. Contact Duncan Here.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Duncan Salkeld about :

  • Edward VI’s establishment of Bridewell as a home for the vagrant children of London sounds benevolent at first glance, but wasn’t vagrancy a crime in early modern England? Was this “home” actually a prison for the children seen as riff raff on the streets? 
  • Bridewell is referred to as a “house of correction”. Was the purpose of being sent to Bridewell to rehabilitate criminals and return them to society?
  • Bridewell would become a blueprint for prisons around the world for centuries after Bridewell Prison was established in 16th century London. Why was Bridewell considered so successful?
  • … and more!

prison for a debtor, that not dares
To stride a limit.


Cymbeline (III.3)

Bridewell Palace shown on the “Copperplate” map of London, surveyed between 1553 and 1559, showing the former Bridewell Palace, with its frontage on the River Thames, and extending along the bank of the River Fleet towards St Bride’s Church (visible in the background). circa 1553. Unknown author. This digital version is provided by Ann Saunders and John Schofield (eds), Tudor London: a map and a view (2001). Public Domain. Source


Bridewell Housed Children, House of Correction

Bridewell was began as an orphanage for the city’s homeless children. That philanthropic start was soon forgotten (and arguably never realized) as Bridewell would become synonymous with “jail” over the next several centuries, spawning houses of correction (prisons) around the world. There are surviving prisons today in Chicago, Dublin, and New York named Bridewell after the one began in London under Edward VI.

King Edward VI grants a Royal Charter to Bridewell Hospital in 1553. Painting dates to 1750.
Drawing watercolour by George Vertue. Housed at the British Museum. Public Domain. Source

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the City of London had a great many homeless children (this rampant vagrancy and surplus of “street urchins” as they are called by the 20th century) continued well into the Dickensian version of London we see in Oliver Twist.

However, for Shakespeare’s London, the mass amount of wayward and orphan children was handled quite differently. Some would be sent to Bridewell, where they were worked as slaves in the workrooms of the corrections facility with no rights or priviledges. Indeed, the ones who were worked at Bridewell were considered expendable, replaceable, and nothing more than garbage to be worked until they died before being replaced by the numerous orphans available in London to whom no one was attached nor particularly cared what happened to them.

Bridewell was not equipped to handle many orphans, however, and as Duncan points out, the total capacity was only about 30 in total. After the maximum was reached, many of the orphans were shipped to the colonies in America on board ships and abandoned in the New World. Arguably, compared to Bridewell, the fate of travelling the Atlantic and facing an unknown world with no provisions was a more hopeful propsect than staying in London.

Duncan explains,

Bridewell starts sending children to the Virginia Colonies as the beginning of America.* Loitering, cutting a purse, or a night walker/cut purse/prostitute. Some records have very detailed information. Conceived as a charitable endeavor, [Bridewell’s intent was to] give people training or way back into work after being displaced and onthe streets, but because it housed it’s own court (where you were tried for a crime) it functioned partly as a judicial space, one of the most punitive institutions. Christopher Beaston (sp?)–one of Shakespeare’s co actors, accused of raping a woman just outside of Bishop’s gate. He brings in his confederate players (don’t know who they were but might have been Lord Chamberlain’s Men members, transferred over that summer to Worcester’s Men) the actors come in and behave like swaggering louts, abusive to the governor’s/magistrates, definitely going to take action against him but they neer do and Beaston becomes a prosperous actors.

*Duncan Salkeld specifically requested we add “colonial” in front of “America” in his quote here. On the audio, he says only “America” and asked afterwards to be allowed to qualify his statement in the notes. We have here obliged his request.

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But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

Father's Ghost

Hamlet (I.5)

The Pass Room at Bridewell from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808–1811), drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin. |Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers) | The Pass Room at Bridewell from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11). Drawing by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin. At this time paupers from outside London apprehended by the authorities could be imprisoned for seven days before being sent back to their own parish. Ackermann refers to the room used here as being for “one class of miserable females” amongst the paupers; presumably mentioning the existence of single mothers would have been unacceptable to his readership. This engraving was published as Plate 12 of Microcosm of London (1808) (see File:Microcosm of London Plate 012 – Pass Room, Bridewell.jpg). | Public Domain | Source

Bridewell was Known for Squalid Conditions

Bridewell was associated with, and even under the joint administration for a time, as Bedlam Hospital. Bedlam is famous for rather squalid conditions for inmates. Bridewell was similarly known for horrible conditions. Duncan writes of inmates “Alice saunders, Alice lewis, Elizabeth Grant, threatening to hang themselves. Horrible conditions, opulent building.”

Since Bridewell was originally a palace, converted into this prison, the circumstances of being incarcerated there were quite weird compared to other prisons (there weren’t established cells, for example). Instead, prisoners as well as guards stayed in the many rooms designed for a King. Duncan explains, 

Group of undertakers given the responsibility of running the prisons. Undertakers stole best rooms for themselves and their families, then simply neglected their duties, ended 1602, magistrates got control again and kicked undertakers out, they listed all the complaints and one of them was that women prisoners were walking around freely and entertaining clients and locking themselves in their own chambers (had their own keys–grandest brothel in London) governors re-established the system (Nicholas Bywater, Brownlow, Thomas Stanley) Godfrey, Kate Arden (Ben Jonson refers to her) 

 A Scene in Bridewell, plate IV. William Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress, April 1732 | A Scene in Bridewell, plate IV. William Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress, April 1732 | Public Domain | Person who uploaded the file named it “Moll in Bridewell” suggesting at least someone links this image to Moll Cutpurse (known as Mary Firth) Notice the sign behind them that says “Better to work than to stand thus” The image is of a woman, presumably convicted of a crime, being made to work as punishment. That’s possibly the matron behind her looking on (the weird facial expression may indicate that’s a fellow inmate). | Source

Despite the prison being known alternately as a school, then a hospital, then again a school throughout the years, the establishment was not known to house any serious medical staff to speak of. 

Matron, assisted by a servant girl, Mary Bate 1570s, early 1600s Alice Millet* matron of Bridewell, sacked for “many misdemeanors” the matron was a jailer. Matron washed people [who were] in a foul condition (lice ridden or filthy) and she also oversaw spinning flax. [She] inspect[ed] women who claimed they were virgin; the matron would be tasked with confirming their claim. Jane Tross, refusing to work and beating the matron–most unruly prisoner in Bridewell, most unruly woman in late Elizabethan London (Thomas Nashe mentions her in the beginning of the unfortunate traveller). 1599 reference to a doctor but [that’s] probably a chaplain. The gates of the chapel are still visible at number 9 bridewell in London.

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…As are our wretches fetter’d in our prisons…

Henry V

Henry V (I.2)

The Prospect of Bridewell from John Strype’s, An Accurate Edition of Stow’s Survey of London (1720) | John Strype’s, An Accurate Edition of Stow’s Survey of London (1720) | Public Domain | Source

Bridewell Became the Blueprint for Prisons Globally

It was said that Bridewell established apprenticeship programs to try and train young orphans into meaningful professions. However, in practice that idea was not realized. Duncan explains, 

The beadles would round up orphans and put them into slave labor. If you died, no one noticed or cared. It had its own burial ground but there are no burial records. You were very lucky if you had a tolerant, kind, supportive mistress, but usually you were worked to death. And no one cared. Runaway apprenticeship, Audrey runs away from Lady Barkley. 

Between the squalid conditions, the horrible reputation, the complete lack of medical care, and the rampant abuses inflicted on prisoners, it comes as a surprise to many that Bridewell would become a blueprint for prisons around the world for centuries after Bridewell Prison was established in 16th century London. When I asked Duncan what it was about Bridewell that made it seem so successful in the eyes of those tasked with establishing other prisons around the world, he explains:

Bridewell was a great idea. You kill two birds with one stone: Punish a petty offense, and two , you give the offender a chance to get back into society. Who could be against that? It had appeal, and people would leave legacies in their wills Thomas Stanley, had good intentions wrote a pamphlet about trying to achieve a great thing. But it all went wrong. Impressive model, but it went wrong. Bridewell made money. If a wealthy person was brought into court, charged with a petty crime, and he could pay, usually it’s a he who could pay, then “money of the relief of the poor in this hospital” when you want money, they are the poor as opposed to prisoners, and it could fine people, and if there was money available, they’d go after it. So it’s possible municipal authorities around the country saw Bridewell as a way to address the problem. WOuld offer some employment to magistrates or keepers of one sort or another and attract donations. In a way, Bridewell is a terrible history, and it’s a prison failure from start to finish, and historical evidence for the truth that prison probably doesn’t realy work, but that said–it was an institution that lsted for three centuries. In that sense, maybe it’s a brutal and merciless success.

Want to learn more?

Here are some books and resources recommended by Duncan Salked.

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