Of Gaols and Dungeons

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been working on a proposal for a new historical mystery/suspense novel set in Elizabethan England. It’s slow going, partly because there are so many wonderful possibilities. The temptation to include everything that fascinates me about the period is strong . . . and would be disastrous. “Information dumps” are never a good idea.

cell doors in Lancaster Castle

There is, however, one aspect of sixteenty-century life I’m certain to explore, with full and loving descriptive details, and that’s the experience of being thrown into prison.

My heroine runs afoul of the law against witchcraft. There’s a fine line, you see, between “cures” and “spells” and stepping over it can not only send someone to gaol, but also to the gallows.

An aside: England dealt with witches a little differently than the rest of Europe. The charge against those who were executed was usually bewitching to death (murder) and so convicted witches were hanged, not burnt. If an alleged witch was burnt in England, a very rare occurrence, it was because the charge was heresy, not witchcraft. The usual sentence for a witch who was not accused of killing anyone was one year in prison and four appearances in the pillory. Of course, this could end up being a death sentence, since conditions in the prisons were so unhealthy.

So, prisons. The county gaol in Essex was Colchester Castle, where accused witches were sent to await trail at the next Assizes (held twice a year). The cells tourists see today do not date from the sixteenth century. Neither do those in Lancaster Castle, where the Pendle Witches of the early seventeenth century were held. But I’ve been to Lancaster Castle.

interior of a cell in Lancaster Castle

The dungeons there were used to house prisoners as early as 1196. What survives probably dates from the eighteenth century, but when you descend into the basement of a medieval hall and see the cold stone floors (and walls and even ceilings), the heavy doors to the cells, and the bleak, bare, small spaces beyond, the atmosphere survives the centuries. You know you would not want to be locked up there, even before the tour guide offers you the chance to experience that situation for yourself. In the interests of research, I allowed myself to be herded inside a small empty room. The door closed, blocking out the light. Can you say instant claustrophobia? A few minutes is bad enough. Days, weeks, and months? You have to wonder how anyone survived. I’m not usually sensitive to “vibes” but this section of the castle has a cold, clammy feel to it. I won’t go so far as to say I sensed the presence of all the tormented souls once imprisoned there, but I certainly did feel a chill. It took a while to stop shivering.

In London, I had the opportunity to visit the museum built at the site of the original “Clink” prison in what was once the separate municipality of Southwark. This gaol was in use from the twelfth century until 1780. The set-up now is theme-park tacky, but that doesn’t detract from the usefulness of the exhibits, including one of “restraining and torture devices.” The fact that the museum is located on the same spot as the original, even though it’s now surrounded by the buildings of modern-day London, was an added bonus. Imagine walking there along narrow, winding streets, past the ruins of the Bishop of Winchester’s Palace. Nearby are the George, with its innyard suitable for performances by companies of players, and the New Globe, and the site of the original Globe Theatre.

In both prisons, I had the opportunity to examine various sorts of fetters: manacles to go on the wrists, shackes for the ankles, and iron collars that circle the neck. Prisoners had to pay for “exemption from ironing.” Now, I know that in many museums and living history centers visitors, especially kids, are given the chance to put their head and wrists in a pillory (stocks are for the feet, and sometimes the hands) so Mom and Dad can take a picture. I had one taken myself when I was eight or nine years old. But unless you are forced to stay that way for hours at a time while your neighbors throw rotten produce at you, the experience bears no resemblance to what sixteenth century “criminals” had to endure. Even if they weren’t tortured (officially illegal in England), they were kept in cramped, uncomfortable, unsanitary conditions and, when convicted, assuming they weren’t hanged (the punishment for stealing anything valued at more than a shilling), they were likely to be whipped and/or have various body parts branded or lopped off.

I’m counting on the triple threats of public humiliation, imprisonment, and execution to provide plenty of motivation for my heroine. After one brief stint in Colchester Castle gaol, she’ll do whatever is necessary to keep from being sent back there.

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6 Responses to Of Gaols and Dungeons

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    The prospect of even a moment in such claustrophobic confinement would have been more than sufficient motivation for me to “walk the straight and narrow” had I lived in Elizabethan England!


    • And the really scary thing is that these cells are the clean and sweet smelling version of what being imprisoned during that era would have been like! Years ago, when I was writing historical romance as Kathy Lynn Emerson, I included a scene where my heroine was shown the prisoners in a gaol in Mancester, England (in order to scare her into confessing to something she didn’t do). I included all the graphic details I’d turned up in my research. The editor cut it. Looking back, I can understand why. At the time, I was certain my readers would be just as fascinated by all that gruesomeness as I was.


  2. Lea Wait says:

    As a fellow fan of the historical – and of prisons – I’ve only seen two in the UK. The Tower of London, where the worst cells loooked modern compared to those — and the cells at Edinburgh Castle, which are — horrendous, and quite comparable, Most of those were used for soliders (some of them American) and political prisoners. Thanks for sharing, Kaitlyn! Look forward to reading your book!


  3. John Clark says:

    Great background information. I’m sure I’ll remember it when the books come out and I’m reading them.


  4. lil Gluckstern says:

    I always find jails and prisons fascinating, as do so many. I lived in Conneticut where there was an prison still left from the Revolution. Falling down and small, it was a frightening sight to think of people imprisoned there during New England winters. I am looking forward to reading your book. I’m currently reading your Diana books, since I finished your last Liss book. And enjoying the history as well as the story.


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