“Law & Order: Policing & Prisons in Elizabethan London”, by Dean Hamilton

by Dean Hamilton

Rembrandt's THE NIGHT WATCH, likely not a good example of London's watch....
Rembrandt’s THE NIGHT WATCH, likely not a good example of London’s watch….


“The Lawyers they go ruffling in their silks, velvets and chains of gold…It grieveth me the pitiful cries and miserable complaints of poor prisoners in durance for debt and like so to continue all their life, destitute of liberty, meat, drink….and clothing to their backs, lying in filthy straw and loathsome dung, worse than any dog…”
– Philip Stubbs, Anatomy of Abuses, 1585


Policing and law enforcement in the Elizabethan era was problematic at best. Elizabeth’s London lacked anything that could be considered a formal police force by modern definitions, however it did not lack for enforcement. Sheriffs, wardens, beadles, constables, watchmen and bailiffs, reeves and churchwardens, alongside all manner of private men-at-arms, enforcers and hired men all carried various levels of responsibility and authority to apprehend miscreants and enforce the laws. Private “thief-takers” and debt-collectors added to the confusion and multiple lines of authority and ward jurisdictions.

The consistency and competency of these parties varied wildly, resulting in “a compound of self-importance, ineptitude and willful idleness” , as Shakespeare’s immortal portrayal of the wayward constable Dogberry and his men so aptly illustrates.

Dogberry: This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the prince’s name.

Second Watchman: How if a’ will not stand?

Dogberry: Why, then, take no note of him, but let him go; and presently call the rest of the watch together and thank God you are rid of a knave.

Another example cited was John Earle, an English Bishop, who noted in his work Microcomsographie published in 1628 (more Jacobean than Elizabethan admittedly):

“A Constable is a viceroy in the streets, and no man stands more upon’t that he is the King’s officer. His jurisdiction extends to the next stocks, where he has commission for the heels only, and sets the rest of the body at liberty. He is a scarecrow to that alehouse, where he drinks not his morning draught, and apprehends a drunkard for not standing in the king’s name.”

This view of the Elizabethan constables as inept, bumbling and foolish was probably exaggerated to an extent, in particular in London with its varied levels of criminality, dense bustling commerce, noisome population and frequent transgressions.

The court system was a similarly complex set of jurisdictions including four royal courts at Westminster. These were the Court of the Exchequer (dealing with money owed to the Crown), The Court of the Queen’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Court of Chancery. These dealt with the Crown interests, legal disputes between subjects, inheritances, trusts and property, and marriage settlements. The Star Chamber and Parliament dealt with treason and high-level cases of the national interest.

Serious criminal cases were brought before the Assizes (major courts held periodically) and the Justices of the Peace. Local county courts dealt with less serious, non-capital offences, and other issues including small claims. Mayorial courts (held by incorporated towns) and manorial courts (presided over by landholders or their appointees) picked up the myriad civil and petty criminal disputes ranging from theft, vagrancy, land usage disputes to playing unlawful games.

In additional to the secular courts, there were also ecclesiastical courts which governed religious and moral behavior, encompassing such infractions as adultery, living immorally, incest, blasphemy, sodomy, failure to observe the rites of the church, recusant (aimed at practitioners of Catholicism), and defamation (among others). Public humiliation, imprisonment shaming, penance, and stiff fines often accompanied any ecclesiastical crimes.


Execution of Members of the Gunpowder Plot
Execution of Members of the Gunpowder Plot


Sentences and punishments were often brutal. They included death by hanging; beheading (generally reserved for the nobility or persons of note); and drawing and quartering. Drawing and quartering was usually reserved for treasonous offences and consisted of being dragged to the gallows in a hurdle, hanged, cut down while still alive, followed by evisceration and castration. After which the private parts were burned and the body cut into four quarters, which were then dipped in pitch to preserve them and sent to prominent towns / locations for display. The head was dipped in pitch and spiked onto the gatehouse at London Bridge as a warning to others. Hangings were usually carried out in London at the notorious Tyburn Tree scaffold, a unique triangular multi-person gallows erected in the village of Tyburn in the western “suburbs” of London built in 1571. Hangings were a particularly social occasion, drawing large crowds of spectators, particularly when a felon was infamous or well-known.

As an added bonus, the sentence for heretics was to be burned alive at the stake. Two Dutch Anabaptists were burned at Smithfield in 1572.


Tyburn Tree


Other common punishments included whipping at a post or a cart tail; being secured in the pillory or the stocks (not as gentle as tourist images may imply. On occasion, pilloried prisoners would have their ears nailed to the pillory and upon completion of the sentence, the ears would be cut off rather than taking the effort to pry out the nails…), amputation of the hands, being placed on a ducking stool and dunked into water or suspended in the air (often reserved as a punishment for women), being placed in a tumbrel (a cart) and wheeled through public locations for public mockery and humiliation, and the old stalwart solution of imprisonment.

London had approximately 14 major prisons (more than any other European capital, according to Peter Ackroyd’s superlative city biography London) including the Tower (usually reserved for Royal prisoners and prisoners of particular note), the Gatehouse, Fleet (for debtors), Newgate (debt and serious crimes), Ludgate, Poultry Counter, Wood Street Counter (for theft), Bridewell (vice-related crimes such as prostitution), White Lion, the King’s Bench, Marshalsea, Southwark Counter, the Clink (often Catholic priests & recusants), and St. Katherine’s. Imprisonment was not a punishment; it was a waiting room or holding area for punishment.

Prisoners with ready cash were expected to pay for their own upkeep. Prompt and regular payments to the Keepers (wardens) would allow prisoners to live in relative comfort on what was called The Master’s Side. This included better food, bedding, privacy, visitors (including family members) and, at times, the privilege of leaving the prison during the day. Prisoners without coin found themselves relegated to the common area of the prison, the Knight’s Side, in association with common criminals. The poorest, most notorious and worse-off prisoners eventually would find themselves shifted into the dank darkness of the basement dungeons, often fettered or chained. In the Fleet prison, the oldest of London’s prisons, these cells were ironically nicknamed Bartholomew’s Fair. At Newgate, they were called the Hole, and few, if any prisoners ever emerged as they were usually claimed by pestilence or disease. Newgate in particular had a grim and deadly reputation, such that a legend arose of the Black Dog of Newgate, a demon hound that supposedly would appear the night before an execution, to drag the souls of the condemned to Hell.

Benjamin Jonson Artist: Abraham van Blyenber
Benjamin Jonson
Artist: Abraham van Blyenber

London’s prisons saw a steady stream of well-known visitors, among them several Elizabethan playwrights, including Ben Jonson. Jonson was imprisoned in the Marshalsea in 1597 for “Leude and mutynous behavior” for writing the play “The Isle of Dogs”, again imprisoned in Newgate in 1598 for killing a man in a duel, and in 1605 for offending King James’s Scottish sensibilities with his satirical play Eastward Ho.

Thomas Nash (who co-wrote The Isle of Dogs with Jonson), noted of the Counter, “a gentleman is never thoroughly entered into credit till he hath been there” observing also,

“Trace the gallantest youths and bravest revelers about town in all the by-paths of their expense, and you shall infallibly find, that once in their lifetime they have visited the melancholy habitation….there is no place of the earth like it, to make a man wise…I vow that if I had a son, I would sooner send him to one of the Counters to learn law, than to the Inns of Court or Chancery.”

There is no record as to whether William Shakespeare ever saw the inside of any of London’s prisons, but it would probably not be surprising.

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare

1. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
2. The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado
3. Elizabeth’s London by Lisa Picard
4. London: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd



Dean Hamilton
Dean Hamilton


Dean Hamilton was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He spent the first half of his childhood chasing around the prairies and western Canada before relocating to Toronto, Ontario. He has three degrees (BA, MA & MBA), reads an unhealthy amount of history, works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. Much of his winter is spent hanging around hockey arenas and shouting at referees.

He is married with a son, a dog, four cats and a turtle named Tortuga. THE JESUIT LETTER is his first novel of a planned series THE TYBURN FOLIOS.

BLOG: Tyburn Tree
Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree
Facebook: Dean Hamilton


ABOUT The Jesuit Letter

The Jesuit Letter

• HNS 2016 Indie Award Short-list Nominee

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Ex-soldier turned play-actor Christopher Tyburn thought he had left bloodshed and violence behind him when he abandoned the war against the Spanish in Flanders, but fate has different and far bloodier plans waiting.

When Tyburn accidentally intercepts a coded latter from a hidden Jesuit priest in Warwickshire, he is entangled in a murderous and deadly conspiracy. Stalked by unknown enemies, he must race to uncover the conspiracy and hunt down the Jesuit to clear his name. . . or die a traitor’s death. His only hope – an eleven-year old glover’s son named William Shakespeare.






Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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