The Clink: England’s Oldest Prison

Feb 22, 2022 0 comments

The oldest prison in England and the country’s most notorious was owned not by the reigning monarch but the Bishop of Winchester. Now why would a bishop, a man of god, you may ask, would need a prison for? To keep heretics, of course. In later years, “Clink”, as the prison was called, was used to imprison debtors as well as any miscreants. Its name is thought to have derived from the sound metal makes when the prison's doors were bolted close, or from the rattling of the chains the prisoners wore.

The Clink prison, now a museum. Photo: Matt Brown/Flickr

Clink was established on the South bank of the Thames around mid-12th century. This land, known as the “Liberty of the Clink” was given to the Bishop of Winchester by the newly established Norman Kings. Although situated in Surrey the liberty was exempt from the jurisdiction of the county's high sheriff and was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester who was usually either the Chancellor or Treasurer of the King.

In 1109 William Gifford, Bishop of Winchester, had the Winchester House Built. This palace would remain for more than 500 years as the residence for the bishops when they were in London. The palace contained a number of cells that were used to accommodate monks, priests, and other members of the clergy who had broken ecclesiastical codes. These cells were deemed necessary since members of the clergy were immune from punishment under civil law. The responsibility of punishing such wrongdoers thus fell on the bishop.

By law, an archbishop was allowed to use several types of punishment such scourging with rods, solitary confinement, serving only bread and water which led to severe malnourishment and eventual death. Over time, Clink became famous for the elaborate tortures inflicted upon its prisoners. A popular method of torture was using fetters and irons to prevent the prisoners from falling asleep. Another kind of punishment was to force the prisoners to stand in water until their feet rotted. Women who were found guilty of adultery were tied to a pole and suspended over a pot of boiling oil.

In general, the prisoners were treated very harshly. But it was possible to buy a few basic comforts by bribing the gaolers, who hired out better rooms, beds, bedding, candles and fuel in exchange for some money. Food and drink were charged at twice the outside price. Those who could afford could buy lighter fitting irons or remove them completely. For a fee, prisoners were allowed outside to beg or even to work. Corruption was so rife that it was possible to run a brothel from inside the Clink, with payments going to the gaolers. Money also allowed privileged prisoners to avoid the whipping post, the ducking stool, and other tortures and indignities.

Photo: MattLake/Flickr

No wonder, the Clink was much hated by the towners, so when rioters protesting the newly established Statute of Labourers turned violent, some of them attacked the Winchester House and released all the prisoners and murdered the clerics. The rioters then burned the prison down. After the rebellion was put down, the Winchester House was rebuilt and extended, and a new bigger prison was built. The prison got a new ducking stool on the bank outside the Clink which was used for punishing scolds, erring ale sellers, and bakers who sold underweight or bad bread.

When Mary I came to the throne in 1553, she used the Clink to incarcerate Protestants. Prisoners were kept in stocks and pillories and starved. Those that didn't starve to death were executed later. When Queen Elizabeth took over she continued to use the prison for religious persecution, but this time the Catholics were on the receiving end, along with Protestant Puritans. In 1584, Puritans planned to overthrow the church. When Elizabeth found out, she ordered that the harshest treatments of the prison be given, and scores of Puritans were starved to death. Some of those that survived later travelled in The Mayflower to America in 1620.

In 1649, Winchester House was sold to a property developer and was divided into shops, tenements and dye houses. The Clink remained, but now it was mostly a debtors prison. The cage that hung on the outside was removed when ratepayers complained about the cost of upkeep, but the whipping post continued to see action. By the early 18th century, both of these and the stocks were all unused because of the cost of upkeep, and by 1732 there were only two registered inmates. The prison finally burned down in 1780 during Gordon riots.

During its long history, the Clink held many historically significant criminals. These include Sir Thomas Wyatt The Younger, who rebelled against Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary I and John Rogers, who translated the Bible into English from Latin during the reign of the aforementioned Roman Catholic Queen.

The Clink Prison Museum now stands at the site of the former prison.


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