Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Medieval Clink Prison (1144-1780)

Established in 1144 AD, "The Clink" was the prison that gave its name to all others. The name derived from the clinking sound made by the blacksmith when closing the irons around the wrists and ankles of prisoners. The prison was located on the south side of the Thames River just west of the London Bridge in an area named Southwark. 

Originally, the prison was built within palace walls owned and operated by the Bishop of Winchester. It served as the bishop's private gaol (jail). 

Southwark became the place where the people of London went for their adult entertainment, much like Las Vegas is today for many Americans. It was louder, cruder, and more notorious than staid London across the river.  

Activities which were illegal north of the Thames were given free rein on the south side of the river. Drinking and carousing were popular past times. Bull and bear baiting attracted gamblers, as did dog fighting and cock fights. There were twenty-two bath houses (brothels) along Bankside, and in 1587 AD, the new playhouses added to the general lawlessness as petty crimes were rampant and cut purses (pick pockets) worked the area.
Over its six-hundred year history, the Clink has held debtors, heretics, drunkards, prostitutes, thieves, political prisoners, Protestants, Catholics, and the pilgrim fathers before they shipped out to America.

Despite barbaric prison conditions, punishment was not the purpose of Medieval prisons. Prisons were used to confine the accused before his or her trial. The punishment came after the trial

For minor offenses, a prisoner could be locked in the stocks for a public show of humiliation or taken to a pillory where the guilty party would be tied to the whipping post for a public scourging. 

For capital crimes, a person could have his head chopped off, get his neck stretched by the business end of a rope, or be burned at the stake if you were a religious heretic. Executions were popular forms of entertainment in those times and drew huge crowds.

The lower cellars of the prison would regularly flood during high tides and prisoners would have to stand waist high in sewage and human waste. Waterborne infections killed countless people with diseases like Camp Fever (typhoid), The Ague (malaria), and The Flux (dysentery). During the plague years, the Clink must have resembled Hell itself as bodies were piled up outside the prison waiting to be hauled away for hasty burial. 

Because of the accumulated filth, William de Rakyer was hired in 1375 to rake up the muck. This is believed to be the origin of the term "muckraker" used in politics. 

In a footnote to history, King Henry II in 1161 issued fifty-two regulations for the Bankside "stews" in an effort to regulate prostitution. The working girls were not allowed to cheat their patrons, nor could women be forced into that line of work. Women for the first time were allowed to earn an income and achieve a level of independence from men hitherto unknown.

Ironically, the Bishop of Winchester owned several of these "rented" houses and made a sizable income from the wages of sin. The girls were nicknamed "Winchester Geese" partially because of the white aprons and yellow hoods they were required to wear by law. 

The brothels were called stews, which is believed to be a corruption of the Old French word for stove - estuve - for the "hot work done in them."

For the first time, these women had some immunity from prosecution and could ply their trade without constant fear of arrest and incarceration in the Clink.