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Bridewell, once palace, then prison, was an intriguing site in the early modern period. It changed hands several times before falling into the possession of the City of London to be used as a prison and hospital. The prison is mentioned in many early modern texts, including plays by Jonson and Dekker as well as the surveys and diaries of the period. Bridewell is located on the Agas map at the corner of the Thames and Fleet Ditch, labelled as BrideWell. The building was originally a palace built for King Henry VIII, but it became a workhouse and prison as the early modern period progressed. Bridewell also appears in texts as Brydewell, Bride Well, Bridewel, and Bride-well.

Royal Beginnings

Stow tells us that a royal dwelling long stood on the site of Bridewell by Saint Brides in Fleetstreet. St. Bride’s Church was one of the oldest churches in London, taking its name from Saint Brigid (sometimes written Bride) of Kildare1. What once was a tower, Stow writes, was replaced with the house called Bridewell (Stow; BHO). This house fell into ruin, but the property was acquired by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1510, transferred to King Henry VIII in 1515, and completed in 1523 after Henry VIII added several wings and buildings. Situated near Westminster, Bridewell Palace often hosted foreign monarchs and dignitaries and it provided an alternative dwelling for royalty. According to Stow, the palace was built for receit of the Emperor Charles the 5(Stow; BHO). Johannes Sleidanus, in A famouse chronicle of oure time (1560), writes about this visit from Emperor Charles the Fifth, Holy Roman Emperor, to England in 1520:
In the begynning of the springe time, The emperour taketh shippinge in Spaine to sayle into Englande, where he was royally receiued of kynge Henry the eight, who had maried hys Aunte Katherine, which amonges other kyndes of his princelike liberalite builded a goodlye lodginge purposely for him vpon the Riuer of Themse, called Bridewell, and from thens he sayled into Flaunders, where he was ioyefully receyued of almen. (xviij)
Hall also records King Henry VIII’s personal use of Bridewell. He first notes a Christmas at which the kyng and many young gentlemen with hym, came to Bridewell, & there put hym, and .xv. other, al in Maskyng apparel before taking the royal barge down the Thames for a large masque and dinner (Hall Cliij). Henry VIII stopped at Bridewell, and there he & his nobles put on there robes of parliament, and so came to the blacke Freers church, where a Masse of the holy ghost was solemplie song by the kynges Chappell (Hall Clxxxvii). Stow adds, In the yeare 1529. the same king Henrie and Queene Katherine were lodged there, whilest the question of their marriage was argued in the Blacke Friers (Survey).
Bridewell was also a site where King Henry rewarded and raised peers of the realm. In The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancatre [and] York, published in 1548, Edward Hall records several of the nobles who received titles at Bridewell. According to Hall, in 1595 King Henry VIII knighted his son, Henry Fitz Roy, and appointed him as Erle of Notyngham at the Manor or place of Bridewell (Hall Cxliij). Hall lists several other nobles who gained titles on the same day, including a children of twoo yere old who was given the title of Earle of Lincolne (Hall Cxliij). In 1553, King Edward VI gave Bridewell to the City of London as a workhouse, school, and prison. As Stow records: The tenth of Aprill the Lorde Mayor of London2 was sent for to the Courte at White hall, and there at that time, the Kings Maiestie gave to him for to be a work house for the poore and ydle persons of the Citie of London. This Palace of Bridewel. (1057) However, Edward died before the transaction was completed and thus when the Lord Maior of London, and the Aldermen entred into Bridewell, and tooke possession thereof, accordyng to the gifte of King Edward it had to be confirmed by Quéene Marie (Stow Chronicles 1100). Bridewell would become one of the most famous prisons of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

Bridewell as Hospital and Prison

John Taylor recounts Bridewell’s history—from palace, to hospital and prison—in his The Praise and Vertue of Jayle and Jaylers. Taylor remarks:
Bridewell vnto my memory comes next;
Where idleneſſe and lechery is vext:
This is a royall houſe, of ſtate and port,
Which the eighth King Henry built, and there kept Court
King Edward ſomewhat ere his timeleſſe fall,
Gaue it away to be an Hoſpitall:
Which vſe the City puts it well vnto,
And many pious deeds they there doe doo:
But yet for Vagabonds and Runnagates,
For Whores, and idle knaues, and ſuchlike mates,
’Tis little better than a Iayle to thoſe,
Where they chop chalke, for meat and drinke and blowes
In this houſe thoſe that ’gainſt their wils doe dwell,
Loue well a Bride (perhaps) but not Bridewell
(Taylor sig. 2M2r)
What was once a royal palace would now be known as the Bridewell Royal Hospital and Bridewell Prison. Bridewell, along with other prisons and hospitals, would be funded by the rents of Savoy lands. Stow records that King Edward VI gave to London seauen hundred Markes landes of the Sauoy rentes [. . . .] towards the maintenance of the said workehouse of Bridewell, and of this Hospitall of Saint Thomas in Southwarke.
The institution of Bridewell began operating only because of Royal Charter. As Griffiths notes, while Bridewell did not have the endorsement Parliamentary act, Bridewell maintained a legal court in which defendants could be tried and prosecuted. It also had capacity to house two hundred prisoners, contained a school for orphan or vagabond children, and featured facilities where prisoners were put to work to earn their bread.
Bridewell was one of London’s first prisons and thus the term bridewell became synonymous with prison and punishment. In the 1587 bilingual dictionary Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, Thomas Thomas explains the Latin term Ergastŭlus as a a Seruant, or slaue kept in person, & forced to worke: a Bridwell birde (LEME). In fact, the noun bridewell is defined in the OED as a A house of correction for prisoners; a place of forced labour; a gaol; a prison (OED). Bridewell was so popular in the early modern era, it was employed anachronistically. In The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine, the eldest sonne of King Brutus, a character says I think you were broght vp in the vniuersitie of bridewell, you haue your rhetorick so ready at your toongs end (sig.F2v). Brutus was a legendary Trojan hero known as the founder and first king of Britain, ruling in the 100s BCE, long before Bridewell was established.
Most early modern literary texts depict Bridewell negatively. Indeed, Bridewell prison is often the dwelling place for the morally unsound. For instance, the ballad A Mad Crue lists those who will be tryde in Bridewell, including the old Maltman who drinks while he works; The Carrier that travels by night very late, stealing ale and riding boats on the Thames; and A Wench of plaine dealing practicing prostitution . These dishonorable characters ultimately face The Beadles of Bridewell along with The rod of correction (EBBA). Dekker invokes Bridewell similarly in If it be not good, the Divel is in it. A man finds that his daughter incarcerated for prostitution at Bridewell and is put to work, beating hemp in Bridewell to choke theeues (citation). Ben Jonson, as well, refers to Bridewell in Bartholemew Fair, discussing Bridewell as a place where women are lash’d and slash’d (Citation). Bridewellas place of punishment, as Griffths argues, was a common fate for women in particular. Griffiths points out that many of those prosecuted in the early 1600s were women charged with prostitution (Griffiths 313).
However, not all references to Bridewell were wholly negative. Dekker in The Second Part of Honest Whore, seems to hold a good opinion of Bridewell. While Bridewell could be a place of fear and coercion, Dekker thinks of Bridewell as a space of reconciliation and redemption. Bridewell serves as a cautionary tale for the character the Duke, who praises the prison:
Your Bridewell? that the name? for beauty, strength,
Capacity and forme of ancient building, 
(Besides the Riuers neighbourhood) few houses 
Wherein we keepe our Court can better it.
In The burnynge of Paules church in London, James Pilkington preaches against Catholicism, pointing to the good done by the Protestant institution of Bridewell:
Looke into London, and see what hospitals be there founded in the Gospell time, and the poore in dede releued, youth godly brought vppe, and the idls set to worke. Poperye would some time fede the hungry, but seldome correct the vnprofitable drones that sucked the honye from the labouring bees, nor bring vp children in the feare of God, but to fill the bellye, and not to teache vertue is to encrease vice. Wel worth Bridewell therfore, for it is a good schole.
Pilkington evidently conceives of Bridewell as an institution that offers a future to the destitute rather than one that indiscriminately incarcerates.
Accordingly, religious tracts held seemingly ambivalent views of Bridewell. While Thomas Adams, in The deuills bnket described in foure sermons, describes Bridewell as broad Hell (7), he also calls Bridewell a cure in Diseases of the soule. For Adams, there is no medicine like a good whips, to let out [the idle’s] lazy bloud; and a good dyet of daily labour, which some skilfull Bedle must see him take; put him into the bath at Bridewell, to take away the numnesse of his joynts and scowre off his ruse, and so he may be recovered ().


Bridewell was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was soon rebuilt and continued to serve as a prison, workhouse, and school through the mid-nineteenth century.3 The prison closed in 1855, and the school moved in 1867, becoming King Edward’s School, Witley. Today, a building known as Bridewell Court sits on the site where Bridewell Palace once stood. With the passing of centuries, it is now a considerable distance from the Thames River. However, it does sit on the aptly named Tudor Street.


  1. An early Christian town in east-central Ireland (BAE) (KLM)
  2. In April of 1553 the Lord Mayor of London was George Barnes. (MASL) (KLM)
  3. More information about Bridewell from 1690 to 1800 as well as the institutions governance and role in society can be found at the London Lives project.


Cite this page

MLA citation

Smith, Caitlin. Bridewell. The Map of Early Modern London, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 20 Jun. 2018,

Chicago citation

Smith, Caitlin. Bridewell. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 20, 2018.

APA citation

Smith, C. 2018. Bridewell. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London. Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Smith, Caitlin
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Bridewell
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
PY  - 2018
DA  - 2018/06/20
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 


RT Web Page
SR Electronic(1)
A1 Smith, Caitlin
A6 Jenstad, Janelle
T1 Bridewell
T2 The Map of Early Modern London
WP 2018
FD 2018/06/20
RD 2018/06/20
PP Victoria
PB University of Victoria
LA English
OL English

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#SMIT18"><surname>Smith</surname>, <forename>Caitlin</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Bridewell</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2018-06-20">20 Jun. 2018</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>




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