Imprisoned in print: John Lilburne and the (in)visibility of incarceration

On 11 June 1646, John Lilburne was imprisoned by the House of Lords following an altercation over a libel he’d printed against the Earl of Manchester. Although this marked the beginning of a period of recurrent imprisonment for Lilburne, it wasn’t the first time he'd ended up in prison. In 1637, he had been incarcerated … Continue reading Imprisoned in print: John Lilburne and the (in)visibility of incarceration

A Proposal to Enslave Petty Offenders (1621)

We are delighted to share this post by Krista Kesselring, Professor of History at Dalhousie University. It originally appeared on the Legal History Miscellany blog on 10 January 2017.

Legal History Miscellany

Posted by Krista Kesselring; 10 January 2017


The State Papers contain a remarkable rough draft of an Act intended to condemn petty offenders to slavery. Prepared at the opening of the 1621 parliament by an unknown author, the proposal had the following title: ‘An Act for keeping in servile works such persons as shall be convicted of petit larceny and felony capable of the benefit of clergy, and such as shall be convicted for cheaters or incorrigible rogues.’ It echoed in some ways the infamous but short-lived 1547 Act to enslave the persistently unemployed, though this one – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, given its talk of slavery – presented itself as a measure not just of heightened rigour but also of mercy.[1]

The text is given below. The measure did not pass – nothing passed into law from the 1621 parliament, save for a few new taxes – and the…

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Imprisoned without Trial: Remembering John Bernardi

As America says goodbye to a president who promised but  failed to close Guantánamo, and prepare to inaugurate one who says he wants to “load it up with some bad dudes” we would do well to remember John Bernardi. As suggested by the title of his Short History of the Life of Major John Bernardi, … Continue reading Imprisoned without Trial: Remembering John Bernardi

Grates and Keys: Violence in Early Modern Prisons, Part II

Richard Bell's recent post showed how a humble garden billhook could a potential tool of violence against prisoners. Keys, doors, locks, and grates could wreak a subtler kind of violence. Barring visitors from a prison could be deadly.  "When prisoners are sick," some Newgate debtors told the JPs in 1724, the underkeeper Mr. Perry "won’t let … Continue reading Grates and Keys: Violence in Early Modern Prisons, Part II

Violence, horticulture and wordplay in the King’s Bench

Violence in prisons is a perennial concern. This is not surprising–the very act of restricting liberty inevitably requires the use of force. In this post, I want to look at one episode in the King’s Bench prison that shows how threats of violence could be used in attempts to curtail resistance and restrict political action … Continue reading Violence, horticulture and wordplay in the King’s Bench

Calls for Papers, 2017

Next year is already looking to be an exciting one for scholars of early modern imprisonment, with two upcoming conferences on the topic recently announced. The first is Prison/Exile: Controlled Spaces in Early Modern Europe, to be held at Ertegun House, University of Oxford on 10-11 March 2017. It aims to 'explore the relationship between space, identity, … Continue reading Calls for Papers, 2017

Looking for Women in 18th-Century Newgate

We tend to think of prisons as male spaces. So I'm trying an experiment. I will return to material I wrote about in my previous post, When Prisoners Complain, but I'll focus on the women this time. As you'll recall from that last post, in 1702 and again in 1707, some Newgate prisoners informed the … Continue reading Looking for Women in 18th-Century Newgate