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During the Middle Ages, prisoners were sometimes held at castles. This paper looks at how widespread castle prisoners were, what evidence there is for adaptation and purpose-built prisons, and the distinction between high-status and low-status prisoners.
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Castles as Prisons
Castles as Prisons
Richard Nevell
Castles as prisons
Richard Nevell
In the popular imagination of today’s tourist, no
castle is complete without a dark, dank ‘dun-
geon’ where prisoners were held in grim condi-
tions. Some sites, such as Warwick Castle, play
up to this perception to the point of misguided
parody, but the truth behind this deliberate mis-
conception is not so simple. David Cathcart
King in Castellarium Anglicanum, outlining the
various functions of castles, and under the cate-
gory of practical uses, informs his reader that:
“not all castles were important enough, nor all
lords’ jurisdictions wide enough, to call for a
prison; nor were all prisons specially designed.
The normal guardrooms of the gate would
make reasonably secure prisons for men in
irons; nor was much ingenuity needed to turn
a store-room into a dungeon, or to alter the
comfortable chambers of the inner ward at the
Tower of London so that their distinguished
occupants could be locked inside them”. He
concludes “Castles made good prisons - not so
much because a building hard to get into is
necessarily hard to get out of - but because they
could resist attempts at rescue”.1
It is a topic which has received relatively little
attention; a survey of the summaries in Medie-
val Archaeology produced just five cases of
medieval castles with obvious prisons spread
across England, Scotland and Wales. Sidney
Toy2 and Stephen Friar3 provide good summa-
ries of castle prisons in their respective works,
but catch-all books run the risk of often over-
generalising. ‘Most castles probably had at
least one custom-built prison’ states one recent
text.4 So can the examination of the material
remains of castles and documentary sources
offer any further insights into this often over-
looked and sometimes misunderstood area?
Legal background and early prisons
When Alfred the Great collected the laws of
England in the 9th century, imprisonment was
used as a punishment for those who broke their
oath and culprits would be held at a royal
manor. For most other offences a fine was
usually preferred.5 Subsequent legislation pro-
vided that when a man could not pay a fine he
would suffer imprisonment,6 though it was not
a long-term measure.7 The king was the ulti-
mate source of authority, as demonstrated by
the fact Alfred instigated the collection of the
laws, and this continued under the Normans.8
The situation was similar in Scotland, with
fines preferred over imprisonment, and before
the reign of David I there is little documentary
evidence for the laws of Scotland; David was
raised in England and gave titles to his Norman
associates, linking the Scottish aristocracy with
that of England for several generations. How-
ever, David’s successors allowed the aristocra-
cy increasing powers to exert their own
authority in relation to enforcing the law.9
The Norman monarchy infrequently used im-
prisonment as a punishment, though the situa-
tion changed during the reign of Henry II. From
an early stage, the potential of the newly built
castles in England to act as prisons was evident.
In 1071, Wallingford Castle, Berkshire was the
scene for the Abbot of Abingdon’s
incarceration.10 Three decades later, the Tower
of London held its first prisoner, Ranulf Flam-
bard, coincidentally also a man of the church.
In 1166, at the Assize of Clarendon, Henry II
ordered his sheriffs to establish gaols in each
county if one was not already present, stipulat-
ing they should be in “a borough or in some
castle”. Castles could often be centres of ad-
ministration, and with boroughs being impor-
tant settlements there is a clear link between
prisons and the most significant places in a
county. In the wake of the Assize of Clarendon,
prisons were built in the boroughs of Ayles-
bury, Cambridge, Exeter, Huntingdon, Ilches-
ter (Somerset), Lincoln, Newcastle-upon
-Tyne, Norwich, Northampton, Nottingham,
and Oxford. Sums of between £2 and £5 were
spent in 12 different counties; the small sums
reflect the fact the king ordered that the gaols
should be made from royal wood,11 which
would have been considerably cheaper to use
as a building material than stone. The intention
Castles as Prisons
was that these prisons would serve the entire
county, so we should be cautious about inter-
preting rooms within early baronial castles as
cells or prisons since during the 12th and 13th
centuries, at least, they were likely to be locat-
ed in the administrative centres of a county.
The later Assize of Northampton (1176) pro-
vided that if a prisoner could not be taken to a
sheriff then they must be conveyed to the
nearest castle, underlining the growing impor-
tance of castles as places of detention. At first
this may seem to conflict with the conclusion
that specially designed prisons were a rarity
amongst castles, however it is likely that the
nearest castle was chosen for a number of
reasons, the presence of a structure purpose-
built for holding people apart. By the nature of
their construction, masonry castles were the
most durable structures of the Middle Ages.
Most rooms - particularly those used for stor-
age - could be pressed into service to act as a
prison, and a securely bound captive would be
unlikely to escape. Furthermore, whilst castles
were not permanently garrisoned, even a small
body of guards would be able to look after a
prisoner. The implication of the Assize of
Northampton is that structures or rooms within
castles could readily be used as prisons; how-
ever, such an ad hoc and temporary use is
unlikely to have left its mark on the material
record. The fact that the purpose-built prisons
established after the Assize of Clarendon were
timber structures also poses a problem in dis-
cerning the design and even position of such
structures, since based on plan alone they may
have appeared similar to other buildings.
The concept of imprisonment being used as a
form of punishment developed during Henry
II’s reign, and it was decided that those who
lied at a grand assize would suffer a year’s
imprisonment.12 The 12th century chronicler
Roger of Howden mentions that an assize of
1196, (issued by Richard I on 20 November)
required that cities and county boroughs ap-
pointed inspectors to ensure that people ac-
cused of a crime were sent to prison while they
awaited judgement by a royal justice.13
The Tower of London
The Tower of London, or rather the castle
which now bears that name, was founded by
William the Conqueror in 1066 though work
on the eponymous stone tower did not begin
until about 1078.14 In 1100, Ranulf Flambard,
Bishop of Durham, was imprisoned in the
White Tower.15 Great towers in general were
buildings which served a range of purposes:
military, ceremonial, symbols of lordship, do-
mestic and administrative, not given over to a
single purpose.16 In Oliver Creighton’s words
“The psychosocial impact of the immense
White Tower on London’s late 11th century
cityscape must have been even more pro-
nounced given the rather unimpressive appear-
ance of the Saxon palace of Westminster”.17 If
the Tower was exclusively a residential royal
palace-fortress, designed to intimidate and awe
spectators would this have been compatible
with it being used as a prison?
Perhaps one of the reasons the Tower was used
for confinement lies in the status of the prison-
er. Whilst Flambard was “widely detested as a
low-born, self-important, over-mighty upstart
and was particularly offensive to churchmen”,18
he was still regarded as a member of an elite
ruling class. On 15 August, 1100, Henry I
charged him with misusing funds and the result
was Flambard was held in the White Tower,
thus becoming its first prisoner. He evidently
spent his captivity in comfort, and according to
Orderic Vitalis received from the king two
shillings a day for food and drink. A plan for
his escape was put in motion and a rope was
smuggled into his room, hidden in a flagon of
wine. While the guards were sleeping off copi-
ous amounts of wine, Flambard lowered him-
self out of his window and met his accomplices
below.19 He thus became the first prisoner to
escape confinement in the Tower of London
and would not be the last.20
The episode highlights the problem of using a
comfortable, nominally residential building to
hold someone captive. Flambard was apparent-
ly not a slim man, yet the windows were large
enough for him to pass through. Though Flam-
Castles as Prisons
the task; however its position underneath the
chapel may have precluded it from such use.
Rather than holding Flambard in a secure
chamber or creating one for him, he was placed
in surroundings that fitted his status. This ap-
proach to detaining people would not be de-
tectable in the fabric of a building. In the first
century after the Norman Conquest, imprison-
ment was usually on a temporary basis, there-
fore it may be expected that special
arrangements were not made. This is probably
part of the reason Flambard was able to escape.
Identifying and locating prisons
‘Feature Analysis’ has been infrequently ap-
plied to castles. However the method has the
potential to inform and formalise the identifica-
tion of particular room types. The decision tree
created by James R. Mathieu was developed by
a combination of analysing features of rooms,
which were documented to have a particular
function, and inductive reasoning. The criteria
that he developed for identifying a prison was
that the room would have 1: poor lighting 2: a
single point of access, 3: not contain a fireplace.
These factors combine to make a room secure.
For Mathieu though, prisons were physically
indistinguishable from storage rooms, and they
were therefore grouped together.25 This ap-
proach should also encourage caution when
interpreting the use of a particular room. Such
criteria are best invoked for identifying pur-
pose-built prisons, as opposed to cases such as
the Tower of London where high-status accom-
modation was used in a fashion its builders did
not intend. Toy cautions that store rooms have
often been interpreted as prisons; however,
even some of those examples he cites as prisons
have since been reconsidered and revised, illus-
trating that new approaches to the role of cas-
tles have changed perceptions of room
function.26 Whilst Toy and, four decades later,
Emery27 both considered a basement room in
Warkworth Castle’s great tower to be a prison
dungeon, or oubliette, as it is accessed only
from its vaulted roof, Peter Brears, 2011, sug-
gests it was a floor safe and the room above it
was an accounting room, an interpretation also
acknowledged by John Goodall.28
bard had a rope, it was too short and left him
with a drop that “almost flattened him and
made him groan with pain”.21 One end of the
rope was tied to the dividing colonette in the
window, possibly indicating Flambard’s rooms
were on the second floor (fig. 1).22 Certainly the
need for a rope would indicate the bishop was
not held at ground floor level, while the access
to facilities for banqueting suggests he was in a
high-status area of the great tower. Contempo-
rary sources do not comment on how the White
Tower was used, so the purpose of each room
must be deduced from its form and layout. The
second floor contains what is likely to be a hall
and a private chamber.23 If Flambard was held
here, he would have been occupying the highest
status rooms in the castle, and the account of
Orderic Vitalis suggests he was next to a hall
where he could hold feasts. From a security
point of view, the best place to hold a prisoner
here would be in the undercroft. The window-
less crypt of the Chapel of St John with only one
point of access24 would also have been suited to
Castles as Prisons
Fig 1. The White Tower in the 15th century, as
depicted in an illuminated folio in a manuscript
of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391-
1465) commemorating his imprisonment there
(British Library, MS Royal, 16 folio 73).
Both the Historic Environment Record and the
HMSO, 1981, guidebook for the 13th century
round tower at Bronllys Castle, Brecknockshire,
suggest that the tower basement was used for
either storage or as a prison cell. This is appar-
ently based on the fact that: a) it could only be
accessed through a hatch or trap-door in the
window recess, above steps leading down into
the basement, and b) there is an 8 ft drop to the
floor at the base of the steps, thus requiring
some moveable wooden steps that could be
withdrawn. G T Clark also suspected that there
may at one time have been a latrine and drain.29
Using Mathieu’s decision tree, either use is
reasonable. However, the Appendix to this arti-
cle shows that in many cases the site of a prison
was unknown. In addition to the Tower of Lon-
don, Guildford’s 1130s great tower is also doc-
umented as being used as a prison, though this
was a conversion of around 1202.30 Therefore,
it can be tentatively suggested that whilst the
basement of Bronllys Castle could have been
adapted for use as a prison, it was probably
more likely to have been intended as storage.
With the castle’s finest accommodation in the
two floors above, complete with garderobes and
fireplaces, it might be expected that some effort
would be made to keep prisoners apart from the
inner household.
Possible clues that Mathieu does not cover is
the presence and location of a drawbar and the
inclusion, in most cases, of a latrine. A drawbar
on the exterior of a room would have clearly
prevented escape. The twin D-shaped towers of
the gatehouse at Pevensey Castle have base-
ments with restricted access. The basement of
the south tower was secured with a drawbar on
the outside, and this has been taken as evidence
that the room was used to hold captives.31 Whilst
a locking system of this type reflects some form
of control over access, it is not always clear who
was being kept in, or out. At Barnard Castle (Co.
Durham) the early 13th century Round Tower
was connected and adjacent to the Great Cham-
ber, with a heavy drawbar on the side of the
Great Chamber, giving whoever was in the
Great Chamber control over access to the Round
Tower. Philip Davis has suggested that whilst
the Round Tower provided high-status accom-
modation, this arrangement allowed John de
Balliol, the builder of the castle, to control ac-
cess to his family.32
Castles as Prisons
Fig 2. Warkworth Castle. Ground floor of the
Great Tower (1390s). Hatch in the floor of the
‘accounting room’, leading to the vaulted safe
or strong room below.
Fig 3. Bronllys Castle, c. 1220-30. First floor.
Steps (top), covered by a hatch, within and to
the right of the window embrasure, leading to
the basement.
The twin-towered gatehouse at Skipton Castle,
Yorkshire, which was probably built between
1190 and 1220,33 has a (now vaulted) basement
level chamber directly under the gate-passage,
the entry to which was barred on the outside
(fig. 4). However Derek Renn considered that
as a long term prison, the windowless, air-less,
latrine-less basement room would have been
impractical.34 The near-contemporary but frag-
mentary gatehouse at Bolingbroke Castle, Lin-
colnshire, took a similar form, with two
D-shaped towers and a chamber underneath
the gate-passage (figs. 5, 7). M. W. Thompson
tentatively suggested that this might be a pris-
on as it would have been too damp for storage.
The basement chambers beneath the gatehous-
es at Skipton and Bolingbroke probably served
the same purpose. Whereas they could have
been pressed into used as prisons for short
periods, functioning as a drawbridge pit seems
more likely. There is always a temptation to
link prisons with gatehouses. Newgate prison
in London is perhaps the most famous example
in England, and Norman Pounds offers some
examples of gatehouses being re-purposed as
prisons later in their history.35 The result is that
sometimes it can be tempting to see a prison in
a gatehouse where other explanations may be
more likely.
At William Marshal’s Pembroke Castle one of
the mural towers of the inner ward, perhaps
built by one of his sons, not long after Beeston
and Bolingbroke, has been identified as a ‘Pris-
on Tower’ (c. 1230s-40s). This name is based
on a 1331 source but there is no indication that
it may have been the tower’s original use. The
plan of the castle, reproduced in the RCAHMW
Inventory for Pembrokeshire, indicates an em-
brasure at basement or ground floor level over-
looking the ditch outside the curtain of the inner
ward There are no stairs down to this level, no
latrine and today there is a hatch in the modern
wooden floor that gives access to it (figs. 8, 9).36
Between 1166 and 1230, prisons were estab-
lished in the royal castles of Bedford, Carlisle,
Chester, Chichester, Colchester, Gloucester,
Guildford, Launceston, Lincoln, Newcastle-un-
der-Lyme, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Wallingford,
and Worcester.37 So can any prison buildings or
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 4. Skipton Castle. Vaulted space directly
below the gate-passage. Draw bar slot to
right. The vaulted roof is a later insertion.
Fig. 5. Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire. The
interpretation of the gatehouse and access
bridge from the current on-site information
panel. © English Heritage.
cells be identified at these sites? The Pipe Rolls
record the cost of building a gaol at Chichester
Castle; however in 1217 the castle was demol-
ished by Philip d’Aubigny.38 As a result, there are
no traces to indicate which building the gaol was.
Bedford Castle suffered a similar fate in 1224
after its owner rebelled against Henry III and
only its motte survives today.39 The remains of
Colchester, Gloucester, Newcastle-under-Lyme,
Shrewsbury, Wallingford and Worcester offer
little information in this context. Of the six, only
Colchester has significant remains above
ground and extrapolating from Peter Brears’
point about gatehouses in the late 14th century,
it would be unlikely that the great tower was
originally intended to hold prisoners as well as
provide accommodation, although keeps were
certainly relegated to this function later in their
life. The Surrey Victoria County History sug-
gests that the county gaol at Guildford was
located in the great tower, a purpose for which
it was not originally designed, but, as with the
Tower of London, it was pressed into service.40
When the castle was founded is uncertain, but
architecturally the great tower is thought to date
from the early 12th century.41 Like Colchester,
it is highly unlikely the tower was built with the
intention of securely housing captives. Though
Carlisle, Lincoln, and Oxford have significant
masonry remains above ground, they have been
continually reworked over the centuries and no
longer betray signs of of any medieval 12th or
13th century purpose-built prison buildings.
Searching for a prison where one has been
documented can lead unwary investigators
astray. In the 1880s an underground chamber
was discovered within the gatehouse of St
Briavels Castle, Gloucestershire (fig. 6). The
circular room measured 3.2m in diameter and
a notice in the Transactions of the Bristol and
Gloucestershire Archaeology Society declared
not only that it was a dungeon but considered
that it “must have been a gruesome place”. The
editor included a rather more prosaic endnote:
“It was probably a store-room”.42
In addition to the Tower of London, Lydford,
and Guildford, Goodrich Castle was docu-
mented in the 14th century as being fitted out
to hold prisoners.43 In this case a chamber
abutting the east side of the 12th century keep
was either purpose-built in the 14th century or
an existing room was modified. The masonry
construction of the narrow entrance is of no-
ticeably poorer quality than the great tower
itself (figs. 10, 11). Interestingly, the approach
to the cell has a sequence of two doors, both
with draw-bars on the outside with an ‘airlock’
space between, preventing those on the inside
from leaving even when the final, inner door
was opened.44 At Barnard Castle it has been
noted that the locking bar marked the lord’s
control over access to his family, but in the case
of Goodrich, the differing quality of the cell
suggests it was a much lower status area, mak-
ing its use as a place of detention, most likely,
perhaps for prisoners of war. The prison itself,
partly below both the level of the courtyard and
the basement of the keep, measured 2.45m by
6m. The fact that the floor is essentially a rubble
bedrock surface gives the impression that the
room was not meant to be comfortable.45
Use of the term ‘dungeon’
The term dungeon has been used sparingly here.
However it is interesting to consider its shared
derivation with donjon. The earliest recorded
use of ‘dungeon’ in the English language dates
from the 14th century when it had the same
meaning as donjon, a Middle French word.
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 6. St. Briavel’s Castle. Detail of the gate-
house from a drawing by S & N Buck, 1732.
Castles as Prisons
ABOVE: Fig. 7. Bolingbroke Castle. View of the compact cluster of D-shaped towers typical of the
period. Artist’s reconstruction as it may have appeared in the C15. Image from the on-site display
BELOW: Figs. 8, 9. Pembroke Castle. The early-mid C13 ‘Prison Tower’ of the Inner Ward. Left:
Grille hatch to basement. Right: basement. Limited light, but no latrine and no permanent stairs.
Whilst dungeon evolved to mean a “dark, damp
room [which] was used as a cell for the confine-
ment or prisoners”, donjon preserved its origi-
nal meaning: that of a castle’s great tower or
keep. Both are thought to come from the medi-
eval Latin dominio, meaning “lord”,46 empha-
sising that both were a form of control over
others. Some great towers, such as Lancaster,47
Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Oxford, later be-
came used as prisons. The changing use of these
structures, as they became less fashionable for
domestic use, may offer a clue to the differences
between donjon and dungeon. A survey of
Launceston Castle from 1337 offers a tantalis-
ing glimpse, noting that there was “a gaol badly
and inadequately covered with lead, and anoth-
er prison called ‘the Larder’ weak and almost
useless”.48 The survey does not indicate the loca-
tion of the prisons, however the text can be divid-
ed into three parts: first the domestic rooms
(halls, accommodation, chapels, and kitchen) are
described, then the prisons, and then the towers
and walls. This implies a spatial disconnect be-
tween residential areas of a castle and the loca-
tion where prisoners were held. As we will see,
this may not have been the case elsewhere.
Scotland, pit prisons and oubliettes
The nature of castle prisons in Scotland has a
different signature compared to those com-
monly found in England and Wales. While
many south of the border were often ad hoc or
have left little physical trace, Scotland’s pris-
ons are usually easier to determine. The reason
for this is the ‘pit prison’, often without light
and accessed only from the top via a hatch or
trap door. In Scottish castles built with such
prisons (sometimes referred to as ‘bottle dun-
geons’), they would usually occupy the lowest
two floors of a tower.49 If there were two prison
levels the pit prison would occupy the lower
level, and above would be a room equipped for
comparatively more comfortable confinement.
Chris Tabraham, echoing W. M. Mackenzie,
suggests this may have represented a social
divide in the use of prisons: the pit would have
been used for ‘serfs’ while the chamber above
held freemen rather than reflecting the nature
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 10. Goodrich Castle. The narrow C14
entrance to the prison cell adjacent to and east
of the keep. Two successive doors, both with
draw-bars, controlled entry.
Fig. 11. Goodrich Castle. Interior of the late
C13 or C14 prison cell with the lower courses
of the keep wall to the right.
of the crime.50 Given the difference in condi-
tions between noble prisoners and common
prisoners already demonstrated, this seems
more than likely. Where these pit prisons are
found, they appear to be purpose-built rather
than adaptations, as demonstrated by the pro-
vision of a latrine, albeit not necessarily a
universal feature (fig. 14).
At Dirleton Castle, East Lothian, there was a
purpose-built prison beneath the chapel (figs.
12, 13). Dating from the 14th century the prison
consisted of two parts, a chamber for freemen
and a pit prison below. The pit prison has the
hallmarks of a storage room; it is poorly lit (in
fact, without light at all) and restricted access.
Conditions would have been abominable; the
room measured just over 3m square.51 Howev-
er, what marks the room out as one intended for
people rather than objects was the provision of
a privy. As W. M. Mackenzie noted: ‘Such a
place was, in most cases, provided with a latrine
and a ventilating shaft, but no other lighting’.52
Hailes Castle, East Lothian, has a pit prison
similarly equipped with a garderobe and ac-
cessed only from the vaulted roof.53 The pit
prison at Dundonald, Ayrshire, meanwhile,
measures 1.9m by 3.3m with no garderobe; the
chamber above it benefited from a fireplace,
with a latrine. A slot for a drawbar indicates this
room could be barred from outside.54 The recon-
struction of Crookston Castle, Lanarkshire, in
stone took place around 1400, and like the pre-
vious examples mentioned had a pit prison. The
ground floor of the north-east tower was occu-
pied by a room measuring 2m by 2.8m and was
accessed solely by a hatch in the roof.55 The
tower houses of Cardoness and Borthwick both
date from the 15th century and contain pit pris-
ons. Like Hailes and Dirleton, Borthwick’s pit
had a garderobe built in (fig. 14). 56
Prisons in castle gatehouses
In his discussion of gatehouses in northern Eng-
land during the 14th century, Peter Brears chal-
lenges the usual, popular, interpretation of
basement or below-ground chambers in gate-
houses as prisons. The smell emanating from an
occupied prison would have been overpower-
ing, and could have rendered the building unin-
habitable. This contrasts starkly with the
examples mentioned from Scotland which hap-
pen to fall around the same time; Crookston’s
prison was next to the entrance passage; at
Dundonald it was deeper inside the castle and
adjacent to the lower hall; at Borthwick’s was
below the kitchens; at Huntly (Aberdeenshire)
it was beneath the steward’s chamber. In gener-
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 12. Dirleton Castle. The Halyburton hall
block. The pit prison or ‘laigh’ under the upper
prison c. 1450. Image © Historic Scotland.
Fig. 13. Dirleton Castle. The upper prison
with hatch entry to lower prison to the right of
the picture.
al though, tower houses had their private quar-
ters on the upper floors, while the lower floors
were service areas, reserved for kitchens, stor-
age, and in this case prisons.57 In tower houses
with many levels this may have been less of an
issue; Borthwick for instance had seven storeys
and Cardoness six. Gatehouses were rarely this
tall. As a result of Brears’ reinterpretation of
gatehouses in northern England, the notion that
the underground chamber in Cockermouth Cas-
tle’s outer gatehouse (Cumberland) was used as
a prison has been dispelled and replaced with
the plausible theory that it was a storage room
for valuables.58 Brears’ work has started to re-
open interpretations of chambers previously
thought of as prisons, as can be seen in the most
recent guidebook for Kidwelly Castle. This was
referenced in the paper on Brougham Castle’s
double gatehouse in CSG Journal 26, and the
revised guidebook by John Kenyon now sug-
gests that the underground chamber in the outer
gatehouse was a strong room.59 The overall ef-
fect is to potentially muddy the waters, as even a
drawbar will not be proof alone of the presence
of a prison cell. Instead, such features must be
taken in the context of their surroundings. If a
drawbar is found in structures providing accom-
modation close by, they are unlikely to have been
used for prisoners. Such examples date from later
on in the castle story, and may reflect the increas-
ing domestication of the castle in England.
Purpose-built prisons - England & Wales
In the 1170s Henry II keep at Newcastle upon
Tyne, a chamber in the south-west corner of the
basement, adjacent to the Garrison room, was
originally accessible only by descending a stair-
case in the south-east corner tower; with gard-
erobe and drawbar it may be construed as an
early purpose-built low-status prison. It is not a
typical pit prison as it had some lighting and was
a similar size to other chambers in the basement.
Neil Guy suggests that a small room in the north-
west tower, two floors above the possible base-
ment prison, and at Great Hall level, may have
provided confinement for higher-status prison-
ers. The small nature of the room might indicate
storage of some sort, but a garderobe in the room
indicates that it may have been intended for
someone to spend considerable time there.60
One of the most interesting examples of a late
purpose-built prison chamber in England is
found at Warwick Castle. Caesar’s Tower
dates from the mid 14th century and was prob-
ably built by Thomas Beauchamp the elder,
earl of Warwick (figs. 15-17).61 The vaulted
prison basement was isolated from the floors
above, and could only be accessed from the
courtyard. It was provided with a latrine, dem-
onstrating it was intended from the start for
permanent use, whilst a gallery with a window
onto the basement cell protected by a grille
allowed guards to check on prisoners without
entering the cell (fig. 17).62 Whilst the pit pris-
ons of Scotland are very small, the chamber in
Caesar’s Tower is comparatively spacious,
measuring 4m by 5.7m. Even so, this is much
smaller than the internal measurements of Lyd-
ford Castle’s tower - 9.4m by 9.1m internally.
The south range of Newark Castle, built by the
bishops of Lincoln at the end of the 13th century
has four chambers identified with oubliettes’,
but most were probably strong rooms added
when this range was completed in the early 14th
century (figs. 18, 19).63 Pit prisons are also men-
tioned at York (1360), Leicester (1411), and
possibly Nottingham (1532), as noted by Pugh.64
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 14. Various types of ‘pit’ prisons in Scot-
tish castles. From W M Mackenzie, 1927, p. 106.
Aristocratic and common prisoners
Arrangements varied according to the subject’s
status. As noted above, Bishop Flambard lived
in relative comfort, and such treatment of socie-
ty’s elite is not uncommon. In the autumn of
1174 King William of Scotland was captured by
Henry II of England and taken to Falaise in
Normandy where he was confined within the
castle’s donjon.65 It is likely that one of the rea-
sons Henry chose not to imprison William in
England is that his control of Normandy at that
time was firmer. However, the choice of location
is significant. As the birthplace of William the
Conqueror it had a distinguished history, the
great tower dating from the early 12th century.66
The large stone-built structure was an imposing
statement of lordship, fit for a king and a digni-
fied holding place for William. The Scottish
king was still at Falaise in December 1174 when
he agreed to the Treaty of Falaise, in which he
and his descendants were made liegemen of the
English crown.67 Before that, Duke Robert of
Normandy was imprisoned at Corfe Castle from
1106/7; it is assumed the duke, who challenged
Henry I for the crown of England, was held in
luxurious accommodation, and consequently it
has been suggested that the great tower would
have fulfilled this function.68 Completed around
this time, it could have been adapted for this use
much like the White Tower had been.
When Henry of Lancaster captured King Ed-
ward II in 1326 the latter was conveyed to
Kenilworth Castle where he was held captive.69
There may have been a conscious link with the
history of the site: between June and December
1266 the garrison supporting the rebellious Si-
mon de Montfort held the castle against a siege
begun by Henry III. The king could not force his
way into the castle, but with little hope of relief
the defenders came to terms.70 Where Edward II
was imprisoned in the castle is unclear. Kenil-
worth is almost a palatial complex, and if the
previous examples can be taken as any indica-
tion it is likely that the king was given reasona-
bly comfortable accommodation. He was later
conveyed to Berkeley Castle where he died in
prison (fig. 20). There are similar problems re-
garding Criccieth Castle, first mentioned in 1239
when Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was imprisoned by
his half-brother, the heir of the prince of Wales.71
The late Richard Avent suggested the S-E Tower
as the possible place of Gruffydd’s confinement,
at the same time proposing that the tower provid-
ed accommodation for the Welsh princes. Both
explanations are plausible and reflect that high-
status captives could expect lenient treatment.
Whilst the elite were held in relative comfort
befitting their status, commoners could hope for
less favourable surroundings and it is instructive
to draw on an example from outside England.
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 15. Warwick. Caesar’s Tower. Mid C15.
Entrance to the purpose-built prison from the
Fig. 16. Warwick. Plan of prison basement.
From Sidney Toy, 1953, p. 204, clearly show-
ing the latrine on the right.
Fig. 17. Warwick. The sign by the grille reads: ‘Rebuilt to house the prisoners taken at the Battle of
Poitiers in 1356, this tower and its dungeon long outlived its purpose. Drained by the open gully in
the floor, ventilated by one small shaft and hardly lit at all it is chilling to learn, from inscriptions on
the walls, that prisoners were sometimes confined on these conditions for many years’.
Castles as Prisons
Writing in 1181, Lambert of Ardres recounted
the conditions found with the tower at the Châ-
teau de Tournehem, owned by Count Baldwin II
of Guines. Amongst the details he provides he
mentions “in the tower, or rather underneath it,
he buried a prison in the deep abyss of the earth,
[reached] through certain secret drawbridges in
the foundation. It was like a hell-pot to terrify
guilty wretches and, to speak more truthfully, to
punish”.72As was the case in England, the prison
was based in the lord’s seat of power.73 Little is
known about the form of the timber structures
used to imprison common criminals in the Mid-
dle Ages. They were transient buildings, regular-
ly needing repair. Ralph Pugh suggests that when
located within a castle, timber could be used
because the stone curtain walls provided the
main security. When the castle’s permanent
structures were used to hold people, they often
took the form of political prisoners.74 Similarly,
little about conditions in prisons can be gleaned
from contemporary sources, but the Pipe Rolls
frequently detail expenditure on irons (ferramen-
ta) to hold prisoners.
Divisions between prisoners of differing status
is illustrated by the case of London. In the 13th
century it had three prisons: Fleet, for civil tres-
passers, Newgate for felons, and the Tower,
reserved for state prisoners. The division was
not always rigidly adhered to, but it shows that
as castles were the highest-status buildings in
England - and the most secure - they were used
to hold the most important prisoners. Newgate
prison was particularly notorious, and fits neat-
ly within Mathieu’s decision tree. The ac-
counts of the 14th and 15th centuries paint a
picture of a dark, fetid place, where jail fever
was a threat to prisoners who often could not
afford food.75 It has perhaps coloured the pop-
ular imagination. When commoners were held
within prisons at castles their experience dif-
fered greatly to the confinement of nobles held
by their peers. In this case such prisoners were
of great financial and political value and the
maintenance of their health was paramount.
Princess Eleanor of Brittany, the daughter of
Henry II spent 40 years in imprisonment. As
befitted royalty, she was kept in reasonably
comfortable conditions, demonstrated by orders
to build a new fireplace in her quarters at
Gloucester Castle in 1238.76 Another royal fig-
ure who suffered imprisonment was Mary
Queen of Scots, in the latter half of the 16th
century. She was held captive for 19 years at:
Lochleven, Tutbury, Carlisle, Bolton, Sheffield,
and finally Fotheringhay where she was put on
trial and executed. Fotheringhay had been used
as a royal prison since the late 13th century;
Castles as Prisons
Fig. 18. Newark. Basement plan of the early C14 South range showing 4 oubliettes. Detail of fig. 20
taken from the ‘Guardian of the North - The Story of Newark Castle’ © Newark Castle Trust, 1997.
LEFT: Fig. 19. Newark. Basement plan of the
early C14 South range showing 4 oubliettes.
unfortunately, the castle was demolished in the
17th century and only earthworks remain.77 Her
treatment at Carlisle shows that Mary was ac-
customed to comfortable surroundings, and
would have occupied appropriate accommoda-
tion. She occupied the Warden’s Tower in the
inner ward, reserved for those in charge of the
castle, and was attended by her household.78
When castles remained in use into the modern
era, it was frequently as a state prison. Lancaster
Castle was until very recently still used in this
manner and Chester, Norwich, Lincoln, Leices-
ter, Carmarthen were likewise adapted to modern
demands.79 As the military and residential aspects
of castles diminished, their role as centres for
punishment grew, arguably colouring later per-
ceptions. The title of Neil Ludlow’s new book on
the royal castle of Carmarthen, Carmarthen Cas-
tle – The Archaeology of Government, seems
entirely appropriate; a prison was recorded here
in 1331 in a mural tower that had been built in the
1240s.80 The Tower of London itself, became a
notorious prison in the 17th century (fig. 21).
Most baronial castles did not have purpose-built
prisons and, as a general rule, it was only the
Castles as Prisons
most important castles in England that were used
as such, often acting as gaols for entire counties.
For the first century after the Norman Conquest,
purpose-built prisons in castles were very few in
number, and whilst the 1166 Assize of Clarendon
ordered their construction, the sums spent indi-
cate they were generally timber structures, de-
scribed by Pugh as approaching ‘cages’.81 We
should therefore be cautious how we identify
prisons. There are features which might indicate
a room could have been used to hold prisoners,
but the location should considered. Is it likely that
elite accommodation and confinement for com-
moners or local offenders would have been
housed in close proximity within a castle? And
assumptions that when a prison is mentioned it
must have been in the great tower should be
challenged. However, when castle keeps became
unfashionable and redundant as residences it was
easy to convert rooms for new uses.
Whilst historical records contain numerous in-
stances of high-status prisoners held captive, we
hear little of common prisoners. There would
have been a stark contrast between this class
segregation of prisoners as demonstrated by the
pit prison in Dirleton Castle, or the conditions
implied by the expenditure on irons in the Pipe
Fig. 20. Berkeley. The room above the forebuilding entrance leading to the shell keep, where, it is
claimed, Edward II was held captive in 1327. He died at Berkeley in the same year. Edward was
kept in the custody of Mortimer's brother-in-law, Thomas Berkeley, who was given £5 a day for
Edward's maintenance.
Castles as Prisons
Rolls compared to the luxury that the nobility
could expect in their confinement. The fact pit
prisons were common in Scotland is indicative
of the difference in castle cultures between the
two countries, and may reflect the different
structures of power, with the baronial classes in
Scotland having more rights to enforce the law
than their English counterparts. When impris-
oned, the elite were generally confined in ac-
commodation befitting their status, so it can be
deduced that the timber structures of the 12th
century were generally intended for the general
population. Princes and lords might be expected
to be treated with dignity, while their lowly
counterparts would be bound and chained.
The image of the castle as a grim prison has
endured. The 19th century prisons in Leicester -
and many other places were modelled to look like
castles, with battlements, towers and gatehouses.
This popular link was perpetuated by the fantastic
stories that have grown around the Tower of
London.82 From there the view of castles as
damp, dark places of detention and torture has
percolated the public consciousness. It is not a
view held by the academic community, but it is,
sadly, still a prominent aspect of how castles are
presented to the public. At Warwick the ‘dun-
geons’ are one of the main attractions, and visi-
tors are charged considerably extra to enter. In
fact the ‘dungeon experience’ has no physical
connection with the actual prison at all - it is in a
separate building in the gatehouse and represents
an ugly caricature of prison life, reinforcing all
the stereotypical clichés that grossly distort the
view of the true nature of medieval castle life.
The original prison, in the basement of Caesar's
Tower, is, in fact, a rare example of a purpose-
built 14th century prison in England. The situa-
tion is unlikely to change, but perhaps we might
advance to a better understanding of how this
function influenced the fabric of major castles.
This paper is indebted to support from Carla
Brain and Dr Michael Nevell, Jonathan Olden-
buck, and the Journal Editor whose advice and
input on the paper has been invaluable.
Fig. 21. The Tower of London. The Prison Room in the 13th century Beauchamp Tower. From John
Bayley, ‘The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London’, 1830. Prisoners included Sir Philip
Howard, Earl of Arundel - held for 10 years and died a prisoner. Lord Cobham spent the last 14 years
of his life here and in 1553, Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I's childhood sweetheart, was imprisoned here.
Castles as Prisons - Appendix
Castle County Date first
mentioned (or
Location of
Converted or
purpose built
Royal, baro-
nial, or ec-
Wallingford Berkshire 1071 Unknown Converted(?) R
Tower of London Middlesex 1100 White Tower Converted R
Corfe Dorset 01/07/1106 Unknown Unknown R
Bristol Somerset 1141 Unknown Unknown B
Bedford Bedfordshire 1166 Unknown Unknown R
Lincoln Lincolnshire 1168 Unknown R
Gloucester Gloucestershire 1185 Purpose built R
Oxford Oxfordshire 1185 Probably bailey R
Launceston Cornwall 1187 Unknown Purpose built? B
Stourton Staffordshire 1184-96 Yes? R
Windsor Berkshire 1185 R
Carlisle Cumberland 1194 R
Lydford Devon 1195 ‘Strong house’ Purpose built R
Lancaster Lancashire 1196 Unknown Unknown R
Chichester Sussex 1198 R
Staffordshire 1199 Unknown Possibly purpose
Stafford Staffordshire 1200 B
Guildford Surrey 1202 Great Tower Converted R
Norwich Norfolk 1220 R
Canterbury Kent 1220 R
Shrewsbury Staffordshire 1221 R
Worcester Worcestershire 1221 Southern half Purpose built? R
Taunton Somerset 1225 E
Salisbury Shropshire 1226 Possibly in the
Unknown R
Colchester Essex 1226 Unknown Converted R
Bishops Stortford
Hertfordshire 1234 Unknown Unknown B
Criccieth Caernarfonshire 1239 Mural tower? Converted R
Chester Cheshire 1241 Unknown (later
the outer gate-
Later purpose
Hereford Herefordshire 1241 Mural tower Converted R
Sherbourne Dorset 1242 Unknown Unknown R
Stamford Lincolnshire 1262
Separate building
Purpose built R
Wark on Tyne
(possible it wasn’t
in the castle)
Northumberland 01/04/1263 Unknown Unknown B
Appendix - Documented list of castles used in England and Wales as prisons 1/2
Castles as Prisons - Appendix
Castle County Date first
(or attribut-
Location of
Converted or
purpose built
Royal, baro-
nial, or ec-
Bridgnorth Shropshire 1281
Barbican (great
tower afterwards)
St Briavel’s Gloucestershire 1281-92 (Later in the
Conwy Caernarfonshire Built between
1283 and 1288
Outer ward Purpose built R
Cambridge Cambridgeshire Built between
1286 and 1296
Mural tower (be-
neath constables’
Purpose built? R
Pickering Yorkshire 1323 Gatehouse Purpose built? R
Goodrich Herefordshire 1326-1356
Lower level an-
nex to great tower
Pembroke Pembrokeshire 1331 Possibly mural
tower of the in-
ner ward
Converted? B
Newark Nottinghamshire 1342-1347 4 oubliettes E
Sleaford Lincolnshire 1342-1347 E
Somerton Lincolnshire 1359-1360 R
Eccleshall Staffordshire 1364-1367 E
Warwick Warwickshire By 1369 Tower Purpose built B
Queenborough Kent 1371 R
Amberley Sussex 1413-1416 E
Melbourne Derbyshire 1415 R
Huntingdon Herefordshire 1521 Mural tower Converted? B
Heighley Staffordshire 1534 B
Thorne Peel Hill Yorkshire 1534 Unknown Unknown B
New Radnor Radnorshire 1535 Gatehouse Converted B
Stockport Cheshire 1537 Unknown Unknown B
Dalton Tower Lancashire 1545 Purpose built? B
Great Yarmouth Norfolk 1550 Converted
Wigmore Herefordshire
Mid-16th century
Converted? B
Bolton Yorkshire 1568 B
Sheffield Yorkshire 1570 B
Halton Cheshire 1579 0
Bottreaux Cornwall 1600 Unknown Unknown B
Flint Flintshire 1785 0
Carmarthen Carmarthenshire 1789 Gatehouse Converted 0
Castle Rushen Isle of Man 1813 0
Appendix - Documented list of castles used in England and Wales as prisons 2/2
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1 King 1983, xvii
2 Toy 1953, p. 254
3 Friar 2003, pp. 235–236
4 Hislop, 2013, p. 200
5 Attenborough 1922, pp. 63-73
6 Attenborough 1922, p.103
7 Pollock & Maitland 1898a, p. 49
8 Plucknett 1956, p.13
9 Cameron 1983, pp. 2-3
10 Keats-Rohan 2009, p.55
11 Pugh 1955, pp. 2-5
12 Pollock & Maitland 1898b, p. 516
13 Warren 1987, p. 134
14 Brown & Curnow 1984, pp. 5–9
15 Brown & Curnow 1984, pp. 9–12
16 Impey & Parnell 2000, p.17
17 Creighton 2002, p.138
18 Hollister, C. Warren, 2001, p. 116
19 Hollister 2001, pp.116–117
20 Others in the 12th century include: William, Count of
Mortain in 1106 as a prisoner of war. Constance of
France in 1150 on orders of Geoffrey de Mandeville.
William Fitz Osbert in 1196 for protesting taxation
levied for rescue of Richard I. John de Courcy in 1199
for rebellion in Ireland.
21 Quoted by Hollister, 2001, pp. 133–134
22 Mason 2004
23 Impey & Parnell 2000, p. 17
24 Parnell 1993, p. 20
25 Mathieu 1999, p.124, 134
26 Toy 1953, p. 254
27 Emery 1996, p. 144
28 Goodall 2006, pp. 17–19
29 Clark 1866, p. 443
30 Malden 1911, pp. 547–560
31 Pugh 1968, p.347; Woodburn & Guy 2005-6, p. 29
32 Davis 2012-13, pp. 282–284
33 Renn 1975, p. 178
34 Renn 1975, pp. 176–177; see also Richard T. Spence,
Skipton Castle and its Builders, Skipton Castle, 2002.
The basement appears to have been a open drawbridge pit
and was vaulted over later in its life.
35 Pounds 1990, p. 100
36 RCAHMW 1925, p.283.
37 Pugh 1955, pp. 9–12
38 Brown, Colvin &Taylor 1963, pp. 612–613
39 Brown, Colvin &Taylor 1963, p.559
40 Malden, 1911, pp. 547–560
41 Brown, Colvin & Taylor 1963, p. 658
42 Allen 1882–3, p. 318
43 Shoesmith, 2014, p. 22
44 Renn 1993 p. 11
45 Shoesmith 2014, pp.161–162. Readers should also con-
sult ‘The Dungeon, Goodrich Castle - Excavation and
Building Recording’, Nov, 2008, HAS series 807 (Ar-
chaeological Investigations Ltd). The prison may have
extended into the basement of the adjacent keep by a
cut-through passage. It is documented that Richard
Talbot sought a licence for the gaol in 1348.
46 Merriam-Webster Inc 1991, pp.152–153
47 See CSG Journal 28, (2014-5) .
48 Quoted in Brown, Colvin & Taylor 1963, p. 694
49 Cameron 1983, p. 6; Tabraham 1997, p. 50
50 Tabraham 1997, p. 50
51 Tabraham 2007, pp.14–17
52 W Mackay Mackenzie, 1927, pp. 105-109
53 Richardson 1933, p.6
54 Ewart et al 2004, pp.75–76
55 Lewis 2003, pp.31–33
56 Tabraham 1997, pp.78–87
57 Tabraham 1997, p.78
58 Brears 2011, p.206
59 Guy 2013-14
60 See W H Knowles, 1926
61 Stephens 1969, pp. 452–475
62 Toy 1953, p.254
63 Marshall 1998, p.112
64 Pugh 1968, p. 354
65 Barrow 1989, p.53
66 Warren 1973, p. 208
67 Douglas & Greenaway 1981, pp. 446–449
68 RCHME 1970, pp.52–100. Corfe has a long history for
holding state prisoners. King John, in a letter dated
1203, makes reference to a prison riot. Having ordered
the constable of Corfe to send him two of his prisoners,
Savaric de Mallion and Amery de Forz, under good
escort, John adds that he is to take care that a sufficient
garrison remains to guard the castle with the rest of the
prisoners, ‘better than it was guarded when the afore-
said Savaric took and held the keep against us’.
69 Prestwich 1980, p.97; Prestwich 2005, pp. 215–216
70 Brown 2004, pp. 143–144
71 Avent, Suggett & Longley 2011, 10–11; Avent 2004, p. 15
72 Lambert of Ardres, Ch. 77.
73 Quoted by Coulson 2003, pp. 73–74
74 Pugh 1955, pp. 13–14
75 Bassett 1943, pp. 244–245
76 Howes 2010, p. 16
77 RCHME 1975, pp. 43–46
78 Summerson 2008, pp. 12–13. Mary was lodged in the
'Warden's Tower', later known as Queen Mary's Tower,
with a small court. She borrowed money from the city's
merchants to support herself, but the main cost of
keeping her household, averaging £56 a week, fell on
Queen Elizabeth.
79 Ludlow 2014; Guy 2012–13
80 Ludlow 2014, pp, 33-34.
81 Pugh 1968, p. 347
82 Parnell 1993, p. 112
Castles as Prisons - Notes
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The surviving ramparts of Wallingford Castle betoken a once formidable castle, ‘most securely fortified’, but almost nothing of its walls remain. Recent archaeological investigation, both non-invasive and invasive, has revealed rich stratigraphy, going back in places to the late Iron Age. A two-volume history of the town that made some use of documents to produce a useful narrative of town and castle was published in 1881. Even so, it fell far short of a narrative of the castle as both a local and a national institution and the roles it played through the centuries before its demolition, and gave virtually no account of its physical evolution as a fortress and residence. This paper attempts to make good both deficits by exploiting a range of medieval documents to reconstruct the stages of the castle’s evolution and its role in national affairs, as well as in the local economy, discussed respectively in the first two and the fourth sections of the article. The third section explores for the first time unpublished material, principally annual audits and building accounts, in order to understand the castle and its constituent buildings. It incorporates the archaeological insights summarized in Chapter 2 of this volume, as well as the insights from the study of Tudor eye-witness evidence in Chapter 6, and the landscape analysis of Chapter 7.
Full-text available
The chance discovery of a mid-12th century manuscript belonging to Holy Trinity Priory, Wallingford, containing a 17-line terrier on its final verso, permits a re-evaluation of the traditions concerning its origins as a cell of the abbey of St Albans. The text is completely independent of any of the chronicles and other material from St Albans. The priory was clearly a Benedictine reformation of an existing pre-Conquest English secular college, a process possibly begun c. 1086, but mainly pursued during the period 1087–1100, with final consecration and dedication early in the reign of Henry I. The St Albans traditions are largely vindicated, and the work is shown to have been essentially a collaboration between royal officials and the townspeople.
THE USE of new methods on old castles generates new ways of seeing and leads to new interpretations. Three types of analyses are demonstrated on four late 13th-century castles from North Wales. Feature Analysis invokes the use of a decision-tree to help in the determination of room function. Access Analysis via access diagrams is used to understand the functional organization of rooms within each castle. Finally, a Comparative Analysis employing access diagrams, plans, a table and a cumulative graph is performed to note developmental trends in the castle designs, to detect differences between the castles, and to lead to new interpretations or new working hypotheses.
Three seasons (1973–75) of excavation were undertaken at several locations around Crookston Castle, which is thought to have begun as a timber and earth fortification in the twelfth century. This was replaced by a stone castle around AD 1400. Trenches were opened across the castle's outer defences, the entrance, the E range and in and around the extant stone tower. There was evidence to suggest that the original counterscarp of the ditch was repaired some time after the stone castle was built and that the gatehouse area was refashioned on more than one occasion. No dating evidence was found to date the construction of the main defensive ditch, which is presumed to have been dug in the 12th century.
As always during its long history, English common law, upon which American law is based, has had to defend itself against the challenge of civil law's clarity and traditions. That challenge to our common law heritage remains today. To that end, Liberty Fund now makes available a clear and candid discussion of common law. "A Concise History of the Common Law" provides a source for common-law understanding of individual rights, not in theory only, but protected through the confusing and messy evolution of courts, and their administration as they struggled to resolve real problems. Plucknett's seminal work is intended to convey a sense of historical development - not to serve merely as a work of reference. The first half of the book is a historical introduction to the study of law. Plucknett discusses the conditions in political, economic, social, and religious thought that have contributed to the genesis of law. This section is a brief but astoundingly full introduction to the study of law. The second half of the book consists of chapters introducing the reader to the history of some of the main divisions of law, such as criminal, tort, property, contract, and succession. These topics are treated with careful exposition so that the book will be of interest to those just embarking on their quest in legal history while still providing enough substantial information, references, and footnotes to make it meaningful for the well-versed legal history reader.