Chastising Bad Women






Punishing Adultery







Punishing Prostitution
















1660 image of Bridewell. [3]

When Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, visited England in 1520, Henry VIII built a palace for the occasion on “Bride’s Well, just outside Ludgate”[7]. After Henry’s 1546 order for the closure of Bankside brothels, and the palace at Bridewell being unused, Henry’s son Edward VI donated it to the City of London to be used as a house of correction for vagrant women and girls.

The preamble to Edward’s gift state that “all females of lewde and evill lyffes should be able to save their souls and return them to normal god-fearing activities” [7]. The aim of this facility (and others that were modeled after it and so generally referred to as bridewells) was to correct the women rather than punish them. The inmates were trained for domestic service with paltry wages and miserable conditions, prompting many to return to prostitution.

By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, the aim of Bridewell had shifted to implement punishment and confinement for the women, effectively rendering it a prison. Diarist Ned Ward wrote of the jail that it was a “shameful Nest of Vagabonds and Strumpettes [with] repeated whippings, beatings, rapings, lockings in cells, starv’d, ill-treated” and that “the threat of the Bridewell made every harlot shiver”[7]. The harsh punishments applied at Bridewell did not abolish “the oldest profession nor did ‘coreccion’ transform its practitioners”[7]. The failure to stem prostitution is evident in the Jacobean ballad The Bridewell Whores’ Resolution, which asserted that:

Jenny and Betty do the Lash defie
And swear they’l use the Trade until they die;
Bridewell afflicts their backs, but let me tell ye
They are not tormented below their belly!

Frontispiece of The Bridewell Whores Resolution. [6]


"Bridewell as it really was." [12]

The image above depicts a jailer looking on as female inmates beat hemp. Though it is difficult to discern, the woman on the right has her nose slit, a typical punishment for bawds. The jailer threatens the woman on the left by pointing at leg irons in the middle foreground. The image reflects the shift in Bridewell's purpose as a correctional and rehabilitation facility to a place of punishment.


For more information concerning sexuality and the law, continue on to 'Measuring' Morality.