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”.
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.
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” .
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
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”.
The harsh punishments applied at Bridewell did not abolish “the
oldest profession nor did ‘coreccion’ transform its
The failure to stem prostitution is evident in the Jacobean ballad
The Bridewell Whores’ Resolution, which asserted that:
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.
"Bridewell as it really was."
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.
more information concerning sexuality and the law, continue on to