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 among early modern prisoners.
In the early 1640s, judging by a string of petitions, violence was rife in the King’s Bench, and inmates made numerous accusations of assault, oppression and even murder by prison staff. Among those accused was Edmund Griffin, the prison’s porter, with whom inmates had numerous run-ins. In mid-1640, the prisoners apparently threatened to escalate this conflict by complaining about Griffin to parliament. As a result, when Charles I suddenly dissolved the Short Parliament on 5 May, Griffin took the chance to gloat. By the inmates’ account, he ‘came to the prison dore laughinge, havinge a beare garden bill in his hand, and said there was a Parliamt bill for them[,] in Contempt of that ho:ble Court’.
This puzzled me for a while: what was a ‘beare garden bill’, what was Griffin doing with it and how did it relate to bills in parliament? A ‘garden bill’, it turns out, is probably a billhook: a partially curved blade on a short handle typically used in agriculture (its description as a garden billhook distinguishes it from its military namesake, which was not unlike a halberd). Mostly used for clearing away foliage, it is somewhere between a scythe and a machete. And the adjective ‘beare’ (that is, bare) probably means unsheathed, the blade exposed and ready for use.
Suddenly the episode takes on an even more violent quality: a prison guard stands at the door wielding a blade, laughing at the sudden onset of political helplessness among the prisoners. Griffin, it transpires, was making a threatening pun: with parliament dissolved, the inmates had lost their chance to air their grievances to external authorities, and the only bill left for them was the porter’s billhook. He made clear that their hopes for redress had been replaced with the prospect of ongoing violence, and was presumably threatening recrimination for any other attempts to complain about him.
We only have the inmates’ side of this story, so who knows how Griffin would have represented himself. Yet either way it reveals a couple of things. Firstly, a sense among petitioners that their ability to contest the conditions of their imprisonment was restrained by the unpredictable rhythms of the political system. They relied on appeals to external authority that, in the case of parliament, could be adjourned or dissolved unexpectedly, and this had the potential to leave them vulnerable if they had exhausted other avenues. Secondly, this vulnerability hinged upon the threat of physical violence. While we can’t be sure if Griffin really did act in this way, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that early modern prisons hosted all kinds of violence, and this accusation shows that prisoners conceived of its possibility to constrain their ability to resist. The episode also suggests one potential form of resistance: by highlighting Griffin’s ‘Contempt of that ho:ble Court [i.e. Parliament]’ when they finally could petition, inmates implied disloyalty and attempted to discredit him as a servant of the prison. But at the end of the day, Griffin was the one holding the billhook.
Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/59, fo.137r