England’s Island Prisons

 We are delighted to publish this guest post by David Cressy,  who is Research Professor in Arts and Humanities at Claremont Graduate University, and George III Professor of British History Emeritus at The Ohio State University. He is finishing a history of Gypsies, and beginning a study of England’s islands

The orders, pamphlets, and petitions concerning seventeenth-century prisoners of conscience illuminate their experience in off-shore detention centers. Beginning in 1637, and continuing into the 1680s, successive regimes used island prisons as places of arbitrary confinement.  The government of Charles I dispatched the lawyer William Prynne, the clergyman Henry Burton, and the physician John Bastwick, respectively to Mount Orgeuil Castle on Jersey, Castle Cornet on Guernsey, and St. Mary’s Castle in the Isles of Scilly. Charles I, after losing the civil war, spent a year imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Later regimes made similar use of island facilities. Several studies show how and why the prisoners got there, and what befell them after they returned to the mainland, but little has been written about how they coped with island incarceration as an on-going experience, and in memory.

Charles I on the Isle of Wight
An Ould Ship called an Exhortation to continue all Subjects in their due Obedience (1648).

Among those dispatched to England’s island prisons under the Protectorate were the Leveller John Lilburne, who spent a year and a half on Jersey; the anti-trinitarian John Biddle, who was held almost three years on Scilly; the radical army officer Robert Overton, who was imprisoned for a year at Jersey’s Castle Elizabeth; the radical millenarians Hugh Courtney, Christopher Feake, Thomas Harrison, John Rogers, and Sir Henry Vane, who served various terms on the Isle of Wight; and their colleagues Arthur Squibb and Colonel Matthew Allured who were confined on the Isle of Man. Such heavy use of the small island of St. Nicholas, off-shore from Plymouth, as a staging post or place of confinement, prompted the commander to request the Protector in April 1659 ‘to be as sparing as you can of sending prisoners to the island of Plymouth, in regard we have no place to imprison them in more than what is the soldier’s quarters’. [1]

The practice of dispatching enemies to island prisons proved too useful for the restored Stuart monarchy to abandon. Faced with the continuing sedition, and recurrent threats of republican resurgence, Charles II’s government moved several Interregnum grandees into island isolation. Among such men on the wrong side of the Restoration were Major General John Lambert, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Salmon, and Major Richard Creed, sent to imprisonment in Guernsey; Colonel Ralph Cobbett, Major General Robert Overton (again), and the regicides Gilbert Millington, Henry Smith, James Temple, Thomas Waite and Sir Hardress Waller, held on Jersey; Sir Henry Vane (again), Sir John Ireton, and Colonel John Wildman, sent to the Isles of Scilly; and James Harrington, Colonel Robert Lilburne, and John Lambert (for another ten years), confined to St. Nicholas Island. Most of these men had spent time in the Tower or other mainland prisons before being transferred overseas. They had offended against the state rather than against the law, and their treatment was governed by political rather than judicial determinations. The island detainees of the Restoration had fewer friends on the mainland, and fewer prospects of enlargement, and theirs were some of the longest, though least well documented, spans of incarceration

Island prisons, for the most part, were beyond the reach of judicial review and such instruments as the writ of habeas corpus. The Channel Islands, as relics of the Duchy of Normandy, claimed exemption from mainland jurisdiction, except under the authority of the king’s Great Seal. The Scillies, as part of Cornwall, enjoyed no such historic privilege, but their rocky remoteness made effective appeals from London unlikely. As Paul Halliday has observed, it was the practical difficulty of serving the writ, and the political obstacles of securing compliance, that made habeas corpus ineffective, rather than niceties of jurisdiction. [2]  The state’s use of island prisons faded but did not end with the habeas corpus act of 1679 – ‘An Act for the better securing the Liberty of the Subject and for Prevention of Imprisonments beyond the Seas’ –  which specifically noted its application to ‘the islands of Jersey and Guernsey’, and all other parts of the kingdom. [3]

Escape was not impossible, as a few non-political prisoners proved, but it needed local knowledge, support, and a boat to leave an island.  Charles I, notoriously, botched several attempted escapes from Carisbrooke, on one occasion getting stuck in a window, and never getting as far as the awaiting horse.

Unlike the inhabitants of metropolitan prisons, who potentially had access to visitors, and could participate in the capital’s public sphere, island prisoners were cut off from the outside world. Most of the islands were too remote for friends or family to visit, and wives were sometimes threatened with prison if they dared to set foot on the island (although these restrictions were loosened in the 1650s and 1660s when wives more often shared prison quarters with their husbands).

Captivity on an island was different from mainland incarceration. The offshore location created additional barriers between the prisoner and the world. The very experience of crossing by water –  ninety to a hundred and twenty miles to the Channel Islands, twenty five miles or more to the Scillies – marked a separation, as several accounts of harrowing journeys underscored. John Rogers, imprisoned on the Isle of Wight barely five miles from Portsmouth, wrote of himself as ‘a poor pilgrim, prisoner, and forsaken banished man’ on ‘this mine isle of Patmos’, and counted himself among the ‘royal persecuted ones in Patmos-isle exile… brethren indeed’. [4]

Among many features shared by prisoners of different regimes was anger at the cruelty and lawlessness of their treatment; assurance that they suffered for a righteous cause; gratitude that God had strengthened them for their ordeal; and a propensity to identify with the prisoners of Scripture, especially the prophet Daniel, the apostle Paul, and John of Patmos the author of Revelation. Deprived of worldly comforts, the noise of London, the visits of friends, and even the fellowship of other prisoners, island detainees made as good use of their time as circumstances would permit.  At the very least they engaged in prayer and meditation; none were denied Bibles, and some read deeply in a range of godly works. Those with access to writing materials, and the means to smuggle out manuscripts, produced texts of the sort that the Fifth Monarchist John Rogers called ‘Prison-born morning beams’. [5]  Some were effectively silenced, but many survived to pen passionate works of witness and justification.

Religious prisoners of the 1650s shared the indignation of the ‘puritan martyrs’ of the 1630s at the injustice of their confinement. They were victims, they believed, of arbitrary, lawless cruelty. It proved, wrote Christopher Feake, that England had become Babylon, and that the new Protectorate and the monarchy of Charles I ‘are one and the same’. [6]    It was outrageous, wrote John Rogers, that he and his brethren were punished ‘as if we were felons or fearful villains and miscreants,’ when ‘cavaliers… Newgate thieves, and whores are not so cruelly handled at this day’. [7]   Supporters explicitly compared Oliver Cromwell’s ‘illegal imprisonment and banishment’ of Major General Overton to the treatment of Prynne, Burton, and Bastwick under Charles I. [8]

Cut off from external streams of discourse, island prisoners found common reading in the book of Revelation. They adopted the rhetoric of banishment and exile, not only to make sense of their predicament, and to highlight the cruelty of their persecutors, but to associate their suffering with the exiles of Scripture and history. Prophecies of the rise and fall of Antichrist sustained their confidence that liberation was at hand, not just for themselves but for England.

Each prisoner’s experience was different, depending upon local conditions, the strictness of incarceration, the personality and politics of island governors, the prisoner’s own fortitude and compliance, and changing circumstances in England. Former Major General Lambert, still suspected as a magnet for republican intrigue, enjoyed cordial relations with authorities on Guernsey, and busied himself with gardening.

Charles I’s island prisoners were supposed to be held incommunicado, but Prynne and Burton, at least, managed to communicate in writing.  Prynne wrote meditative religious poetry, comforted to know that ‘where God is present, there no prison is’. [9]   Burton continued his polemic against the bishops, and smuggled out a 400-page manuscript, later published in Amsterdam, which refers to the author as ‘a late minister of the Gospel’ who ‘still suffereth both close imprisonment and punishment, with divorcement and separation from wife, children, and all friends whatsoever, as a man buried quick in a marble tomb of calamity, the very image of hell’. [10]   Burton’s Narration tells how he discovered ‘an art to make ink, and for pens I had goose wings, which were to sweep the dust off my windows, and for paper a private friend in Guernsey town supplied. He also fed pigeons at his window, like the birdman of Alacatraz. [11]   Rogers was quick to learn such prisoners’ tricks as to hide ‘a few of my papers into the bottom of my stockings at the soles of my feet, to preserve them’; to carry ‘my papers in my clothes, and other ways, as the martyr Tindall did his’; and to hide them ‘in holes and walls, and pots and pans, to preserve them from the enemy.’ [12]    By no means passive in their punishment, many prisoners found ways to thwart the rules of their detention and to triumph over adversity.

—-David Cressy


[1] The National Archive, SP 18/211, f. 24.

[2] Paul D. Halliday, Habeas Corpus from England to Empire (Cambridge, MA., 2010), 81-85, 204, 227-29, 437. The peculiarity of Channel Island jurisdiction is discussed in A. J. Eagleston, The Channel Islands under Tudor Government 1485-1642 (Cambridge, 1949); Darryl Ogier, Reformation and Society in Guernsey (Woodbridge, 1996); and Tim Thornton, The Channel Islands 1370-1640: Between England and Normandy (Woodbridge, 2012).

[3] Statutes of the Realm, 31 Car. II. c. 2.

[4] John Rogers, Jegar-Sahadutha. An Oyled Pillar. Set up for Posterity (1657), ‘To the reader’

[5] Rogers, Jegar-Sahadutha, 1

[6] Christopher Feake, The Oppressed Close Prisoner in Windsor-Castle, His Defiance to the Father of Lyes, in the Strength of the God of Truth (1655), sig. A2, 119; Rogers, Jegar-Sahadutha., 2-18.

[7] Rogers, Jegar-Sahadutha, ‘To the reader’, introduction, 4, 23, 57.

[8] The Plain Case of the Common-Weal Neer the Desperate Gulf of the Common-Woe (1658, i.e. 1659), 15-16; J. R., The Sad Suffering Case of Major-General Rob. Overton, Prisoner in the Isle of Jersey (1659), 1-10.

[9] William Prynne, Movnt-Orgveil: or Divine and Profitable Meditations (1641).

[10] Henry Burton, A Replie to a Relation of the Conference Between William Laude and Mr. Fisher the Jesuite (Amsterdam, 1640).

[11] Henry Burton, A Narration of the Life of Mr. Henry Burton (1643).

[12] Rogers, Jegar-Sahadutha, To the reader’, introduction, 1, 19, 24, 67, 133

One thought on “England’s Island Prisons

  1. Thanks so much for sending this to everyone who has a love of mankind and history. It was very informative. I learned some of this in highschool, but not about using the islands. Same as France sending theirs to Georgia and Louisiana. I expect some day we will be sending ours into outer space.


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