Medieval Prisons

Ouse Bridge had a prison at either end.

York’s medieval prisons, nicknamed ‘Kidcotes’, were an important part of the city’s governance. By the close of the fourteenth century York had at least 7 prisons. They imprisoned different kinds of criminal and were owned by different city authorities. Both the Sheriff of York and the Mayor had their own prisons to lock up the city’s criminals. These prison buildings were either side of the medieval Ouse Bridge. One famous captive was the man who stole the keys of Bootham Bar in 1489. Whatever your crime you could be certain of a squalid time in these prisons. All you could do was hope it didn’t flood!

In spite of the conditions imprisonment was not seen as a punishment in itself, you were only imprisoned awaiting trial. But that could take a very long time - there are accounts of prisoners waiting for up to ten years for trial. Whilst you were in there you had to pay rent and for your food. Running a prison could be a profitable business.

York also boasted the only dedicated ‘forest prison’ known to history, used to lock up criminals who had broken the laws of the forest. It was on Davygate in a building called Davy Hall. This was home to the king’s larderer, the man responsible for making sure the king had plenty of meat to eat when he came to York. The larderer was also in charge of the forest prison. The first recorded larderer can be found in the royal records of 1135, and his name was David. David’s descendents (mostly called David as well) remained in charge of the larder and the forest gaol until the fifteenth century.

Even the Minster had its own prison, for members of the church caught breaking the law. Often criminals would ‘plead clergy’ claiming to be churchmen and therefore eligible to be tried within the Church where the punishments were much more lenient. The Archbishop’s prison was moved several times during the Middle Ages. One of the sites is now a pub, ‘The Hole in the Wall’. It was only in 1816, when the pub was being rebuilt, that the underground prison was rediscovered.

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