Castle Goal or ‘Bishop’s Hole’

Friday, October 21, 2016

Waytemore Castle was a royal fortress, a prison and a private residence of the Lord of the manor i.e. the Bishop of London, though there is little evidence to suggest any bishop ever actually lived in the castle. They did, however, use it for the Bishop’s Court where any local felony of a religious nature was dealt with. To pay for this court, as well as the castle’s upkeep and defence, tenants of the manor were expected to do their duty as castle guards or, in lieu of service, pay money to the bishop.

The prison in the castle was in existence early in the 13th century and probably before.
In 1234 there is mention of a prisoner detained for murder in the prison…
The custody of the gaol was held by an officer of the bishop, who was sometimes the same as the farmer of the manor or the farmer of the market. The gaol was used for all criminals within the liberty of the bishop in Hertfordshire, but the greater number of prisoners were convicted clerks. The treatment was probably rigorous. A certain heretic named Ranulf, an apostate Franciscan, who disturbed London by his attacks on the Catholic faith in 1336, was imprisoned there by the bishop until the best method of proceeding against him should have been decided, but his death is recorded very shortly afterwards.  In September 1344 there were fifty prisoners in the gaol, and seven more were added during the year and of these twenty-nine died.

Although the best known among the “Rats Dungeon”, or “Dungeon of the Rats”, was a Tower of London with a cell below high-water mark and totally dark that would draw in rats from the River Thames when prisoners would have their flesh torn from the arms and legs, something similar must of happened in the Stortford goal with the river Stort nearby.
The accounts of the gaolers include such items as lights for visiting the prisoners at night, shackles, fetters, iron for staples, stocks, and so on.  In spite of all precautions, however, the prison does not seem to have been very secure, judging by the numerous notices of the escape of prisoners from it.
In 1539 the number of prisoners was eleven. The prison was not in the keep of the castle, but stood with some of the other buildings on a site now occupied by the house called Castle Cottage, and was separated from the keep by the moat.

By 1549 the castle was in ruins, but the prison survived and is mentioned by Norden, writing in 16th century, as ‘a dungeon deep and strong.’
The Jesuit lay brother Thomas Pound was imprisoned there by Bishop Aylmer in 1580 to prevent his infecting others by his conversation and in a letter to Sir Christopher Hatton gives a dismal description of it. He spent nearly 30 years in prison, one being ‘lonely’ castle at Stortford from where he wrote to his friend:’ ‘It is nothing but a large varst room, cold water, bare walls, noe windows, but lopholes too highe to loke out at, nor bed nor bedstead nor place very fit for any; the homeliest things a high pair of stockes, such a pair of virginalls (handcuffs) all athwart my cold harbor (dungeon) and nothing else but chains enough, which yet I am not worthy of’.

It was probably used until the time of the Commonwealth, after which prisoners were sent to the county gaol.  Chauncy says that the buildings were sold about mid of 17th century and soon afterwards pulled down. When Charles I was executed in 1649 Oliver Cromwell governed England as a Commonwealth and many changes were implemented throughout the land. The remaining prisoners at Bishop’s Stortford were transferred to the county jail at Hertford and the goal was demolished.

An inn called Cherry Tree was built on the site near the old gatehouse of the castle. This has been incorporated in the present Castle Cottage, formerly the residence of Mr. Edward Taylor.  The ground on which the castle stands was lately the joint property of several members of the Taylor family.
In 1907 it was acquired with the castle by the urban district council for public gardens.

Excerpts taken from:

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