Two things Henry VIII was not short of were wives and palaces, but his palaces were more numerous. Among the most famous of the dozens of candidates are Westminster, Whitehall, St James’s, Eltham, the Tower of London, Richmond, Hampton Court and, the most sumptuous of them all, Nonsuch, which Fate did not allow him to live long enough to see completed.
The location of one of the least well known is passed by thousands of Londoners and others every day as they emerge from the western exit of Blackfriars Underground station, though hardly any realise it. The whole of that side of New Bridge Street, from the end of the Unilever building along the banks of the Fleet river (now underground) to Fleet Street, was taken up by Bridewell Palace, with a watergate to the Thames being the main entrance. All visible traces of it have now gone, though some remains of it, including brick arches, are buried underneath and a reconstruction of part of the facade can still be seen.
Bridewell Palace was built by Cardinal Wolsey in around 1510 with what came to be known as Tudor brick, not the traditional stone. He once described it as “my poor house at Bridewell”. It was taken over by Henry in 1515 after his palace at Westminster was destroyed and he lived there on and off for eight years.
It later morphed from palace to poor house when Bishop Ridley successfully pleaded with Edward VI in 1553 to give some of his empty palaces over to the city to house homeless women and children. The City of London took over the buildings 1556 and turned them into a prison, hospital and work rooms, which became known as Bridewell prison. The name Bridewell soon became the generic one for any large jail.
The atrocious conditions there can be gleaned in Ned Ward’s famous book The London Spy. He said that men and women were whipped on their naked backs before the court of governors. The president apparently sat with his hammer in his hand, and the punishment ended when the president banged the table rather like an auctioneer.
The place was not without humour. During Charles II’s reign one of the most infamous inmates was brothel keeper Elizabeth Cresswell, who left £10 in her will for a sermon to be read that said nothing ill of her. The young clergyman found to grant this wish apparently said: “By the will of the deceased it is expected that I should mention her and say nothing but what was well of her. All I shall say of her, therefore, is this — she was born well, lived well, and died well; for she was born with the name of Cresswell, lived at Clerkenwell, and died in Bridewell.”
The prison was finally closed in 1855 and the buildings demolished in 1863-4 to make way for the De Keyser’s Royal Hotel, which was later sold to Lever Brothers who demolished it. Unilever House has stood there since 1931. The only memory of the palace is a gatehouse in the style of the original at 14 New Bridge Street, including a relief portrait of Edward VI.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
OnLondon.co.uk exists to provide fair and thorough coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources. Click here to donate directly or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for bank account details. Thanks.