Wisbech: Recusants in the castle

Pages 252-253

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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The idea of concentrating Roman Catholic prisoners from various jails into one place dates from 1572, when the Privy Council asked the Bishop of Ely (Cox) to report on the suitability of Wisbech Castle for this purpose. It was 'not ment that they shalbe burdenouse to any man, but to lyve upon theyr own charges, with consideracion of all such as shalbe nedefull to attend and guard them'. (fn. 1) Eight years later the deprived ecclesiastical Papists were ordered to be sent to castles such as Wisbech and Banbury; the laymen were to be placed under guard in London. (fn. 2) In August 1580 the bishop was enjoined to put Wisbech Castle 'in order and strength' to receive Papists (fn. 3) and by October the first eight priests, of whom Bishop Watson of Lincoln and Abbot Feckenham of Westminster were the bestknown, had arrived. (fn. 4) In 1584 it was suggested that the number confined at Wisbech should be limited to twenty. (fn. 5) At first the discipline was strict, the recusants being locked in separate rooms except for meals and for half an hour's exercise before dinner and supper. After the Armada, however, at which time there were about thirty-five prisoners, (fn. 6) there was a relaxation. Servants were allowed to be kept, visitors to be admitted, friends to send in food. Priests were allowed to go into the town. They paid 12s. a month for their rooms. The castle became a kind of ecclesiastical college, with exhaustive theological debates, and a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholic laity. (fn. 7) In 1590 allegations of slackness were made against Thomas Gray, the keeper of the castle, and a commission was sent to investigate. (fn. 8) It was recommended that the castle should be strengthened, and certain trustworthy townsmen appointed to assist the keeper, who was not to be absent from the castle without special dispensation. Visitors were only to be allowed by special permission, incoming letters were to be censored, communication between the prisoners was to be stopped except at meals, and they were not to be allowed outside the castle grounds. The diet of the Fleet prison was to be adopted. This was defined as 16s. a week for knight's commons and 10s. for gentleman's, with 6s. 8d. and 2s. 4d. respectively for their lodgings. (fn. 9)

During this second period of stricter discipline quarrels between Jesuits and seminary priests confined in the castle broke out. The leader of the former party was William Weston, a fanatical and ascetic Jesuit who arrived at Wisbech in 1587, of the latter Christopher Bagshaw, a comparatively recent (1582) convert to Roman Catholicism. Weston began to be active about 1593, he and his followers supporting the stricter discipline so as to make their imprisonment as conducive to sanctity as possible. As the more zealous party they received most of the alms of the faithful; they were suspected by Bagshaw and his followers as traitors, and the latter in return were accused of loose living and immorality. (fn. 10) Matters first came to a head with the introduction of a hobby horse for the Christmas festivities of 1594, and the following year a commission was appointed 'to take verie particular notice of all the prisoners there, of what condicion, qualitie and estate they are and how manye of them stand condemned'. It was considered that too many servants and outside persons had access to the prisoners, and it was proposed to send the latter overseas in due course. (fn. 11) Various persons who had had dealings with the prisoners were ordered to appear in the Star Chamber. (fn. 12) In 1597 the custody of the prisoners was entrusted to William Medley and William Brewster, who were ordered 'to see the prisoners more strightly looked unto than they have bin of late'. (fn. 13) In the same year some form of epidemic broke out, some of the prisoners being temporarily moved to Sir John Higham's house at Barrow (Suff.), and others allowed 'to walk abroad to take the ayre at suche tymes and so far as you [Higham] shall thyncke convenyent'. (fn. 14) Towards the end of 1598 various priests, including Weston, were moved from Wisbech to the Tower of London, and others who 'have conformed themselves and go orderly to church' were released to friends 'known to be well affected'. (fn. 15) In 1602 thirty-six priests were transferred to Framlingham (Suff.), guarded and manacled, (fn. 16) but some remained at Wisbech four or five years later. William Chester, constable of the castle, received' £75 12s. for their diet in November 1607. (fn. 17) In February 1606 Bishop Heton reported that a priest, George Smith, had been converted and was 'an excellent musician, especially on the organs'. (fn. 18) In 1615 twenty-four priests were brought to Wisbech from London, and the regulations of 1590 for safe custody brought into force again. (fn. 19) Three of this fresh batch escaped, and the following year the hundred of Wisbech as well as the town was called on to provide trustworthy assistants to the keeper. (fn. 20) Nevertheless a further escape of five prisoners took place. (fn. 21) In 1618 nine of the priests were deported, (fn. 22) and eight years later the keeper of the castle was summoned before the Council to give a full report. (fn. 23) This marks the end of the use of Wisbech Castle for this purpose, though the idea of removing Jesuit and other priests from London prisons to stricter confinement at Wisbech was still being mooted in 1628. (fn. 24)


  • 1. Acts of P.C. 1571-5, 73.
  • 2. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1580-1625, 8.
  • 3. Acts of P.C. 1580-1, 142. George Carleton, the constable, had to cut down his retinue to make room (ibid. 157-8).
  • 4. Ibid. 1547-80, 681.
  • 5. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1581-90, 157.
  • 6. £12 was paid to George Cobham, one of the Queen's messengers, and to Robert Awfeild, for conveying twelve priests from London to Wisbech in March 1588, and six more were admitted in October (Acts of P.C. 1588, 4, 317).
  • 7. T. G. Law, Jesuits and Seculars in the Reign of Eliz. (1889), pp. xl-xlii.
  • 8. Acts of P.C. 1590, 170, 410, 420-2. Gray's daughter Ursula was said to have been perverted to Roman Catholicism (Law, Jesuits and Seculars, p. xlii).
  • 9. Acts of P.C. 1592, 392-8.
  • 10. For a full narrative see Law, Jesuits and Seculars, which prints many original documents.
  • 11. Acts of P.C. 1595-6, 154-5, 174-5.
  • 12. Ibid. 252, 418-20.
  • 13. Ibid. 1597, 335-6. Several escapes occurred about this time; see e.g. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1595-7, 194; 1598-1601, 456. Acts of P.C. 1599-1600, 200, 462. Medley and Brewster later fell out over the profits of keeping the prisoners (Acts of P.C. 1597-8, 299).
  • 14. Acts of P.C. 1597-8, 6, 115.
  • 15. Ibid. 1598-9, 373-4, 381; 1599- 1600, 201; D.N.B. xx, 1290.
  • 16. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1601-3, 167-8.
  • 17. Ibid. 1603-10, 382.
  • 18. Ibid. 285.
  • 19. Acts of P.C. 1615-16, 108-17.
  • 20. Ibid. 205-6, 383.
  • 21. Acts of P.C. 1616-17, 73-74.
  • 22. Ibid. 1618-19, 202-3.
  • 23. Ibid. June-Dec. 1626, 264-5.
  • 24. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1628-9, 53.