Family Lessons 85: Fleet Prison

About 1329, Robert de Clitheroe, Rector of Wigan, called on John del Crosse, my 22nd great-grandfather, to give account for the time he served as bailiff.

John was in post from Michaelmas (September) 1313 till the end of August 1316, during which time he managed three mills, markets, and fairs, the profits of which amounted to £160. He served also from September 1316 to 4th April 1324, during which the profits generated from 'corn, hay, beasts, great tithes, small tithes, offerings and other profits', amounted, the rector said, to £1,500 (£1.2 million in today's money). The receipts during the same period amounted to a mere £335 11 shillings 7 pence, however. Consequently, Grandfather John was summoned to court. At the trial, he failed to appear; the jury decided against him and he was committed to the Fleet Prison. This grim London gaol was both the King’s own prison and later a debtors’ prison; it is not clear whether John was imprisoned for contempt of court (not showing up), owing an unpaid debt to the Rector, or for fraud. Whatever the charge, it must have been a bleak and expensive period away from home, assuming that the Sheriff’s officers apprehended him. Once in the Fleet, one had to pay an entry fee, as well as an exit fee; there were charges levied for opening doors, releasing one’s irons and, of course, for food and lodging. If Grandfather John had truly defrauded the Rector of that huge sum of money (roughly £914,588.82 in today’s loose change) the Fleet was all he deserved. And yet, having got there, he would have ended up in far greater debt.

Wigan Parish Church

Fourteenth-century records are too few and far between for a researcher of my quality to find out whether he was ever incarcerated, and on what charge. He died around in 1329 in Wigan, so he cannot have been locked up for long. Still, the trial to which he was heading would be far harder to evade and duck than the one he managed to avoid on earth; and the gloomy prison of hades is far, far worse than even London’s Fleet. I only pray that he knew his sins and crimes were covered by Jesus’ shed blood -by faith, and not by masses, statues, saints and relics.

And when he began to reckon, one that owed to him ten thousand talents, was brought to him. And when he had not whereof to yield, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all things that he had, and to be paid. But that servant felled down, and prayed him, and said, Have patience in me, and I shall yield to thee all things. And the lord had mercy on that servant, and suffered him to go, and forgave him the debt.

Matthew 18:24-27, Wycliffe's Translation

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