This Dreaded Prison in London was Where Catholic Martyrs Were Made

The plague pit that was called ‘limbo’ is somewhere still buried below London, as, too, for now at least, are the remains of its victims.

Old Newgate Prison
Old Newgate Prison (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

Alongside the Tower of London and Tyburn, one of Catholic London’s most hallowed spots is the site where once stood the infamous Newgate Prison.

Nothing remains of the original prison today. Its former site, however, now occupied by the Old Bailey courthouse, is still worthy of pilgrimage. To go there, to pause and pray, is to remember the many Catholic martyrs who died within that prison’s walls, and, in particular, those who died in its most notorious hellhole known as ‘limbo.’

For centuries the horrors of Newgate’s cells were dreaded, more even than death itself. The prison jailers had the reputation of being notoriously brutal, cruel and without pity. From 1534, when King Henry VIII appointed Thomas Cromwell Chief Minister, and for many years to come, it was to Newgate Prison and other such places that men and women were herded for no other reason than that they remained true to the Catholic faith.

The crimes of these new prisoners were offences such as aiding priests, not attending the services of the new State religion, or simply possessing a rosary. The number of those who suffered in Newgate cannot now be counted, their witness known only to God. This Lent, when we are called to renounce mere pleasures, it is worth remembering those faithful who renounced family, home, and life itself in the seemingly perpetual ‘Lent’, which descended upon England from 1534.

Held at Newgate, there were some like the Franciscan, John Forest, formerly the Confessor of Queen Catherine of Aragon. Eventually, he was fastened to a wooden hurdle that was dragged by horse to nearby Smithfield. There he was burned to death. Another Friar, Anthony Brorby, was strangled to death while a prisoner at Newgate; Friars Thomas Cort and Thomas Belchiam, imprisoned there in 1538, were left to starve to death.

This bloodshed continued under Queen Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the courage of some was undaunted and public. In 1570, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, John Felton nailed a copy of the Papal Bull of Excommunication of Elizabeth Tudor to the door of the Bishop’s Palace at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Arrested and taken to Newgate, he was racked. When on Aug. 8 the time came for his execution, crowds watched as he emerged from the prison dressed as if to attend the Royal Court. Unbowed, he told those assembled that he was about to die for the Catholic faith and repudiated the English Crown’s claim to the title  ‘supreme head of the church.’ He, too, was fixed to a hurdle and dragged to the grounds of the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral where he had previously nailed the papal bull; there, he was hanged. Eventually, he was cut down still alive and then the hangman tore out his beating heart. Felton’s daughter looked on as the hangman did so while she heard her father’s final gasp invoking the Holy Name of Jesus.

Eighteen years later, Felton’s son, Fr. Thomas Felton, was also imprisoned in Newgate. After being captured by the authorities, he arrived there having been flogged so excessively that he had difficulty walking. He was sent to the foulest part of the prison: a cell completely underground, without any light source. In this darkness, he found nothing but demented, howling prisoners, one upon another, who lay upon the ground with endless swarms of vermin as company. This was the place known, and feared, as ‘limbo.’ Fr. Felton was to be shackled there for 15 weeks, before he, too, was executed in the same manner as his father.

It was to Newgate that Henry Donne, the brother of the poet John Donne, was taken for the offence of harboring a priest. The Donne family was Recusant Catholic; the poet’s mother was related to Thomas More. John Donne later renounced his Catholic faith, however, and entered Anglican orders. Subsequently, he was made Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1594, Donne’s brother, Henry — still faithful to the Catholic faith — unvisited and uncared for, died of plague in Newgate. Many years later, in 1631, not far from the prison, John Donne died in his bed. In the poet’s honor a statue was erected in the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the same grounds in which John Felton had been put to death for refusing to renounce the Catholic faith.

The case of another resident of ‘limbo’ that of the Jesuit priest, John Nelson, is curious. It was reported that his arrest in 1577 was foretold by the demon he had expelled in a recent exorcism. The demon announced to those assembled that he would have the exorcist arrested within a week and that the priest’s life would soon be forfeit. Fr. Nelson was so arrested, and held at Newgate for many weeks. While there, it is told how he continued to minister to all imprisoned. When executed at Tyburn, Fr. Nelson’s last words were: ‘I forgive the Queen and all that were causers of my death.’

In 1590, the layman, Nicholas Horner was also to enter ‘limbo.’ An elderly tailor, he had come to the English capital from his native Yorkshire for medical treatment on his leg. In London, on discovery of his Catholic faith, Horner was arrested. At Newgate, needless to say, his illness grew worse; so much so, his leg was amputated without anesthetic. While this was taking place, he was heard to utter: ‘Jesus, increase my pains and increase my patience.’ In the end, he was condemned to die. Following the sentence, he was plunged into great fear and anguish. The night before his execution, however, he beheld before him what seemed to be a crown. He reached out to it but could feel nothing. Nevertheless, shortly before he was led to his death, he told other prisoners of this vision, and of the comfort and strength it had brought him for what was now approaching.

No doubt, death came as a welcome release for many. Take the case of Fr. Thomas Clifton, who, in 1581, was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment in Newgate. For the rest of his days, consigned to the darkness and squalor of ‘limbo’, the priest lived on, with ‘his hands, feet and neck chained in such sort that he could neither sit down nor stir out of his place.’ Like so many who were taken to Newgate, Fr. Clifton was left to die, and so, his death is recorded nowhere. England’s then ruling elite intended Newgate’s Catholic inmates, like the faith they embodied, to be forgotten.

Martyr is the Greek word signifying witness, however. And, as Scripture testifies, witnesses to the Truth are rarely welcomed; yet in the wake of the martyrs comes a purifying fire. It was appropriate perhaps, therefore, that the old Newgate Prison should perish forever during the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Today, as with much of medieval London, there is nothing of the original Newgate Prison to be seen. Below street level, however, the city’s history lies there yet, layer upon layer of fragments and artifacts. The plague pit that was called ‘limbo’ is somewhere still buried below the ground, as, too, for now at least, are the remains of its victims.

And yet, it is a place of triumph. For, some day, from that nefarious gloom beneath, when time itself has run its course, there shall come forth a procession of those who witnessed to the Light, with the Father’s Glory reflected forever in their crowns.