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The Bishop's Palace at Ely as a Prison for Recusants, 1577–1597

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 April 2015


The Bishop's Palace at Ely was used as a prison for Catholics between 1577 and 1597, and between 1588 and 1597 was exclusively a prison for lay recusants. Its inmates included Abbot John Feckenham between 1577 and 1580 and Thomas Tresham, who was imprisoned in Ely four times. Unlike Wisbech Castle, however, the Palace at Ely's period as a prison for recusants has received little attention. This article draws on the documentary evidence for the Catholic prisoners in official records, as well as Tresham's extensive writings during his Ely imprisonment. It also draws on a newly discovered inventory of the Palace's contents in 1581, arguing that the prisoners, and Tresham in particular, were affected by their stay in Ely. It makes the case for the prisoners’ rich cultural life, as evidenced by the prison writings of Tresham and a fellow inmate, George Cotton, who used his time to translate Jesuit letters from Japan. The prisoners in the Bishop's Palace at Ely may have made less public noise than their fellow prisoners at Wisbech Castle, but like Wisbech, Ely was a focus of Catholic culture and resistance during the late Elizabethan period that deserves to be better understood.

Research Article
Copyright © Catholic Record Society 2014

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1 Gonville and Caius College MS 53/30, fols 57r–59r.

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88 Ibid. pp. 258, 262.

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92 Strauss, P., In Hope of Heaven: Recusant Prison Writings of the Sixteenth Century, Peter Lang, New York, 1995, p. 2.Google Scholar