October 23, 1247 – Founding date of the London Priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlem, that after 1350 would evolve into the Bedlam hospital and become one of Europe’s first mental asylums.
The priory was founded on this day (“the year of our Lord God 1247, the Wednesday after the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist”) thanks to a grant of London Sheriff and Alderman Simon FitzMary. As a former crusader, he intended the priory to function as a religious center for collecting alms.
We have no portrait of Bedlam’s founder Simon FitzMary.
Therefore, here is a picture of St. Luke instead.
Originally, the priory was directly linked to the Church and Bishop of Bethlehem. In 1375, under King Edward III, this “foreign” background gave the Crown a motive to seize the priory. At this point it became a hospital; in 1377 it may have begun to take in mentally ill people.
The earliest date we know for sure that Bethlem housed mental patients is 1403. In that year, misbehavior of the priory’s porter caused a Royal Commission to inspect the premises. Among the patients they found “sex homines menti capti” (six lunatic men). The commission also registered the related therapeutic equipment: “Eleven iron chains with six locks, four pairs of iron manacles, and two pairs of stocks”.
In 1437 Bethlem was mentioned as providing “the succour of demented lunatics”: soon after, it had become an asylum exclusively for the mentally ill. They had room for about twenty of them. Among the buildings around the courtyard was not just a small church, but also a shed to store the hay that was used for bedding.
There are no images of Bethlem or the people involved in its first centuries. I can, however, show you what may have been one of the patients from this era. Between 2011-2013, during construction of a new underground station below Liverpool Street Station, archaeologists found 500-year-old graves from the old Bethlem graveyard:
Cryings, Screechings, Roarings, Brawlings…
The city of London took control of Bethlem in 1547 and for over a century, they had it managed as a kind of annex of the Brideswell prison-and-hospital: the place to dump the hopelessly insane.
By then, Londoners were already using the name “Bedlam” for the hospital, and they were sometimes touring it as if it was a zoo. In a general sense, the name would soon become synonymous for a pandemonium. Like it was described by clergyman Donald Lupton when he characterized the Bedlam patients in 1632:
Heere live many, that are cal’d men, but seldome at home, for they are gone out of themselves: Nature hath bin a Steppe-mother to some, and misery and crosses have caused this strange change in others: they seeme to live here, eyther to rectifie Nature, or forget Miseries: they are put to Learne that Lesson which many, nay all that will bee happy, must learne to know, and be acquainted with themselves: this House would bee too little, if all that are beside themselves should be put in here: it seemes strange that any one shold recover here, the cryings, screechings, roarings, brawlings, shaking of chaines, swearings, frettings, chaffings, are so many, so hideous, so great, that they are more able to drive a man that hath his witts, rather out of them, then to helpe one that never had them, or hath lost them, to finde them againe. A Drunkard is madde for the present, but a Madde man is drunke alwayes.
You shall scarce finde a place that hath so many men and woemen so strangely altered either from what they once were, or should have beene: The men are al like a Shippe that either wants a Sterne, or a Steresman, or Ballast: they are all Heteroclites from Nature, either having too much Wildnesse, or being defective in Judgment. Here Art strives to mend or cure Natures imperfections and defects. Certainely, hee that keepes the House may be sayd to live among wilde Creatures: It’s thought many are kept here, not so much in hope of recovery, as to keepe them from further and more desperate Inconveniences.
Their Faculties and Powers of their Soules and Bodies being by an ill cause vitiated and depraved, or defective. The men may be said to be faire Instruments of Musicke, but either they want strings, or else though beeing strung are out of tune, or otherwise want an expert Artist to order them: Many live here that know not where they are, or how they got in, never thinke of getting out: there’s many that are so well or ill in their wits, that they can say they have bin out of them, and gaine much by dissembling in this kind: desperate Caitifes that dare make a mocke of judgment: well, if the Divell was not so strong to delude, and men so easily to be drawne, this house would stand empty, and for my part, I am sorry it hath any in it.
The conditions in this old Bedlam were quite filthy. All the water had to be carried from one cistern in the yard; the sanitary conditions were especially bad for locked-in patients who had to make do with a bucket in their cell – which gave them the opportunity to throw about their excrement. Malnutrition was not uncommon, either.
As for therapy, until 1634 (when Bedlam for the first time got its own physicians) in fact there was none. The patients were indeed kept like animals in a zoo.
As said, we have no reliable pictures of old Bedlam at all. A circa 1572 city map by Ralph Agas gives a vague impression of what the complex may have looked like. The cutout below shows how Bedlam (within the red lines) still had its original position just outside the medieval city wall; a century later the fast-growing city would be all around it.
By combining Agas’ picture with other old maps and descriptions, in 1882 physician Daniel Hack Tuke made a reasonable reconstruction of what the original old Bedlam in the 1400s and 1500s may have looked like:
Important to note here is that as an institution, Bedlam initially remained quite small. Between 1440 and 1600, the number of patients kept hovering around 30. During an inspection in 1598, the patient count got no further than 21.
But in the 1600s, gradually the old former priory buildings began to get overcrowded. In 1667 there were 59 patients.
Ten years later (1675-1676) a much bigger “New Bedlam” would be built to replace the dilapidated old one; but that’s another story.
In the 19th century, a railway station was built on the site of the original medieval Bedlam (and its graveyard). Since an 1894 extension, this Liverpool Street Station covers the entire area. Except for underground construction work, little will remind people of the asylum that once was there.
There’s just a wall plaque now:
Isn’t it a little strange that this plaque does not explicitly commemorate the nameless patients who suffered terribly here and who for centuries lay buried at this spot?
- The St. Luke picture is from Lady Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours, a medieval manuscript (about 1440) from the Special Collections of St John’s College in Cambridge.
- The quote describing the bedlam in Bedlam is from a 1632 booklet by clergyman-writer Donald Lupton (1612—1676). It is online (based on a reprint edition from 1856) at the PressCom website: London and the Countrey Carbonadoed and Quartred, by D. Lupton.
- The complete c.1572 London map by land surveyor Ralph (or Radulph) Agas (1540-1621) can be viewed online at Wikimedia: Civitas Londinium, or The Agas Map of London (for a really large image, see here).
- The reconstruction drawing of the original Bedlam complex comes from the 1882 book by Daniel Hack Tuke (1827-1895) Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles, online at the OpenLibrary books site (picture at page 61).
- There will be many more Bedlam-related posts here at this site. We’ve already got some 19th-century Bedlam topics: see the post about 1829 arsonist and famous Bedlam patient Jonathan Martin; the post showing an 1852 painting by a Bedlam patient portraying his doctor; and the post about a Bedlam superintendent who in 1830 was fired for abusing female patients.