By Peter Konieczny
Visitors to a medieval castle often want to see what their dungeon looks like. Usually they will be disappointed because there isn’t one. The reality is that dungeons did not exist in the Middle Ages.
When most people think of a dungeon within a castle, it will be something like this:
the floor of which was deep beneath the level of the ground, and very damp, being lower than even the moat itself. The only light was received through one or two loop-holes far above the reach of the captive’s hand. These apertures admitted, even at mid-day, only a dim and uncertain light, which was changed for utter darkness long before the rest of the castle had lost the blessing of day. Chains and shackles, which had been the portion of former captives, from whom active exertions to escape had been apprehended, hung rusted and empty on the walls of the prison, and in the rings of one of those sets of fetters there remained two mouldering bones, which seemed to have been once those of the human leg, as if some prisoner had been left not only to perish there, but to be consumed to a skeleton.
While this certainly sounds creepy and terrifying, this description is not from the Middle Ages. It is actually from Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, written just over two hundred years ago. This extremely popular work of fiction has done a lot to shape people’s minds when it comes to the Middle Ages, as have other novels, movies and video games. The image they almost always show is that within a castle there will be a place underground which is dark and grimy. It will be here that prisoners will be chained to the walls, perhaps with a few others. The only other people they will see are guards who will inflict horrible torture on them.
A Dungeon in the Tower of London?
But do such ‘dungeons’ exist? The reality is that it is very hard to find castles that have anything like this. There are many places that will claim in their tourist information to have dungeons, but a closer inspection reveals that these are stories with little facts behind them. The Tower of London is a good example – you can find many books, websites, and Youtube videos that talk about ‘Little Ease,’ which is said to be a prison cell underneath the White Tower.
Photos of the place reveal it to be a doorway into a small room, almost like a closet. Its nickname ‘Little Ease’ was said to be because it is where a prisoner would be kept and forced to stand since it was so small. The Royal Collection Trust, a charity that helps run several important historic sites (although not the Tower of London), includes this short description on their website:
The infamous torture cell was so-called due to its tiny size: it measured a mere 1.2m square. Its cramped size prevented prisoners from settling in any bearable position: they were unable to stand, sit or lie down. Furthermore, the windowless cell was in constant blackness. The inhabitant was forced to crouch in solitary confinement for days or even a week, before being released for interrogation and torture. It is likely that such torture cells were ubiquitous in Europe’s prisons at this time.
However, a closer examination of this room shows that the back wall was once also a door and that its original purpose was to serve as a short passageway between two rooms. At one point – no one knows when – one side was covered over. Thus ‘Little Ease’ is little more than an architectural quirk, the result of one of the many changes the White Tower has undergone.
What about the stories of people being kept there? For example, there is Edmund Campion, a Jesuit preacher who was executed for promoting the Catholic Church in 1581. Most books on his life do make a reference to being put in Little Ease for four days – the ultimate reference for this is from a history of the Jesuits written by Daniello Bartoli in 1667. Bartoli wrote about the experiences of English martyrs and does state the Campion spent four days in the Tower of London, placed in ‘Liteleas’, which he describes as “closed and dark, that there was no air or light to enter it, and so narrow and low, which could not hold itself upright, nor to lie there other than huddled.”
There are a lot of red flags in this story, which comes from an Italian writer nearly a century after the event, whose main aim was to glorify the martyrdom of his fellow Jesuits. How much could he have known about Campion’s imprisonment, which took place a few days before his execution? Moreover, nothing in his description says the ‘Liteleas’ was in the White Tower specifically. It is a very convenient story.
More importantly, the White Tower itself was being used for another function at this time – it was a storage facility. The building had long lost its relevance as a military stronghold. By the fourteenth century it was either used a few times as a residence but mostly to house royal records. By the mid-sixteenth century, the government made it the country’s most important store of gunpowder, and it was also sometimes a tourist attraction. It is hardly the place you would put a prisoner.
The idea that ‘Little Ease’ was once a medieval dungeon seems to be far-fetched – more likely it got its name sometime in the seventeenth century when people would come across this strange room and wonder what it could have been possibly used for. It became an imaginary dungeon. Perhaps it was used by authorities to keep Campion or someone else locked away, but as the story of Little Ease gets retold, it becomes a place that has somehow always been part of the White Tower, part of its medieval history.
The same is true for countless other spots in medieval castles. Local traditions develop around particular rooms that seem strange or without purpose – they became dungeons. Once historians get a better look, they point out that these places would have been used for less interesting things, such as where ice could be kept cool, or as a latrine.
From Castle to Dungeon
In his article “Our Own Dark Hearts: Re-Evaluating the Medieval Dungeon,” Chris Bishop explores how we got to the point where popular imagination began to see dungeons everywhere and associate them as one of the defining aspects of the Middle Ages. He notes how the English word ‘Dungeon’ starts to come in use in the fourteenth century – its origins lie with the Old French word ‘donjon’, which means the central tower of a castle. But it also gets conflated with the Old English word ‘dung’, which meant a dwelling that was usually underground. Bishop notes that towards the end of the Middle Ages, the word dungeon can be ambiguous, but by the sixteenth century “the dungeon had taken on an almost universally negative connotation.”
The sixteenth century also was a period when the role of castles changed greatly. The reason castles like the White Tower were built was for military purposes – these were places that could be defended if attacked. They also had other purposes too, such as a residence or an administrative centre, and by the twelfth century it was a place where people were imprisoned. Those prisoners were mostly captured enemies or political opponents of the king. The usual place to keep them was in a tower – we know that the Welsh hostage Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was kept high up in the Tower of London because he tried to escape from it using a rope to lower himself down. However the rope broke, and Gruffydd fell 90 feet to his death.
If you were keeping a person imprisoned in a castle during the Middle Ages, it was likely someone wealthy or from the nobility, who expected and got to be treated well. In his book The Medieval Prison: A Social History, Guy Geltner notes that the concept of imprisoning large numbers of people for lengthy times only started emerging in the later parts of the Middle Ages (and became widespread in more recent times).
As the Middle Ages came to a close, fortifications needed to adapt to new ways of warfare. Castles that had been built in previous centuries were now obsolete. Many fell into ruin and had their stones stripped away by neighbours wanting to build new homes. However, governments found other uses for castles, and one of them was as a site to incarcerate people. Bishop writes:
Castles became dungeons only after the age of the cannon dawned, and it was at this time too, that dungeons began to figure so prominently not just in our creative literature, but in the historical record as well.
One more thing created dungeons – tourists. By the nineteenth century, castles and other medieval sites were being preserved and celebrated, but they needed people to come to see them. Bishop continues:
Keen to turn their castles and town halls (and even derelict abbeys) into tourist attractions, private owners and civic councils produced ready guides and foldable maps that celebrated the dark past of these monuments. Historical accuracy, of course, took a back seat to sensationalism, and the tourist literature abounded with stories of bloody murders, fearsome torture, and revenant ghosts.
This is still the case. If you go to the city hall in Nuremberg, you will probably want to visit its Lochgefängnisse – Medieval Hole Prison – which comes with its own torture chamber. The rest of the building must seem boring by comparison. If you really don’t have a historical dungeon, then perhaps you can create your own – in the British capital you can go visit The London Dungeon, which says “You now find yourselves in the Tower of London’s Torture Chamber, home of incarceration humiliation and pain…” It’s not actually at the Tower of London – instead you will find it conveniently located next to the London Eye and the Sea Life Aquarium.
Dungeons will probably always be associated with the Middle Ages. But if you do go wandering through a medieval castle, be wary of the signs that point to its dungeons. You probably are just seeing the place where the barrels of wine and the extra arrows were being stored.
Walter George Bell, The Tower of London (John Lane, 1921)
Chris Bishop, “Our Own Dark Hearts: Re-Evaluating the Medieval Dungeon,” in JAEMA: Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, Vol. 15 (2019), 105-126.
Guy Geltner, The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton University Press, 2008)
Top Image: An illustration from an 1897 copy of The innocents abroad – Wikmedia Commons