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Hexham Old Gaol

Northumberland

Society , Military

Prisons were rare in the Middle Ages because it was expensive to keep prisoners in gaol for long periods. It was more common to administer physical punishments or to fine the offender and therefore make money out of him, but in 1330, The Archbishop of York, Hexham’s Lord of the Manor, built what is probably the oldest purpose-built gaol in the country.

The need for it is evidence of how violent and lawless Northumberland was in the early years of the wars against Scotland. It’s a massive tower, three storeys high and beneath its ground floor are two terrifying windowless dungeons known as oubliettes from the French word ‘oublier’, to forget. They are three or four metres deep and originally the only way into them was to be lowered through a hole in the roof which would then be closed leaving the prisoner in total darkness. One of the oubliettes is still exactly like this and is one of the most unsettling rooms this writer has ever been in.

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