Bedlam Hospital, London – Guest post by Toni Mount

A big welcome to author and historian Toni Mount who is joining is today for the final stop of her blog/book tour for the launch of her latest historical novel. The Colour of Murder is the latest whodunit in the popular ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval murder mysteries and it’s a wonderful read.

Over to Toni…

540 years ago, on the 18th February 1478 the Duke of Clarence was, famously, drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Did he jump or was he pushed? The question has never been answered, so this was an opportunity for the intrepid investigator Seb Foxley – to finally solve the mystery.

If someone was found to be criminally insane, even in the fifteenth century a possible outcome was to be sent to Bedlam Hospital.

In the thirteenth century, Simon FitzMary, whose origins are obscure, rose to become one of the two Sheriffs of London, serving in that office twice, though he never made it to the top as Mayor. Simon was a pious man with a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary and, more unusually, to the Star of Bethlehem. The reason why he venerated the star – so the story goes – is that while he was on Crusade in the Holy Land with Richard the Lionheart, he became lost one night, all alone and in danger of straying into the enemy’s camp. Suddenly, a bright star appeared in the sky and guided him back to his companions. Simon was certain this was the Star of Bethlehem, the same one that had led the three Wise Men to visit the Christ Child.

On returning home to London, Simon became a wealthy man and determined upon a charitable act in thanksgiving to God for having sent the Star of Bethlehem to rescue him. He donated a plot of land outside Bishopsgate to the Bishop of Bethlehem, so that a priory and hospital could be founded for the benefit of the poor. In 1247, the small Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was built and devoted to the care of the sick. It became known as Bethlehem Hospital and used the sign of the Star as its badge. Local folk soon abbreviated the name to ‘Bethlem’ which became ‘Bedlam’.

The priory hospital was a single storey building on a plot of two acres which became known as ‘St Mary [Ho]spital Fields’ and eventually Spitalfields. There was a central courtyard and a chapel where both monks and patients prayed. There were twelve separate cubicles, rather like monks’ cells, for the patients, as well as accommodation for the Infirmerer in charge and the religious brothers who cared for the sick. A separate kitchen provided meals and a small garden not only supplied produce for the kitchen but was a place where patients could exercise and, if they were well enough, even tend the plants or do a bit of weeding. The hospital remained at Bishopsgate until 1676 when it became too cramped and small for the number of patients and was moved to Moorfields. Today, the original site lies beneath Liverpool Street Railway Station.

At some point, quite early in the hospital’s history, the monks began to accept patients suffering symptoms of mental illness, rather than physical disabilities or disease. No one understood these ‘invisible’ ailments: no fever, no rashes, no pain; but anguish, misery and, perhaps, outbursts of inexplicable behaviour. Although most sufferers of such problems would have remained at home, for those without family members to care for them, or if they became too unstable and violent to remain in the community, then Bedlam was their only refuge. By 1346, a hundred years after its foundation, the hospital was struggling to survive on the financial bequests left by Simon FitzMary but its services were recognised as vital, so the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London agreed to take it over. From then on, it specialised in the treatment of ‘madness’, although we now know that among its patients were those with learning difficulties, epilepsy – or the ‘falling sickness’ as it was then called – severe depression and various forms of dementia; people who weren’t ‘mad’ at all. There is a possibility that patients from a similar asylum known as Stone House by the Eleanor Cross at Charing – now Charing Cross – were moved to Bedlam Hospital in the 1370s. By 1403, all the patients there were reckoned to be ‘mad’, as noted in a scandalous event that year. The hospital treasurer, Peter Taverner (aka Peter the Porter), was found guilty of stealing from the charitable funds and the theft of both hospital property and the belongings of the six male patients, all of whom were mente capti i.e. ‘insane’.

Because mental illness was so hard to explain, unsurprisingly, medieval people saw it as a punishment for sin, sent from God but it could be unclear who was being punished: the victim, their family or the community? If the patient was the sinner, then their treatment should consist of physical punishment and the hospital inventory of equipment included manacles, shackles and a set of stocks, all used to detain and deter criminals. The pain and shock were believed to cure certain conditions. Confession of sins, penance and prayer were more kindly treatments often used as the first resort and then, if the patient didn’t recover, in conjunction with the corporal punishments. If neither of these ‘treatments’ helped, then isolation might well help the patient ‘come to their senses’, or so it was thought.

However, suppose it wasn’t the patient who had sinned but they were being punished by God on behalf of others who had transgressed? This was believed to be perfectly feasible, in which case, the victim was considered holy. Epileptics were thought to be ‘inspired’ by God and the stories of many saints who had seen visions and behaved strangely might well have been reckoned ‘mad’ at the time. This was a conundrum so, just in case the ‘mad’ person was holy, it was a religious duty to care for and show compassion for those afflicted.

Although few mentally ill people were ever put into such a place, Bedlam was regarded as the specialised long-term solution for the problem of what to do with those who were ‘insane’. The image of ‘Bedlam’ gave a new word to the English language, to describe a chaotic, noisy and irrational situation. Medieval Bedlam was probably a haven of peace compared to what it became in its later situation at Moorfields in the eighteenth century. There, the treatment was often inhumane. Visitors could pay for a tour, to view naked patients raving or staring at nothing, being beaten or confined in strait-jackets. They were encouraged to laugh at those who crawled like animals on all fours or claimed that they were John the Baptist returned.

In 1930, the Bethlem Royal Hospital, as it is now correctly called, was moved to the south London suburb of Bromley. It has 350 beds for patients with mental health problems and the Star of Bethlehem remains as the hospital logo today. We still have difficulty understanding and explaining some of these problems but at least we are more humane in dealing with them.

Trivia from Claire: Did you know that on 27th July 1529 George Boleyn, brother of Anne Boleyn, was appointed Governor of Bethlehem (Bedlam) Hospital? He remained governor until his execution in May 1536.

If you missed the other stops on Toni’s book tour then do visit them at the blogs listed above.

Toni Mount is a popular writer and historian; she is the author of Everyday Life in Medieval London and A Year in the Life of Medieval England (pub Amberley Publishing) and several of the online courses for Her successful ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval whodunits is published by and the latest book in this series The Colour of Murder is now available as a paperback or on Kindle –

The Colour of Murder

In February 1478, London is not a safe haven, whether for princes or commoners. A wealthy merchant is killed by an intruder; a royal duke dies at the Tower but in neither case is the matter quite as it seems. Seb Foxley, an intrepid young artist, finds himself in the darkest of places, fleeing for his life. With foul deeds afoot at the king’s court, his wife Emily pregnant and his brother Jude’s hope of marrying Rose thwarted, can Seb unearth the secrets which others would prefer to keep hidden?

Join Seb and Jude, their lives at hazard in the dangerous streets of the city, as they struggle to solve crimes and keep their business flourishing in this new Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery: The Colour of Murder. Click here to find the book on your country’s Amazon site.

Free e-book – The Foxley Letters

The Foxley Letters – An exclusive collection of letters. This unique e-book in the bestselling Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery Series is free to download. With personal letters from all the main characters, including Seb, Emily, Jude and even the wonderful Jack, this collection of letters will add to the lives and stories of those involved in the intrigue, drama and excitement of these historical thrillers set in Medieval London. You can download it at

You can follow Toni and her work at:

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8 thoughts on “Bedlam Hospital, London – Guest post by Toni Mount”
  1. I remember seeing a program a few years ago I think hosted by Tony Robinson in which while a building project was being completed at old Bedlam some graves were discovered of patients. I don’t remember from what time period they thought they were from. Has anyone else seen this?

  2. Anything on Bedlam is fascinating and the Kings Cross projects Crossrail have revealed many graves, well labelled with numbers from the Bethlehem hospital and the records in Saint Pancreas Church show who the people are. The London Museum has a treasure trove of bones from several thousand individuals including these graves which they carefully examine every day to learn more of what life was like and who lived and died under the very feet of the places Londoners walk for buses and trains every day. We all have many layers of citizens beneath were we live.

    I know the death of George Duke of Clarence is a mystery for the purpose of the book but it really isn’t murder. Clarence was legally tried before his own brother, King Edward and attainted and he was privately executed on a warrant by Edward iv. The manner of his death may be a bit mysterious as he wasn’t then beheaded in the courtyard of the Tower, but historians believe he was given a choice of death and chose drowning in malmsey wine. It is believed a case that was a gift for the person many blamed for his death, Queen Elizabeth Woodville and it was an irony that he chose this method. There are several sources that say this is how he was killed, although other methods are also suggested. His attainder states he challenged the right of his brother and therefore the succession and more or less usurped royal authority. It can also be argued that his actions leading up to his arrest and show trial can be interpreted as either those of a twit rather than a traitor or as the fruits of frustration and grief for his wife. He had of course boasted that he knew his brother was not lawfully married, had taken the law into his own hands by hanging two people he believed to have poisoned his late wife, Isabella Neville, and had on two previous occasions rebelled and been reconciled. This time he went too far, but otherwise he is often seen more of a nuisance than a real threat. Edward hesitated as George was still his brother, put it off for several months, but detractors of EW believe she pushed Edward into it and he gave in. Edward did allow his brother to be buried in the same vault as his wife in Tewkesbury Abbey.

    A Medieval murder mystery set against the backdrop of this controversial hospital and it’s strange history as well as the odd happenings in the Tower at the same time sounds very interesting and full of intrigue. I will definitely investigate this one. Thanks for a wonderful article.

      1. Thanks, book is great and the video and article above well worth a read, very detailed with a five minute video as well.

    1. I’ve wondered for years if Clarence’s death in that manner is really only a myth that became “reality” through the telling, as so many events have done. It certainly is somewhat picturesque and intriguing to drown in a “barrel of booze” to put it in modern terms. The story of Bedlam is also intriguing. I think the subjects addressed are interesting in the extreme and illustrates that history itself is far from dry, as so many unfortunately believe.

  3. Bedlam, the very name conjures up images of tormented souls languishing in dark damp grim cellars with only a tiny window letting in some air and light, the ever scurrying rats their only companions, it seems to embody the very depths of wretchedness a human being can succumb to, it is the oldest mental institution in the world and although now it is a respected hospital Bethlem, as it’s called has a sad history, in the seventeenth century the lower classes would visit these poor people for the price of a few coins, and entertain themselves laughing at their antics, Hogarth who painted the famous ‘Gin Alley’ portraying the working classes in all their drunken misery painted ‘The Rakes Progress’, the subject of this work of art was a young man born into a well to do family who by his dissolute living ended up residing in this gloomy asylum, mental health has always been a taboo and in those long ago days of the medieval period and even upto the Victorian age and the early part of the 19th c it was largely misunderstood, epilepsy most certainly must have been terrifying for not only the poor patients but also onlookers, Caeser was said to be epileptic and Joan of Arc who said she could hear voices could well have suffered from schizophrenia, Joan thought it was angels from God speaking to her and they were very real to her, as indeed the delusions people who suffer from this distressing illness appear to be, her enemies accused her of witchcraft yet was she a sufferer of this very tragic mental illness? Her end was horrible but she was considered a very dangerous woman in her time, George 111 was certified insane and had to step down in favour of his son the prince regent, they did not know what ailed him but his doctors examined his urine and noticed it was cloudy and dark in the periods when he was mentally unstable, the fact he could recover and enjoy months of sanity was a mystery to the court, he was known throughout the empire was being a lunatic yet now doctors think he suffered from porphyria a disorder of the blood that causes an imbalance of the mind, leading to delusional and bizarre behaviour, this illness was also said to have afflicted the young Duke of Gloucester who died in a plane crash in 1972, and which it is believed was passed down through generations from the Stuart monarchs, James V in Antonia Frasers wonderful biography of Mary Queen Of Scots puts forward the theory that he had it, and that he passed it onto his daughter, after her husband was murdured and the country rose up against her she had a kind of breakdown which resulted in hysterics, however that kind of behaviour is normal in a deeply emotional woman who had heard crowds of people say she should be burnt and was in fear of her life, Miss Fraser said that James V was also prone to hysterics and anxiety, – symptoms of porphyria, throughout the centuries it has surfaced in many of their European descendants which shows that after several hundred years genetics are very powerful, in the medieval world indeed before that, royalty and nobility married their relations, they may have been distant cousins or quite closely related, dynasties had to retain the blue blood yet genetically they were storing up a lot of trouble, there was insanity in the Trastrama family and Henry V1 was quite possibly mentally ill, there have been some European monarchs who were considered insane also, which was considered catastrophic for their kingdoms, poor Princess Diana was said to have suffered from borderline personality disorder, Prince William although resembling his mum is very much a Windsor at heart, it is Harry whose antics have caused quite a lot of tabloid news over the years, could he well have inherited his mothers issues if severe stress and misery is his lot in years to come? Hopefully he won’t have to endure what his mother did but it just goes to show the fragility of the human mind, there have been several films about Bedlam, one starring Boris Karloff I’d love to see, the poster looks funny, you see Karloff snarling and it’s all in red, incidentally Boris didn’t live far from me but by the time I was born he was quite possibly pushing up the daisies, long after he had made it to Hollywood’s walk of fame.

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