Item #4757 His Majesties Most Gracious and Royal Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners. DEBTORS’ PRISONS. SOCIAL JUSTICE.
His Majesties Most Gracious and Royal Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners.
His Majesties Most Gracious and Royal Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners.
His Majesties Most Gracious and Royal Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners.
His Majesties Most Gracious and Royal Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners.

His Majesties Most Gracious and Royal Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners.

London: Printed for M.D. and are to be sold by Nathaniel Webb, at the Royal Oak, in St. Pauls Church-yard, neer the little north-door of St. Pauls Church, 1664.

Price: $3,800.00

Quarto: 19 x 14 cm. [4], 13, [3] p. Collation: A-B4, C2


Bound in modern quarter calf and marbled boards. A crisp copy (a few sall rust marks, final leaf dusty, verso of last text leaf lightly foxed.) The first leaf is a full-page woodcut of the royal arms. The final leaf (bound at the beginning in this copy) bears the woodcut printer’s device (“Royall Oake”) and type ornaments. Rare: North American copies: Harvard (4 copies), Huntington, Indiana, Newberry, Illinois.

A royal pronouncement by King Charles II appointing members to serve on a commission, first established by Queen Elizabeth in 1586, “for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners”, that is, those debtors who "were truly and indeed poor, distressed and miserable, and wanted means to satisfie their creditors" as opposed to those "obstinate and wilful debtors" who had the means but not the will to pay their outstanding debts.

The patent grants commissioners the authority to summon any imprisoned debtor and any party to whom a debt is owed, to assess the merits of the case, and to devise -in coordination with judges- a remedy that will satisfy the creditor and provide relief for “such poor and miserable persons, as have not wherewithal to satisfie their Debts”, who would otherwise “be constrained miserably to perish in Prison, except in pity they shall be relieved.”

The Commission could do little to remedy the disfunction of the prison system or to alleviate the plight of those imprisoned for debt. Throughout the 17th c., the imprisoned vociferously protested the grim horrors of debtors’ prison and the corrupt system that doomed them to rot in jail, powerless and penniless. From the 1640s onward, numerous petitions were introduced seeking debt relief and prison reform. It was not until the 1670s that these efforts would bear substantive fruit. In the meantime, appealing to the Commission offered salvation to a relative few.

“Throughout the petitions and appeals, the gaolers are described as vipers, leeches, and caterpillars who "feed upon the miseries of honest men, or grow rich out of others ruines"; they are also characterized as ravenous beasts of prey, predators that "rore like Lyons, devoure like Tygers, ravine like Wolves, and like Beares crush the Prisoner under their feet."

“Whether they slowly consumed or quickly devoured their victims, these "insatiable Monsters of Cruelty" threatened especially prisoners caught in the vicious cycle of financial misfortune that had led to their incarceration. "Because we are Poore," one of them poignantly protests, we have no escape: "Poore I say, and not able to fee Lawyers, Atturneys, Sollicitors, and Gaolers; for if we had moneys to satiate these Horsleeches, then (though our causes were never so unjust, and debts never so great) we should no wayes doubt the gaining of our Liberties." This injustice, another tract contends, is not merely the timeless complaint of all prisoners: "here the poorest debtor hath the cruellest imprisonment; that is the rule of these men's mercie: The greatest cheater hath the greatest favor; that is their Justice."

“Quite simply, money drove the debtors to prison, and money determined their fates in prison. Much of the complaint against the rapacity of the gaolers, in fact, stems from a fee system that required inmates to pay for their own incarceration. In addition to the various chamber rents levied by keepers, all prisoners were expected to give sums to the turnkeys and porters for their services. Neither the fees nor the laws governing this practice were, however, clearly established; and prisoners complained at length and in detail "That in pursuance of their uncontrouled inhumane cruelties, Gaolers and Prison-keepers have and dayly do inforce from Prisoners their goods and moneys, illegal fees and excessive Chamber-rent.”(Anselment, The Confinement: The Plight of the Imprisoned English Debtor in the Seventeenth Century)

The Commission for the Relief of Poor Distressed Prisoners in the Post-Elizabethan Period:

By this patent Charles II’s renews previous patents passed by “Our Grand-Father”(James I) and “Our Father”(Charles I). Despite their intent, the Commissions For Relief were an imperfect solution. They met resistance from debtors who feared that their implementation would make it harder to recoup monies owed to them. Further, there was concern that unscrupulous borrowers would be emboldened to default on their debts.

“Creditors needed protection against deliberate bankrupts, and poor debtors required relief against persistent creditors, yet aid to one party would have been prejudicial to the other. Upon Queen Elizabeth's death, her patent authorizing a commission for the relief of poor imprisoned debtors expired, and James did not renew it…

“In the absence of a royal patent, Parliament attempted to resolve the dilemma by statutes, but its prison bills proved ineffectual. Also, as Parliament’s patent of 1618 [“Acte for Recoverie of Small Debtes, and releevinge of poor debtors in London”] makes clear, the expiration of the earlier patent somewhat discouraged political debtors, but it left many bona fide debtors unrelieved, until London's jails were filled with ‘the Bodies of those persons whose imprisonment cann no waie avail their Creditors, but rather is an hinderance to the Satisfaction of their Debts, for that, during the tyme of their Restrainte, they are in no wise able to goe aboute or attende their lawfull Busynes, but must of force consume themselves and that little they have miserably in prison.’”(Shaw, The Position of Thomas Dekker in Jacobean Prison Literature, PMLA , Jun., 1947, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1947), pp. 366-391).

ESTC R35494; Wing C3133; Kress 1136