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The writing on the wall? John Ingram’s verse and the dissemination of Catholic prison writing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 March 2016

Alison Shell*
University College London, Gower Street, London WC1 6BT Email:


The strong association between prison writing and writing on walls, whether by graffiti or carving, is as true of Tudor and Stuart England as of other times and places. Yet even if prison-writers associated themselves with the idea of writing on a wall, they need not have done so in reality. This article considers the topos in the writings and afterlife of the Catholic priest, poet and martyr John Ingram, and asks whether it is to be taken at face value.

Ingram’s verse, composed in Latin and mostly epigrammatic, survives in two contemporary manuscripts. The notion that the author carved his verses with a blunt knife on the walls of the Tower of London while awaiting death derives from a previous editorial interpretation of a prefatory sentence within the more authoritative manuscript of the two, traditionally held to be autograph. However, though several Tudor and Stuart inscriptions survive to this day on the walls of the Tower of London, no portions of Ingram’s verse are among them, nor any inscriptions of similar length and complexity. Ingram might instead have written his verse down in the usual way, using wall-carving as a metaphor for the difficulty of writing verse when undergoing incarceration and torture.1

Research Article
© Trustees of the Catholic Record Society 2016. Published by Cambridge University Press 

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My thanks to the following individuals and organisations for help with this paper: Bridget Clifford (of the Royal Armouries), Anne Dillon, Arnold Hunt, Gerard Kilroy, Molly Murray, George Roberts and Sarah Smith (of Historic Royal Palaces), the Archivum Britannicum Societatis Jesu and its archivist Rebecca Somerset. Versions of it were given in Krakow in September 2014, and at Northumbria University in November 2014; in each case I would like to thank the organisers of the conference for inviting me, and the audience members for their helpful comments.


2 Boyan, P. A. and Lamb, G. R., Francis Tregian: Cornish Recusant (London: Sheed & Ward, 1955), 146-147 Google Scholar. See also Trudgian, Raymond Francis, Francis Tregian, 1548-1608, Elizabethan Recusant: A Truly Catholic Cornishman (Brighton: Alpha Press, 1998)Google Scholar. On writing with a pin in prison, see the story of Lady Jane Grey in John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (London, 1563), 1714.

3 On improvised paper, see Freeman, T.S., ‘Publish and Perish: The Scribal Culture of the Marian Martyrs’, in Julia C. Crick and Alexandra Walsham, eds., The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 235-254 Google Scholar, at pp. 237-238.

4 This summarises the biographical detail in Cashman, M. J., ‘The Gateshead Martyr’, Recusant History, 11 (1971):121-132 Google Scholar, an expanded and altered version of this article, ‘Bl. John Ingram, 1565-1594: The Gateshead Martyr’, Northern Catholic History, 29 (1989): 2-19, and John Wainewright’s entry for Ingram in the online Catholic Encyclopaedia ( On the annual walk, see the website of the Catholic-Diocese-of-Hexham-and-Newcastle ( The name of John Ingram is jotted down as part of a pen-trial on p.18 of a well-known recusant manuscript, Bodleian MS Eng. poet. b. 5, but given its mid-seventeenth-century date, this must refer to a later individual. See McKay, Frank M., ‘A Seventeenth-Century Collection of Religious Poetry: Bodleian Manuscript Eng. poet. b. 5’, Bodleian Library Record, 8 (1970): 185-191 Google Scholar.

5 Stonyhurst College, Anglia A.VII.8. This manuscript is incomplete, and John Hungerford Pollen’s edition of Ingram’s verse, part of epigram XVIII, poems XIX and XX and the authorial end-note are taken from a contemporary copy by the priest Richard Holtby (Stonyhurst College, Anglia A.II.12, pp. 33-34): see Documents Relating to the English Martyrs, ed. John Hungerford Pollen, S.J. (London: Catholic Record Society, 1908), 270-285. A third, later copy survives in Grene, Collectanea, N. i. pp. 41-45r (not pp. 41-46 as given by Pollen). All three manuscripts are currently held at the British Jesuit Archives, Mount Street, London. An English verse signed ‘I.I.’, which survives in an early edition of Robert Southwell’s verse, may also be his: see Appendix.

6 Adams, Robyn, ‘“The service I am here for”: William Herle in the Marshalsea Prison, 1571’, Huntington Library Quarterly (hereafter HLQ), 72 (2009): 217-238 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. pp. 227-37; Ahnert, Ruth, The Rise of Prison Literature in the 16th Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Freeman, T. S., ‘The Rise of Prison Literature’, HLQ, 72 (2009): 133-146 Google Scholar; Lake, Peter and Questier, Michael, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, chap. 6; Murray, Molly, ‘Measured Sentences: Forming Literature in the Early Modern Prison’, HLQ, 72 (2009): 147-167 Google Scholar; Strauss, Paul, In Hope of Heaven: English Recusant Prison Writings of the 16th Century (New York: Peter Lang, 1995)Google Scholar; Zim, Rivkah, ‘Writing Behind Bars: Literary Contexts and the Authority of Carceral Experience’, HLQ, 72 (2009): 291-311 Google Scholar. See also Pendry, Edward Douglas, Elizabethan Prisons and Prison Scenes, 2 vols (Salzburg: Institut für englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1974)Google Scholar.

7 ‘William Herle’, 237.

8 Ahnert, Rise, 76.

9 ‘Measured Sentences’, p. 150.

10 In certain contexts, writing was not only permitted but facilitated by officials (Murray, p. 158). Freeman comments that payments by prisoners for jailers’ services. were built into the system (‘Rise of Prison Literature’: 141; but see 144-45 on searches for pen, ink and paper). On the confiscation of writing materials, see also Ahnert, Rise, 21, 31.

11 Garnet to Claudio Acquaviva, Father General of the Jesuits, 7 March 1595: quoted in Janelle, Pierre, Robert Southwell the Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration (London: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 69-70 Google Scholar.

12 ’Επιγράμματα parietibus turris Londinie[n]sis rudi cultro insculpta cum indies mortem expectaret (see Figure 1). (Except where indicated, I have used Pollen’s edition and English translations; it should be noted that, on some occasions, he silently emends the capitalisation and punctuation of the originals.) The tradition of assuming that the epigrams are autograph derives from a contemporary annotation on the manuscript, ‘Mr John Engrams owne hand writinge’, and a later note (probably Grene’s) on a cover-sheet to the manuscript, ‘Domini Joannis Ingrami. M. Carmina propria manu exarata in carcere’. I know of no reason to query it; the hand is similar to letters of Ingram’s written earlier in his life (reproduced in Pollen’s edition), and though the writing is more uneven than in these, the difference could have been a result of privation and torture (see below, p. 66 ff.).

13 See Ahnert, Rise, 33-42, 53; and Fleming, Juliet, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (London: Reaktion, 2001), 55-56 Google Scholar.

14 See Caraman, Philip, Henry Morse: Priest of the Plague (London: Longmans, Green, 1957), 127 Google Scholar.

15 See Harrison, Brian A., The Tower of London Prisoner Book (Leeds: Royal Armouries, 2004)Google Scholar. Harrison lists several inscriptions carved on the stone walls by prisoners contemporary to Ingram, suggesting that the walls were unplastered. Surviving inscriptions in the Tower of London appear to demonstrate that both space and suitable surfaces were limited; they are mainly carved on the finely dressed masonry surrounds to windows and doors, not on the rougher stone used for the body of the walls. My thanks to George Roberts for his help with this.

16 Harrison, Prisoner Book, notes the following Catholic prisoners from around Ingram’s time: George Beisley, 489; James Bosgrave, 497; John Colleton, 480, 494; Philip Howard, 17th Earl of Arundel, 477, 480); Nicholas Roscarrock, 497; Tipping (first name not known), 477; Henry Walpole, 493. In some cases these prisoners are only known to be Catholic because of their inscriptions.

17 The fact that they are not listed in Harrison, Prisoner Book, does not obviate the possibility that they may have disappeared in rebuilding, or that Ingram wrote them on the wall in pencil or charcoal. I have also viewed the inscriptions listed as fragmentary by Harrison, and found no evidence that they preserve Ingram’s work.

18 See above, footnote 16.

19 The Irish soldier mentioned in the epigram is probably either Patrick Cullen/Collen or John Annias, who entered England on an errand to murder the queen and were committed in February 1594. Cullen was released and rewarded for his services to the tune of £10 on 17 May 1594; Annias was still a prisoner on 24 June 1599 (Harrison, 261).

20 De cultro quem in Turri habuit / Cur mihi cultellum varia rubigine nigrum / Absque dedit Fanner cuspide clave potens? / Horrida sanguinei sectatus proelia Martis (Holtby: mortis) / Hibernus voluit se violare manu. / Tu quoque cinctus eras rutilanti Palladis ense; / Eius et in vita castra secutus eras. / Neu (Holtby: Non) velles tristem ferro dirumpere (Holtby: disrumpere) vitam, / Non datus idcirco culter acutus erat. / Arte pares igitur forma tractavit eadem / Neu (Holtby: No[n]) tua custodi Parca nociva foret. / Ecce novem fateor Musis me semper amicum, / Discrepat ast sapiens Marte Minerva fero. / Omnibus opto fidem coram signare cruore / Fiat ut his vitae mors mea causa piae.

21 For an account of Ingram’s torture, see William Hutton’s notes, Stonyhurst College, Anglia A, vol.6, pp. 41-48, transcribed by Morris, John, The Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers, series 3 (London: Burns and Oates, 1877), at 314 Google Scholar. For John Gerard’s account of how Henry Walpole’s handwriting changed after torture, see John Gerard: The Autobiography of an Elizabethan, trans. Philip Caraman, intro. Michael Hodgetts (Oxford: Family Publications, 2006), 105 (see also p. 114 for sharp objects being confiscated). For blunt knives being issued to prisoners undergoing torture, see Morris, John, The Condition of Catholics Under James I (London: Longmans, Green, 1877), 189 Google Scholar.

22 Cum nec tempus rerum poeticarum aptum, nec liber ullus tali negotio necessarius sese obtulerit, non mirum erit si aliqua irrepserint, a candido lectore vitia [aut] aeque bonique concedenda, vel, quod mallem, emendanda. (Transcription corrected from Pollen’s.)

23 Taylor, Andrew W., ‘Between Surrey and Marot: Nicolas Bourbon and the Artful Translation of the Epigram’, Translation and Literature, 15 (2006): 1-20 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Ingram’s habit of playful allusiveness is demonstrated in lines 5-6 of epigram XIV: ‘We live in the Lord; when moved we are moved by Him. / God immovable moving all things by His nod’ (Vivimus in Domino motique movemur ab (Holtby: in) ipso / Immobili nutu cuncta movente Deo). This piously parodies a famous passage from Horace: ‘... monarchs themselves are under the power of Jove, who in the glory of his triumph over the Giants moves the whole universe with the nod of His brow’ (reges in ipsos imperium est Iovis, / clari Giganteo triumpho, / cuncta supercilio moventis): Odes, 3:1, 6-8. Translation taken from Rudd, Niall, ed. Horace: Odes and Epodes (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2004), 140-141 Google Scholar.

25 Tregian’s verse was written to his wife: see Boyan and Lamb, Francis Tregian, 146.

26 Carmen grati animi demonstrativum ad loca illa in quibus bonas artes imbiberat / Urbibus exopto grates persolvere dignas / artes me quondam quae docuere suas. / Flandria quae bello gliscis, quaeque ubere glebae / Europa socias nescis habere duas, / Dulcia Romanam docuisti verba loquelam, / fecisti et recte nectere cuncta rotae. / Gallia, quae quondam nulli pietate secunda / saepe sinu doctos docta fovere viros, / Scire facis Marcum latio sermone parentem, / scire facis laetae metra sonare lyrae. / Roma tui quondam structoris sanguine sparsa, / Roma modo fidei fons pietatis apex. / Te sophiamque sacro textu Christumque magistra / atque unctas didici tollere ad astra manus. / Flandria, Francorum regnum, Latiumque valete, / vester in Ingrami pectore crescit honos.

27 See Dillon, Anne, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535-1603 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003)Google Scholar, and Highley, Christopher, Catholics Writing the Nation in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 English Martyrs, 281.

29 Ut caperer fuerit casus, quae causa vel error / Diva tibi sacro, quis, Catharina die? ... Esse sacerdotem cecidit volventibus annis / Tempore te fassum quo bene factus eras (Epigram XVIII, lines 1-2, 13-14; the last two lines are taken from Holtby).

30 Ingram’s autobiographical allusiveness could be challenging even for his contemporaries: Holtby remarks that ‘these and, and (sic) diuers other extremities he endured as may appeare by his Letters, and certaine Epigrames he made during his restraint the copies whereof I haue here, written unto you: wherein many thinges are something obscure to understand, whiche you may perhaps more easily knowe, by the circumstances and accidentes of his emprisonment and usage while he was in those partes, as you haue more fitt oportunitie to know them then I’ (Anglia A.II.12, p. 32).

31 Epigram XVIII, lines 7-10: Summi plena dei crudelis virgo tyranni / Sub saevo castum perdidit ense caput, / Stans captus medios inter tot tela, tot hostes, / Te dabis immenso per pia frusta Deo.

32 See the entry for the word in Lewis, Charlton T. and Short, Charles, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, this ed. 1980)Google Scholar.

33 Epigram II: ’ΕΠΙΓΡΑΜΜΑ iocosum in tumulum. / Pro tumulo lapides fodiuntur, viscera terrae, / Ut vivos dives possit habere suo. / Ast ego non quaero tumbam: sed vivida tumba / Pro nostro exangui corpore corvus erit.

34 These are in the overall title, and the titles to Epigrams II, IX and XV. Onomastic punning may also lie behind his apologies for literary error (see above, p. 64), since ‘ingram’ was a contemporary word for ‘ignorant’ (OED). The Holtby MS does not employ Greek characters. However, the second thoughts of the poems’ later transcriber are worth noting: his title runs ‘Carmina quaedam R. P. Jo[ann]is Ingram M. descripta ex originali $$ { -\!\!\!-\!\!\!\!\!-\!\!-\!\!\!-\!\!\!\!\!-\!\!-\!\!\!-\!\!\!\!\!-\!\!\!\!\!-\!\!- \hskip -4 pc }{\rm propriensis} $$ αυτογραφω. prout sequitur.’ (Collectanea, 41).

35 Newstok, Scott L., Quoting Death in Early Modern England: The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sherlock, Peter, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)Google Scholar.

36 i.e. ‘badge’.

37 Saint Peters Complaint. With Other Poems [1600], p.30. Listed in May, Steven W. and Ringler, William A., Jr., Elizabethan Poetry: A Bibliography and First-Line Index of English Verse, 1559-1603, 3 vols (London: Continuum, 2004)Google Scholar, Vol.1, EV 10007 (unattributed). This edition of Southwell’s verse (STC (2nd ed.) 22960) is usually termed the ‘Waldegrave’ edition after its printer, and was probably set up from a previous printed edition rather than a manuscript: see McDonald, James H., The Poems and Prose Writings of Robert Southwell, S.J.: A Bibliographical Study (Oxford: Roxburghe Club, 1937), 85 Google Scholar.

38 Ingram was committed in March 1594; Southwell was committed on 28 July 1592 and removed to Newgate 18 February 1594/5 (Harrison, Prisoner Book, 260, 262).

39 This was first suggested by Herbert Thurston, ‘Catholic Writers and Elizabethan Readers. IV. -- Philip Earl of Arundel’, The Month, 86 (Jan-Apr 1896), pp.32-63.

40 See Black, Joseph L. (ed.), The Martin Marprelate Tracts: A Modernised and Annotated Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar, pp. xlix-l, and Van Eerde, Katherine S., ‘Robert Waldegrave: The Printer as Agent and Link Between Sixteenth-Century England and Scotland’, Renaissance Quarterly, 34 (1981): 40-78 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 See Marotti, Arthur F., ‘Southwell’s Remains: Catholicism, Relics, and Print Culture in Early Modern England’, chap.1 in Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

42 Letters of July 1594: English Martyrs, ed. Pollen, 283-4.

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