In 1547 Bethlem Hospital came under the control of the City of
London as one of the five 'Royal' hospitals re-founded after the
Reformation. From 1557 Bethlem was administered jointly with
Bridewell, a house of correction. Inspectors in 1598 found the
buildings to be in a poor condition, while later, in 1624, a formal
visit revealed that 31 patients were confined in a space that
should have contained 25.
Medical treatment for insanity was largely ineffective
throughout this time, though some patients did recover. Those
patients who were violent and dangerous were restrained with iron
manacles and chains.
Bethlem Hospital is recognised as one of the world's oldest
hospitals for the treatment of mental illness. In The History of
Bethlem, published in 1997 to coincide with the hospital's 750th
anniversary, a group of eminent historians make the case for
Bethlem Hospital having a "strong claim to be the oldest foundation
in Europe with an unbroken history of sheltering and treating the
mentally disturbed" (Andrews et al 1997).
The historians go further and suggest that Bethlem Hospital is not
just the oldest psychiatric establishment - but the most notorious
as well. From Shakespeare's time onwards the word 'Bedlam' has been
widely used to conjure up images of "turmoil, confusion and
cacophony". Unfounded myths about the hospital's early history
include claims that exorcism was used to treat some patients and
that up until the late 19th century as many as 96,000 people
visited Bethlem each year and paid to see patients being
'exhibited' on Sundays.
King Henry VIII granted the 'custody, order and government' of
the hospital of Bethlem to the City of London. Later he
was thought of as Bethlem's actual founder, or at least as
having first established it as a hospital for the insane.
Picture: This portrait, attributed to the school of Hans
Holbein, was known to have been hung in the committee room of
the second hospital, and now forms part of the the
Archives and Museum at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham.