c1000-1500 Crime and Punishment in Medieval England
c1000-1500 Crime and Punishment in Medieval England
Poaching was the hunting of animals on other people's land without paying 'hunting rights'. It increased dramatically after the Forest laws as peasants used what had previously been common land to catch animals for food. It was a social crime because the reduction in common land meant that people had to choose between breaking the law and going hungry.
After 1066, the importance of the king in making laws increased. William created new laws that made things criminal acts showing that a powerful King could lead to change. After Henry II became king in 1154, standard laws were written down which meant that there was a uniform legal system across the whole country,
Many new things were introduced in the Norman era: the Feudal system which made Lords responsible for law and order. The caused the murdrum to emerge which was the process of fining an area called a hundred if a Norman was murdered in the area and the culprit was not found. This was ensuring Norman control in England.
William the Conqueror used brutal methods eg. Harrowing of the North to deal with rebellions and uprisings, he would punish those who were directly involved to show his power. Harsher punishments including execution were used to boost the visible power and authority of the King since they were needed to control the whole population.
Law enforcement became more centralised with fewer decisions made locally.
About 30% of England became 'Royal Forest' which William I and the Norman nobility used for hunting.
Village communities and farms were evicted from the land which caused resentment.
The Royal Forests were protected by new Forest Laws.
Only those people who paid for hunting rights were allowed to hunt in the Royal Forests
In the Royal Forests it became illegal to graze animals, kill wild animals or take wood without a licence.
The Forest Laws were seen as unfair by ordinary people so those who broke these laws were not seen as criminals by most people in society.
The punishments for breaking the forest laws were very harsh, the Norman's introduced things like castration, blinding and death by hanging for it.
This gave rise to outlaws and waived women.
Latin became the language for court records and Norman-french became the language for court proceedings.
Anglo-saxon tithings, hue and cry and the court system continues. It remained mostly the responsibility of the community.
The Normans introduced the Trial by Combat. They used 'foresters' to police the Royal Forests and to enforce Forest Laws. They dealt with suspects very harshly and were often feared and hated by the local communities.
Shire courts and sheriffs continued although the Normans called them countys.
Right of Sanctuary was introduced which gave criminals 40 days of sanctuary posts but because the people had to provide a guard and food, they were often let slip away.
Use of capital and corporal punishments rose dramatically as more offences became capital crimes.
Breaking Forest Laws was punished very harshly.
The Wergild and Botgild systems were ended as that money was now paid to the crime rather than the victim/victim's family.
Very minor crimes were still punished by fines, whipping or time in the stocks.
The invasion was not welcome by the Anglo-Saxons so the harsher punishments were to make people behave.
Punishments were still heavily reliant on retribution and deterrence.
The King's duty was to protect the country which was enforced by the Divine Right of Kings which was the belief that monarchs were chosen by God.
Crimes in this period were mainly minor like petty theft but there were examples of serious crimes such as murder and arson and then crimes against the crown like treason and rebellion were considered the
Many laws in Anglo-Saxon times were still based on local custom and were not yet written down but by 1000, Anglo-saxon kings were issuing codes of law that criminalised certain actions, illustrating the growing power of the crown. This meant laws were becoming more unified across the country.
In Anglo-Saxon society, people lived in tight knit Burhs which meant that crime rate was extremely low because everyone knew each other and so anonymity was non existent. This had a large impact on how law was enforced and how crimes were punished.
Blood feud was popular which was essentially the right to revenge- if someone was killed, it was the families responsibility and right to track down the murderer and kill them.
Wergild and Botgild were methods of monetary compensation for if someone had been killed or injured. This was the most common form of punishments. The amount payable differed depending on the subject as the wergild fee for a noble was huge whereas the wergild for a serf would have been minute. This was to do with social order and gender.
Death Penalty for very serious crimes like treason or murder or arson.
The church liked to avoid this and instead favoured serious physical punishment such as maiming or branding. Any form of corporal punishment was favoured.
There were 3 types of crime: crime against the person, crimes against property and crimes against the throne/authority. According to the wegild payments, the most common types of crime were violence, theft and murder.
Tithing/tything- All adult males were expected to join one which were formed to monitor crime. Groups of 10 with males over 12. There were 10 tithings per hundred and a few hundreds per shire.
Later, a shire reeve would be elected who would be appointed by the community and had to take the criminals to courts and make sure any punishment was carried out.
Trials by ordeal- by hot iron, hot water and cold water.
Trial by bread for priests
Hue and Cry- anyone seeing a crime had to stop and shout 'Stop! Thief!' and it was everyone's job to chase them. Fines would be charged if people refused.
Enforcement in this period relied almost solely on the community and wasn't very advanced because there was no formalised police force. It was fairly effective.
There was also a parish constable who was in charge during the daylight. It was usually unpaid and thus very unpopular. He was elected once a year by the community.
There were also courts which dealt with criminals locally and royally:
Royal courts- outcome decided by king
Shire courts- they met twice a year to decide on serious crimes and noblemen acted as judges.
Hundred courts- freemen met every month
Private courts- Landowners were the judges at their homes.
By 1200 a distinct 'English' identity emerges which influences crime and punishment much later because of immigration.
There were new posts introduced such as the coroner and Justices of the Peace (JPs) that were first in this era.
Heresy first became criminalised in this period (1382)- this stopped people from criticising the church who had a growing role in that era.
As towns grew through the 13th and 14th century, so did crime. Although communities were still involved in law enforcement, the authorities became more involved through the appointment of officials.
Trials by ordeal and trials by combat were abolished in 1215.
New laws forbade peasants from asking for higher wages which came after the black death in 1348. The statute of labourers came into law in 1351.
Use of capital punishment gradually decreased although crimes against authority were still harshly dealt with.
Being hung, drawn and quartered was introduced to deal with treason and heresy crimes.
Fines became more common
Corporal punishments were still widely used, although many juries would not convict their neighbours unless they regularly offended.
Prisons were introduced in 1166 mainly for debt collection or people awaiting trial.
The pillory and fines were all still common forms of punishment.
Benefit of the clergy was introduced which was where someone could recite the 'neck verse' or psalm 52 in order to get tried in the more lenient church courts. This displays the Church's influence.
JPs were introduced who had the power to hear minor crimes in small courts 4 times a year.
The role of the sheriff expanded, he was now expected to track down criminals if the hue and cry hadn't worked. From 1285, he was allowed to assemble a 'posse' of local men to help chase and catch criminals.
Case Study: influence of the Church
Sanctuary and Benefit of the Clergy were significant because they showed how the Church operated a separate judicial system to the other authorities.
Trial by ordeal showed the Church's influence because the outcome was supposedly decided by God because their God would not let a guilty person be free or an innocent person die.
Throughout the 13th century Church courts were used try people of moral crimes such as sex outside of marriage or not following church rites but they also tried members of the clergy for all crimes. They were more lenient since the Church wanted to give people a chance at reform.
It highlighted how the justice system in the medieval times was not equal- it provided a way for people to be treated differently. Notably, benefit of the clergy was not available to women since they could not be priests.
Benefit of the Clergy was ended for very serious crimes by Edward VI and in 1576, church courts could no longer be used for criminal acts- only moral ones.
Sanctuary was ended in 1623 by James I