Crime and Punishment — Through the Ages. Chris Dorries  4th November 2019

Chris said that he would cover the period from 1066 to 1820.

Around 1066 there was a phrase ‘Raising the hue and cry’. If a body was found the local sher­iff or cor­oner was informed by a yodel from tree to tree in the area — the person who found the body was leg­ally respons­ible to ‘raise the hue and cry’.  Then the cor­oner would ride out with two men and gather all the local men to make a ‘jury‘, who had to prove that the dead man belonged to the vil­lage.  If they could not do so the assump­tion was that he was a Norman occu­pier and this was now a very ser­i­ous case.

Some types of trial  were quite severe — if you were sus­pec­ted of theft you had to swear you had not com­mit­ted the offence, but you had to plunge your arm into a pot of boil­ing water to remove a stone from the bottom of the pot.    If you did not get scal­ded you were inno­cent!

Another method was to press the suspect’s body with weights, like cartwheels or rocks, to make them con­fess.  If he, or she, was found guilty they could lose all their prop­erty, but if they did not con­fess they would very likely die.

Other crimes were decided by trial by ordeal, but this was replaced by the Catholic Church with ‘jury trial’, where local men told what they knew but did not decide guilt.

Much later, from the 12th cen­tury onward, trials were more like our modern trials.  However, the accused had no coun­sel, no rules of evid­ence, con­fes­sions could be extrac­ted by tor­ture, defend­ants could not give sworn evid­ence nor call wit­nesses but could dis­pute wit­nesses.

In 1600 tor­ture was banned and defend­ants could call unsworn wit­nesses. However, in a  16th cen­tury trial, evid­ence from dreams was accep­ted — “I had a dream and I saw him do it in my dream.”

Later pro­sec­u­tion by the Crown to prove guilt was intro­duced and the accused could exam­ine wit­nesses but not give sworn evid­ence.  Felonies now res­ul­ted in all the guilty person’s prop­er­ties going to the Crown.  All thefts were hangable offences unless the value of the stolen prop­erty was less than one shil­ling.

Public hangings, i.e. humi­li­ation fol­lowed by a pain­ful death, were accep­ted and the hang­man could make it a quick or slow death.  Women were burnt at the stake (and some­times the hang­man would strangle them before they were burnt).

Hanging, draw­ing and quar­ter­ing was a reli­gious idea because it was believed that you could not be resur­rec­ted if your body was not com­plete.  The accused would be slowly choked on a rope, taken down and the bowels drawn out, then the body would be cut into four pieces which were put onto spikes at the town gates.

If you were accused but you could prove you were in holy orders you could claim ‘bene­fit of clergy’.  This meant that you would instead be tried by the Church (and often would be found not guilty!).  The abil­ity to read often was accep­ted as proof that you were a priest.  However, you might be branded, so if you were arres­ted again you could not claim bene­fit of clergy .

Sometimes, if a member of the nobil­ity was found guilty he would be decap­it­ated, because this was less humi­li­at­ing than being hung, drawn and quartered. Sometimes the guilty would be trans­por­ted instead of hanged.

By 1800 there were over 200 felon­ies where the pun­ish­ment was hanging, one of which was imper­son­at­ing a Chelsea Pensioner!

This was a grue­some talk which made me glad that we no longer have public flog­gings, pil­lor­ies, stocks, duck­ing stools, burn­ing at the stake, decap­it­a­tions and public hangings.

Old England was a bloodthirsty place!