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!