Foundation

The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors

The History of England (Volume 1 of 6)

Peter Ackroyd

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter 16: Crime and punishment

A ‘scotale’ or drinking party took place at Ashley, near Cirencester, on 7 September 1208; it was in honour of the birthday of Our Lady, and the local officer of the forest sold drinks at his alehouse to celebrate the occasion. It was essentially a form of local tax, because the inhabitants felt obliged to attend in fear of incurring his displeasure. John Scot was riding back from the alehouse when he invited Richard of Crudwell to sit behind him on his horse. Richard thought that he was offering him a lift, but John took up a knife and stabbed him in the shoulder; the wound was 41⁄2 inches (10.12 centimetres) deep. Richard fell from the horse, and John dismounted. He stabbed Richard once more, and proceeded to rob his purse of forty-three shillings. Somehow Richard crawled home, on all fours, and on the next day informed the king’s sergeant. This seems to have provoked John Scot who, five nights later, broke into the house of Richard’s mother and beat her so badly that it was believed she would not live.

At a convent, near Watton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in the 1160s, one nun had lost her virginity to a young priest; when her condition became obvious, the nuns interrogated her about the offending man. When she revealed his identity, the nuns captured him. They took him to the cell of the pregnant nun. She was given a knife and forced to castrate her lover; whereupon the nuns stuffed his genitals into her mouth. She was then flogged, and bound with chains in a prison cell. In an age when the call of heaven was direct and unequivocal – and when the spiritual world was preeminent – a general indifference was maintained to the fate or the sufferings of the physical body. When one English king was asked if he regretted the thousands of soldiers he sent into slaughter, he remarked that they would thank him when they were in heaven. The chronicler, after telling the story of the savage nuns, exclaimed, ‘What zeal was burning in these champions of chastity, these persecutors of uncleanness, who loved Christ above all things!’

These stories of physical cruelty would have been familiar to all the people of England in a period when violence was tolerated to a surprising degree. Village justice could be savage and peremptory, largely going unreported. The violence of lord against villein does not often appear in the historical record. In this society men and women took weapons with them; even small children possessed knives. William Palfrey, aged eleven, stabbed and killed the nine year-old William Geyser outside the village of Whittlesford in Cambridgeshire. There was in any case what would now be called a culture of violence. Children were educated with severe physical discipline. Corporal punishment was familiar and usual in all elements of society. Public whipping, for a variety of offences from adultery to slander, was commonplace.

A genuine pleasure was also derived from bitter disputation, denunciation and vilification. This was a culture of rhetoric and the spoken word. A wide vocabulary of scatological abuse could be employed, while sexual misdemeanours were commonly and loudly publicized. In a society of intense hierarchy, a preoccupation with good name and standing is only to be expected. Disputes were sometimes settled by ritualized fights in the churchyard. Slights and insults were the occasion of bloody disputes. The smallest incident could provoke a violent fracas. One man came into a hostelry, where strangers were drinking. ‘Who are these people?’ he enquired, for which question he was stabbed to death. An element of gratuitous cruelty could also be introduced, as in the case of one man who was dragged to a local tavern and there obliged to drink a cocktail of beer and his own blood.

So the incidence of criminality was great. The justices who travelled to Lincoln in 1202 were confronted with 114 cases of murder and 49 of rape; this is not to mention the scores of incidents of theft and assault. When the body of a murdered man was found the men of the neighbourhood were summoned, while the corpse was raised upon a wooden hurdle and exhibited for seven days with logs burning around it to provide recognition at night. All males over the age of twelve, from the four nearest villages, were summoned to an inquest.
There was a popular phrase for a felon – ‘to become a wolf ’s head that anyone may cut down’. He could be killed on sight by anyone who encountered him. Real wolves did in fact still inhabit thirteenth-century England. They were not exterminated until 1290. In that year Richard de Loveraz was noted as holding land by the service of hunting the wolf in Hampshire ‘if one can be found’. The wolf was deemed to be vermin, fit for nothing except death. So his fate was transferred to the unfortunate offender.

If the life of the nation was harsh, so was the system of punishment and death. The stocks, and the gibbet, were the common properties of English life. ‘Let him see a priest’ were the last words of the judge in a hanging matter. If you were convicted in Wakefield, you would be hanged; if you were found guilty in Halifax, your head would be cut off. Thieves, apprehended in Dover, were thrown over the cliffs. At Sandwich they were buried alive, in a place known as Thiefdown at Sandown. At Winchelsea they were hanged in the salt marsh there. At Halifax the axe would be drawn up on a pulley, and then fastened with a pin to the side of the scaffold. If the prisoner had been caught in false possession of a horse or an ox, the animal was led to the scaffold with him; the beast was then tied to a cord that held the pin and, at the moment of judgment, the beast was whipped and the pin came out. The proceedings were accompanied by the plaint of a bagpipe. It was a very ancient practice, perhaps pre-dating even the time of the Saxons. The ancient privilege of the private gallows was also in demand; by the old law of infangtheof, a lord had the right to string up a thief caught on his property. In the early thirteenth century sixty-five private gallows were set up in Devon alone.

But thieves were not always put to death. A young offender was often blinded and castrated instead. When in 1221 Thomas of Eldersfield, of Worcester, was accused of malicious wounding he was sentenced to the same punishment; the judges decreed that the relatives of the victim could perform the blinding and castration. They threw the eyeballs to the ground, and used the testicles as little footballs. The apparent severity of the penalties was necessary in a violent society where relatively few offenders were caught. In the absence of a police force or a standing army, condign punishment was one of the few ways of upholding social obligations. That is why the local people were generally compelled to witness the performance of the sentence. The objective was to maintain order.

The trial by water and the trial by ordeal were also considered to be acceptable punishments in criminal cases. Trial by ordeal was conducted under the auspices of the Church. The accused spent three days in fasting and in prayer. On the third day, in a secluded part of the church, a cauldron of water was brought to boiling point by fire; a stone or piece of iron was then placed in the water. The accuser and the accused, each one accompanied by twelve friends, were arranged in two lines opposite one other, with the cauldron in the middle. The participants were sprinkled with holy water by the priest. Some litanies were recited, and the water was once more checked to see that it was at boiling point; the accused then plunged his hand and arm into the water, and took out the weight. The scalded flesh was then wrapped in a linen cloth; if the flesh had healed after the third day the accused was pronounced to be innocent. If the flesh was burned or ulcerous, the prisoner suffered the penalty for his offence.

Another form of divination by water was practised. A man or woman was bound and then lowered into a pit of cold water; the pit was 20 feet (6 metres) wide, and 12 feet (3.6 metres) deep. The priest blessed the water and then called upon God ‘to judge what is just and your right judgment’. If the man began to sink, he was deemed to be innocent; if he was guilty, he floated. The blessed water had rejected him.

The trial by fire was slightly more ingenious. The ceremony once more took place in a church. At the beginning of Mass a fire was made, and a bar of iron placed upon it. At the end of the Mass, the red-hot metal was taken to a small stone pillar. The accused then had to pick up the glowing metal and walk with it for three steps before throwing it down. The treatment was then the same as that of the trial by boiling water.

A strange mode of punishment, known as the ordeal of the morsel, was reserved for priests. A piece of cheese, 1 ounce (28 grams) in weight, was placed on a consecrated host; it was then given to the accused cleric on the solemn understanding that it would stick in his throat if he were guilty. The angel Gabriel was supposed to come down and stop the man’s throat. It is not clear how this worked in practice.

The concept of sanctuary was clearer. A felon who fled to one of a number of specified churches might remain inviolate for forty days; no person might hinder anyone bringing food and drink to him. The church was watched closely during this period, in case the man tried secretly to escape. After forty days the thief or murderer could formally be expelled by the archdeacon, but he could be permitted to stay. He could choose to abjure the realm, however, in which case he was taken to the church porch and assigned a port from which to sail. He was obliged to walk along the king’s highway, deviating neither to the left nor the right, carrying a cross in his hand. When he reached the port he would seek passage within the time of one tide and one ebb; if that were not possible he was to walk every day into the sea, up to his knees, until he found a ship.

Violent crime was of course closely associated with the incidence of drunkenness. The English were well known throughout Europe for their addiction to ale and wine and cider. The French were proud, the Germans were obscene, and the English were drunkards. In English monasteries the daily allowance was a gallon (4.5 litres) of strong ale and a gallon (4.5 litres) of weak ale. Every village had its alehouse. Twelfth-century London was castigated by the chronicler William Fitzstephen for ‘the immoderate drinking of fools’. There was private, as well as public, drinking. The most flourishing trade among the women of an English village was that of brewing. It is one of the essential continuities of national life. ‘The whole land’, Roger of Hoveden wrote, ‘is filled with drink and drinkers.’

The court rolls contain many stories of people who fell out of windows, slipped into cauldrons, tumbled from horses, or plunged into rivers, as a consequence of drink. In 1250 Benedict Lithere had been drinking in a tavern in Henstead in Suffolk, and by the end of the session ‘he could neither walk nor ride, nor barely even stand up’. His brother, Roger, put him on his horse; he fell off. Roger hauled him up a second time, and again Benedict fell off. Then Roger decided on a more drastic measure. He put him back on the horse, and tied him onto the animal. Benedict slipped and fell off once more, killing himself in the process.

John de Markeby, goldsmith, ‘was drunk and leaping about’ in the house of a friend when he wounded himself fatally with his own knife. Alice Quernbetere, extremely drunk, called two workmen by the insulting name of ‘tredekeiles’; she was then murdered by them. Richard le Brewer, carrying a bag of malt home while drunk, stumbled and ruptured himself. William Bonefaunte, skinner, stood ‘drunk, naked and alone at the top of a stair . . . for the purpose of relieving nature, when by accident he fell head-down to the ground and died’.

The records of madness evince some of the general qualities of the medieval mind. Robert de Bramwyk took his sister, deformed and hunchbacked from the time of her birth, and plunged her into a cauldron of hot water; then he took her out and began stamping on her limbs in order to straighten them. When Agnes Fuller refused to have sex with Geoffrey Riche, he cut off her head with a sword; he informed his neighbours that he was a pig, and hid beneath a trough. Eventually he went home, found a needle and thread, and tried to sew Agnes’s severed head back to the body.

FOUNDATION. Copyright © 2011 by Peter Ackroyd. All rights reserved.