Medieval Law and Order of England
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- Nature and Causes of Crimes
- Enforcement of Law and Order
- Law and Punishment
Key Facts And Information
Let’s find out more about Medieval Law and Order!
- The medieval period, or the Middle Ages, was a period in European history from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century until the 15th century. Historians sometimes refer to the period as the Dark Ages due to the dearth of information and intellectual darkness at that time.
- In medieval England, law and order was harsh. Petty and grave crimes of the time were punished severely. From being a communal responsibility during Anglo-Saxon times, enforcement of law and order became a government affair by the end of the medieval period. Among the notorious methods to identify guilt was trial by ordeal. Most crimes were also punishable by death, typically by hanging, burning at the stake and beheading.
Nature and Causes of Crimes
- Crimes in Saxon and medieval times were largely linked to poverty. As the majority of the population was composed of the peasantry, constant poverty led many to live short and brutal lives. Historians accounted that famine, diseases, taxation and warfare caused poverty, which resulted in criminal activities.
- The medieval period was characterised by famine, particularly a century before the Black Death. In addition to poor harvests, increases in population further worsened food shortages. In the years 1321, 1351 and 1369, England was affected by great famine. With agricultural shortages, prices of food (particularly bread) doubled. As peasants could not afford this basic need, many resorted to burglary and violence.
- In addition to devastating plague and famine, costly wars such as the Norman Conquest after 1066, the Hundred Years’ War from 1337 to 1453, and the Wars of the Roses from 1455 to 1485 depleted the money and resources of communities. During these wars, trade was affected, peasants were heavily taxed and social unrest like rebellions emerged. In addition to loss of lives, economic failure succeeded wars. For instance, King Edward III taxed the people 27 times during his reign.
- Medieval people committed all sorts of crime. From petty stealing of bread and poultry to more serious crimes like murder. Crimes were typically committed by the peasantry or those ranked the lowest in the social hierarchy.
- Common crimes of the period included arson, poaching, petty theft, murder, stealing crops and rebellion. During the late medieval period, vagrancy, treason and heresy were also accounted.
- Corporal and capital punishments were used to deter individuals from committing crime. Public humiliation was the most common form of deterrence.
Enforcement of Law and Order
- During the Anglo-Saxon and early medieval period, enforcement of law and order was based on community action. Families and individuals in villages served as the police themselves. With a hierarchical social class, nobles and their knights had great control over manors.
- A tithing was a group of men over the age of twelve. They each took responsibility for the actions of the other members. If one of them broke the law, the other group members would have to make him come to court or pay a fine.
- Both the hue and cry and the tithing show how law enforcement was conducted in the local community, in an age long before a proper police force existed.
- A victim of or a witness to a crime would raise the hue and cry by shouting. Everyone in the village was expected to help and join the search to catch the criminal. If a person did not join, the whole village would be liable for a fine.
- Before the 16th century, juries were made up of men from the local area who knew both the victim and the accused.
- The accused would swear an oath, known as compurgation, to say they were innocent. Over time, it became common for the accused to bring 11 people with them who would also swear the oath and vouch for the accused’s innocence. It is thought that this is where the modern system of 12 people sitting on a jury comes from.
- The verdict was, therefore, very dependent on people’s knowledge of and opinions about the victim and the accused. Witnesses to the crime might also be allowed to give evidence.
- The Norman Conquest did not change much about the way people in England enforced law and order. People within communities still did policing. What did change was the amount of power these people or officials possessed. For most of the medieval period, keeping the peace and order in shires or counties was done by a shire reeve (sheriff).
- By 1300, the influence of kings on the system of law and order increased. For example, the king’s officials played an important role. These new officials were the parish constable, the sheriff and the coroner.
- The hue and cry would be directed by the parish constable, a role created by Edward I in 1285. This was a man in the parish (a local area centred around a church) who volunteered to do the job and who had the confidence of his neighbours. The role was unpaid but carried respect.
- Another responsibility of the parish constable was to report all unnatural deaths to the coroner, which was a requirement after 1190. If a person had been murdered, the coroner had to inform another official, the sheriff of the county.
- The sheriff would take over the responsibility for catching a criminal who had committed a serious crime if they had not been found by the hue and cry. The sheriff would organise a posse of men who would be summoned from the local area to find the criminal. If caught, the murderer would be held in prison before being brought by his tithing to be put on trial.
- For the most serious crimes, these trials would take place in front of royal judges, appointed by the king and sitting in the royal court.
- There would be scribes in these courts whose job it was to write down the proceedings. There would also be a jury whose job it was to reach a verdict of innocence or guilt. They would be from the local area and would listen to evidence from any eyewitnesses and people who could give information about the character of the accused.
- In addition to having a trial in front of a jury, a suspected criminal faced a trial by ordeal. The Anglo-Saxons used this kind of trial with hopes that God could decide.
- Since the Anglo-Saxons were highly religious people, trial by ordeal was always officiated by a priest. The accused fasted for three days and had to hear a mass before the verdict. They believed that through trial by ordeal, God gave the judgement.
- Common methods of trial by ordeal included trial by a hot iron, by hot or cold water, and by combat.
- In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council excluded the participation of priests in England from trials by ordeal. This type of trial was replaced by juries. By 1275, a law allowed the use of torture when suspects refused to face a trial before a jury.
- In earlier times, wergild was a method to enforce order. Wergild was compensation paid to the victims of crime or to their families. The laws of the king set the levels of payment to be made. You would have to pay 300 shillings for killing a nobleman and 100 for killing a freeman. You paid less for the death of a Welshman than you did an Englishman.
- Physical injury was also settled through wergild. The loss of an eye cost 50 shillings, while a broken arm cost 6.
- When a person committed a crime, the victim’s family was allowed to take revenge on the criminal’s family. The primary concern with this method was that the retaliation of the victim’s family should not be harsher than the original crime, otherwise the criminal’s family would retaliate further to balance the crime.
- In medieval times, punishments served particular purposes. Punishments were largely used for deterrence, retribution and compensation.
- In Anglo-Saxon England, punishments were used for deterrence, retribution and order. Based on modern standards, punishments during those times were considered less civilised. Moreover, most punishments were carried out in public to deter others from committing the same crime, as well as for assurance that justice had been served.
- Those who attempted to avoid trial and punishment by running away were called outlaws. Most ran to the forests and lived like Robin Hoods. As a result, they were not covered by legal laws. If they were murdered, the culprit could not be put on trial or punished. Most outlaws carried out robberies and attacks.
- Major crimes such as murder and treason were punishable by death. Harsh punishments included mutilation and execution through hanging or beheading.
- The most common form of death penalty during this period was by hanging. In some instances, the offender was dragged to the place of execution, hanged and then quartered.
- For members of the higher social class such as monarchs and royal officials, decapitation by axe or sword was the most common method.
- Other forms of harsh punishments included impalement where the offender’s body was dropped onto a spike (metal or wood) repeatedly until the person died.
- In some cases of murder, offenders were buried alive.
- The most common punishment used for heretics was burning at the stake. The victim’s hands and legs were tied to a pole surrounded by fire.
- The ducking stool was typically used on women charged with being a witch.
- Corporal punishments were used to deter people from committing the same crimes. Punishments such as eye gouging or mutilation of body parts like hands or feet were sentenced to lesser crimes. Prisons were only used to hold criminals before the actual punishments.