Crime and Punishment 1450-1750


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  • Created on: 07-06-11 16:27

Medieval ideas about different types of crime and

1450 - crimes divided accorded to how serious they were thought to be.  Stealing was put in same group of serious crimes as murder and ****.  Those people with most money and property wanted to protect it from those who had less so they hanged thieves who threatened those who owned more.

Royal Courts dealt with any serious crimes and all types of people.

Church Courts dealt with priests, monks and nuns, and those breaking Church rules (not paying tenth of income to Church).

Manor Courts dealt with ordinary villagers in countryside and made them keep to the rules set up by the local landowners.  People most likely to be fined and punished were unfree farmers called villeins.

Prisons are a modern invention dating from later 18th and early 19th centuries.  1576 - local judges built 'house of correction' where beggars would be kept.  Medieval prisons mostly just for people waiting trial.  Those found guilty - hanged, fined/forced to leave country (outlawed).

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Medieval ideas about preventing crime and catching

High crime rate: rising prices, rising unemployment, war, weak gov, corrupt judges.

Low crime rate: cheap food, jobs, peace, strong gov, honest judges.

Crime prevention today: neighbourhood watch schemes, burglar alarms, CCTV, police, threat of fines and imprisonment.

Crime prevention in medieval society: making groups of people responsible for each other, deterring people by the threat of punishment, Church teachings about right/wrong.

Crime detection today: police force, fingerprinting, DNA.

Crime detection in medieval society: catching person as they committed a crime, locals deciding if neighbour was likely to have committed a crime - past experiences.

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Medieval ideas about preventing crime and catching

14th and 15th centuries: unemployment, more stealing and war.  Taxes increased to pay for armies = poverty. More people likely to steal.  War of the Roses weakened local gov and gave opportunities to commit crimes and escape punishment.

In 1285 - ordered that a verge cleared of bushes for 200 feet on either side of a main road - avoid providing cover for thieves.

All freemen (except clergy and knights) made to join a tithing of 10 men - responsible for each other's behaviour.  If one of them was accused of a crime, other members of tithing had job of bringing that person to justice, or paying fine to victim of crime.  If crime was committed, they had to hunt for the crime - 'hue and cry'.

When brought to court - 2 methods to decide if guilty or innocent.

Witness of neighbours - innocent if found enough people willing to swear on oath concerning their past good behaviour.

Trial by jury - usual method by 1450.  Looked at evidence, listened to witnesses, discussed character of crime.

1400 - local landowners appointed as JUSTICES OF THE PEACE - held local courts at least 4 times a year to deal with less serious offences.

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Punishing the poor

Changes in the economy in late 14th and 15th century had increased numbers of people wandering and looking for work.

In 16th century great concern about the growing numbers of beggars because...

problems in cloth industry, inflation, landowners kept sheep - less workers, closure of monasteries, end of war, population increase, no national system to help sick.

Begging was treated harshly as a crime because travelling beggars seemed to threaten society where everyone knew each other, acts of charity were not enough for rising demand from poor people, poor more likely to steal.

Some places, e.g York, issued badges to sick or injured beggars - DESERVING POOR.  Those lazy were called STURDY BEGGARS! 1531 - law passed - all beggars classed either deserving a licence or punished.

1547 - Vagrancy Act forced beggars to WORK and they should be whipped and branded. - Impossible to enforce

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Treason and plot!

Before 1485, charges of treason used against those who rebelled against king.  Reign of Tudors, it became frequent because Tudors had seized power at the end of an unsettled time in English political history - War of the Roses.

Tudors were particularly concerned about treason as they had seized power by force and people questioned their right to rule.  Tensions increased when Henry VIII broke away from Catholic Church.

5th November 1605 - Catholic opponents tried to murder King James I in Guy Fawkes 'Gunpowder Plot'.  Conspirators planned to blow up king, family and leading Protestant aristocrats.  After this, plan was to start a rebellion and put a Catholic on the throne.  Guy Fawkes was explosives expert, responsible for igniting the large store of gunpowder the plotters had concealed in a cellar beneath the House of Lords.  The conspirators were betrayed and the leaders were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

1st sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering in 13th century under King Edward I.  He said he was the rightful ruler of England, Wales and Scotland and anyone who opposed him was a 'traitor'.  He used very brutal methods to make his points.  From then on it was the official punishment for anyone who tried to overthrow the king/queen.  It was designed to show how terrible the crime was thought to be.  Divine Right.  Full sentence usually for commoners, noble traitors usually beheaded.

Late 18th century - charge for treason = rare.  Official punishment for treason remained death until 1998.  

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Rulers and ruled

Population increase in early 16th century coincided with growing demands for religious change and start of Tudor rule - caused many important social & religious changes at time when rulers felt insecure.

DIVINE RIGHT - believed that God gave power to kings and queens.  People breaking the law would therefore be challenging God and his representatives.

HIERARCHY - strong belief society had strict ordering with some groups of people above or below others in terms of power, wealth and rights.  Sexual and age hierarchy.  Men in charge of women.  Adults had strict authority over children.

PROPERTY - rich owned most property.  Only wealthy represented in parliament where laws were made - laws protected rights and property of wealthy.  Belief in divine right and hierarchy, ruler believed was approved by God.  Anyone challenged - strongly punished.

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Challenging the system


  • 1450 - England - 2 million
  • 1551 - England - 3 million
  • 1750 - England - 7 million

Increased URBAN GROWTH and unemployment made it more difficult to control people.  Old world - rulers knew people they governed.

Crimes against property - committed by poor.  Street criminals - footpads.  Better roads, road travel improved from 1700-1750 - number of highwaymen increased.

Changes in countryside led to other types of crime - setting out of country park around big houses in 17th century led to increased concerns about poaching - social crime

Smuggling - 1614 - exporting wool was illegal and in 1661 it was made punishable by death.

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How did rulers meet the challenges they faced?

Criminalising beggars - beggin regarded as crime.  1554 - law passed allowing gypsies to be hanged.

Different experiences of the law - punishments varied according to person's social group.  Commoners - hanged, drawn and quartered for treason but nobles were beheaded.  Until 18th century - any 1st time offender who claimed benefit of clergy (they were able to read a passage from the Bible) was often acquitted (not guilty) - done so member of clergy could prove they should be tried in a Church Court.  Women who murdered their husband were burnt at the stake because a husband was thought to be a natural master of his wife.  By 18th century - woman strangled before burnt.

Use of fear - no real prison system - punishment of criminals - remove from society(execute), fining them or hurting/humiliating them - stocks/pillory - mixture of retribution (punishment) and deterrence.

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The 'Bloody Code'

'Bloody Code' - used to describe number of crimes carrying the death penalty from late 17th to early 19th centuries.  These severe punishments were intended to deter people from committing crimes!

Bloody Code actually failed in its aim - many juries refused to find person guilty if a death penalty would follow.  Fewer people hanged in 18th century under Bloody Code than previous century.  In 1823, Sir Robert Peel reduced number of crimes punishable by capital punishment by over 100 offences.

From 17th century to 1776 convicts also transported to Caribbean and N.America to be used as labourers on plantations.  Transported for political crimes.

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Jonathan Wild 1683-1725

Most famous criminal in 18th century Britain.

Ran a successful gang of thieves and was at the same time the most successful policeman in country.  Wild kept the goods his gang stole and waited for the newspapers to report the crime.  He would then claim that his 'agents' had recovered the stolen items and would return them for a reward.  

He also 'caught' thieves who were really rivals or members of his own gang who had refused to obey him.  

1718 - Wild gave himself title 'Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland'.  Claimed to have over 60 thieves hanged and became a popular figure in the newspapers.  Popularity collapsed when his criminal activities were exposed and he was hanged at Tyburn, London, in 1725.

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