OCR Crime and Punishment - The Late Middle Ages: 1100AD - 1500AD

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  • Laws: Kings made laws on a wide range of issues. 
  • The Normans kept the old Saxon laws, but added new laws, e.g.forest laws. They enforced the laws more harshly than the saxons to prevent or punish rebellions. 

Crimes commited in the Late Middle Ages were mostly theft of money, food and belongings, usually of low value. Violent crimes were a small minority of crimes.

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There was no police force paid for by the king. The hue and cry and tithings were still used, Other government officials such as the county coroner (first appointed in 1190's by the king) and sheriff and the posse (posse comitatus - "force of the county". Any male 15+ could be summoned by the sheriff) played a leading role in investigating some crimes. Leading villagers were appointed as constables to help keep order. 

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Once a criminal was captured they would be held by the sheriff at the local gaol.

Juries decided whether accused was guilty. From the 1100's, royal judges travelled around the country dealing with serious cases.

Trial by ordeal was used when the jury could not reach a decision until about 1215 when it was abanodoned by the church. God decided if the accused was guilty. Now there is a variety of types of ordeal. The Normans kept trial by ordeal, but also included trial by combat

Trial by combat: Trial by combat was when two people would fight to the death. Either the defendant and the accused, or two people of their choice. The winner was innocent, the loser was guilty.

To avoid the death penalty, sancuary was used. If a criminal could stay in a church or cathedral for 40 days. Then they could choose to be exiled, or put on trial (if they lived that long). If exiled, they would have to carry a white cross - the mark of an exiled man

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After wergild had been abandoned, executions and other physical punishments were the most common punishments along with stocksfines in the manor courts. These were local prisons but only for prisoners awaiting trial. Prison sentences were not used as punishments. 

Executions were carried out in public to deter others.

Amoung sancutary, there are other ways criminals could be spared execution:

  • If you claimed to be a clergy man you must read aloud the Neck Verse (Not all citizens in the middle ages knew the neck verse, only clergymen could read, so this was quite difficult)."Oh loving and kind God, have mercy. Have pity upon my transgressions" (Psalm 51, verse 1)
  • Sometimes when the country was in battle, the convict could be pardoned if they joined thearmy
  • If you were a wealthy nobleman, you could buy a pardon
  • Pregnant women could not be hanged. If they claimed they were pregnant, and when examined this was found to be true their punishment was postponed and often commuted.
  • If you could become a king's approver by giving evidence that would convict other criminals you could escape execution. 
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  • Royal courts: Henry II started this system in the 1160's. Royal judges visited each county two or three times a year to hear the most serious cases (e.g. murder)
  • Quarter sessions: A vital part of the legal system, they dealt with cases the royal courts hadn't got time to see. From 1363 local gentry and noblemen acted as judges in their own counties. They were known as JP's (Justices of the Peace). They held cases four times a year. They took over royal judges work so a case didn't have to wait long for a trial. JP's dealt with cases from murder to  whether landowners paying their workers too highly. 
  • Private and manor courts: Held by landowners in their own villages or manors. The landowner was the judge and these courts dealt with workers who had not done enough work on the lord's land, or people who had broken local rules. They also ordered that people who had committed serious crimes should be held in prison until they be tried at royal courts or quarter sessions.
  • Church courts: The church had its own courts to try priests and other churchmen.
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