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Episode 77: Tudor Crime and Punishment

Listen to the Tudor Crime episode here:

Episode 077 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is on Tudor Crime and Punishment. I’ve been wanting to cover this for a while, and all I can say is that there are many times when I think it would be fun to live in Tudor England, and this topic does not make me think that!

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(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)

Hello, and Welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a member of the Agora Podcast network. This is episode 77 and we are talking about Tudor crime and punishment today.

Just a few quick housekeeping things before we get started. First, thanks to popular demand, I am adding in transcripts to all my episodes on my website at englandcast.com. So feel free to go there to check that out, and you can also sign up for the mailing list which gets you lots of free goodies like Tudor coloring pages, news about book giveaways, exclusive minicasts, and lots of other fun stuff. So go to Englandcast.com to sign up for that. Also, a HUGE THANKS to my newest Patreon supporter, Kathi, for your awesome generous patronage. You can also become a patron, and support the show, for as little as $1 episode. Get more info at Englandcast.com.

Also, a credit to Paige for the research for this episode. Thanks, Paige!

Let’s talk about Crime and Punishment today, okay? Specifically, Crime and Punishment in Tudor England. What were some of the crimes for which you could be punished in Tudor England, and what exactly would those punishments be?

I often have this idea of Tudor crime as being this really macabre thing where you could randomly just be picked out for something really silly, and suddenly your head is off. But was it really like that? What were trials like? And how would it be different for a poor person over a wealthy noble? These are the questions I want to answer in this episode.

First off, what was crime in Tudor England?

Crime and punishment was taken very seriously. As today, there were different types of offenses, some minor, others more serious and in some cases deadly. Your rank may also determine the type of punishment you would suffer. Minor offenses included theft, poaching, forgery, begging, acts of indecency. Offenses such as these could mean fines, or being consigned to a correction house to do labour (one such was known as Bridewell) Labour’s would grind corn for the poor on a treadmill.

Let’s talk first about petty crime.

There were some laws that would make us laugh. For example, it really was a true law passed in 1571 that every man over the age of six had to wear a woolen hat on Sundays and holidays, though the noble classes were exempt. This was to support the English wool trade. If you broke this law, you would most likely be given a fine.

Silly petty crimes, though, were the minority. Most of what we would consider petty crimes were punished in a painful and public way, so as to create a deterrent. For example, you could be hung for stealing anything of value of more than five pence. Robbery, murder, rape, arson, counterfeiting, and similar crimes would all receive a public punishment.

In an age where there was no internet, no way to look someone up on Facebook to learn their history, your reputation in your little village or community was incredibly important. This meant that people who were strangers were viewed suspiciously. So if you were a vagrant, or an unknown beggar, you were seen as a potential criminal, and there were laws against begging and vagrancy.

Anyone who traveled very far was viewed with suspicion, and actors especially had to have permission to travel. That’s partly why you saw the formation of troops like the King’s Men, so as to lend credibility to the actors, and let the town know that they were traveling with the permission of a high nobleman, and they weren’t criminals.

A main form of punishment was a public penance, especially for morality crimes like adultery, prostitution, and similar types of crimes, or for heretics who had recanted and repented.

You could also be punished in this way for disturbing the peace by fighting. A person would be made to stand in public wearing just their overshirt, with a sign stating what crime they committed. A sermon might be preached against the crime they committed. Another way of publicly humiliating people convicted of a crime would be something called Carting where a person was put on a cart and driven around through the streets of their town while others would yell and jeer, throw rotten eggs, and humiliate the person as much as possible.

Another main form of punishment would be the stocks, and generally those punishments would happen on market days in order to attract the highest amount of people to humiliate the person being punished. For those of you who have never seen stocks before, it was a piece of wood holding your head, wrists, and sometimes your ankles. Again, you would throw rotten vegetables, animal waste, and even rocks.

You could also use a restraining device like the stocks when even more severe punishments were carried out because they would keep the person from being able to move. And so, you might be held in stocks or the pillory to be whipped or branded. Branding was a popular form of punishment for theft, in part as humiliation, but also in theory to protect other towns or villages where the person might show up trying to start new. Again, this was all done very publicly, so in addition to the pain of the punishment, they would also suffer the humiliation of people throwing stuff and yelling at them.

One example of the pillories was when servant girl accused of poisoning her household who was pilloried twice and had both ears cut off and was branded on the forehead. All this she survived, so it would have been tough for her to get a job at another home.

If you had committed perjury, or published any kind of heretical tracts, you would be sentenced to cropping. First, they would be put in the pillory, and then you would have your ears nailed to the wood as well. So basically, as you stood there and the weight of your body dropped, part of your earlobe would be torn off as well.

The ducking stool was another punishment usually reserved for women, and while it was mostly administered simply to embarrass and humiliate the woman, it could end in death. A woman would be strapped to one end of a piece of wood, like a see saw, and dunked into a body of water like a lake, a certain amount of times. Women could, and did drown from this.

Another punishment used for women was the brank. A woman who gossipped too much, or even talked to much, could be publicly strapped into a metal contraption that wrapped around her head, and had spikes in different places. It also could have a piece of iron going into her mouth, which could gag her. While it was designed to humiliate, again, women could die from this if their airwaves were closed off, if, for example, they fell asleep.

Whipping at the Carts Tail was when an individual was stripped at the waist, their hands bound to the tailgate of a cart, and a horse would be led at a walking pace. One or two executioners would walk next to the cart, and every once in a while they would whip the bare back of the person. This was particularly used on religious dissenters.

Some people, like the man who published a book critical of the idea of Elizabeth marrying a French duke, could have a hand cut off.

The phrase being in the cart was used when someone was in trouble with the law, because of the fact that carts were used so much in these different punishments.

Moving on to more serious crimes, capital punishment was handed out when the crime hurt someone, which is how it was justified to use on those who stole.

One thing to note is that, while most of us today take it for granted that we have the right to a lawyer to represent us if we’re accused of something, in Renaissance England this wasn’t the case. So it’s very likely that you could end up dead just for being accused of a crime if you didn’t have the funds, or help to get you a lawyer.

Some historians have estimated that between 57,000 and 72,000 people were executed during the reign of Henry VIII alone, but others say that number is likely to have been inflated. Either way, executions were a popular spectacle, and people would bring their children like it was a fun day out at the fair.

Beheading was the most common form of execution, and the heads themselves would be put up on pikes and displayed in public places, like the entry to London Bridge, as a gruesome warning to not commit a crime.

There was a special type of court called the Star Chamber that was set up to deal with cases of political treason, or heresy, mostly for nobles. There was no jury, and no ability to appeal, so if you heard that you were going to be tried in the Star Chamber, that usually meant it was it for you, and you should prepare to meet your maker.

An interesting note on treason. There were actually two types of treasons, high treason and petty treason. High treason was when someone someone threatened the life of the people in power, and they would be given the gruesome traitor’s death. The punishment for treason (plotting the death of the monarch) was truly heinous. “The prisoner was dragged to the place of punishment (drawn), hanged, then cut down while still alive and disembowelled, the heart burned, the head cut off and the body divided into four pieces for distribution around the city”

Petty treason is when someone threatens someone to whom they were supposed to show obedience to. This could be a woman not being obedient to her husband, or a servant not being obedient to his master. The penalty for this was often burning.

Felonies were murder, rape, witchcraft, and property crimes, but there were also some strange ones like hunting at night time, which was generally meant to combat illegal poaching. One way that people would often try to hurt noble women especially was to accuse them of witchcraft. This was very popular in the early 15th century as dowager queens were accused of witchcraft so that the king – in one instance Henry V – could have their money in order to wage war.

Torture methods included “the pit” a 20 feet-deep black hole. The “little ease” which was a cave too small to stand upright in. Or the infamous “rack”; a ghastly device that would tear a man’s ligaments to shreds by pulling him at the limbs. Examiners could push nails under someone’s fingernails as they saw fit.

During the reign of Henry VIII a cook accused of poisoning a group of churchmen including Thomas More was boiled alive.

Offenses punishable by death included buggery, murder, manslaughter, treason, rape, felony, sodomy, stealing hawks, witchcraft and desertion in the field of battle. For these a public hanging was often the method of punishment. Executioners were often butchers.

Those who remained silent during their trial (pleading neither guilty nor not guilty) were punished very severely, being crushed slowly under large stones.

This was known as the “peine forte et dure.” Why would someone choose this? Doing so would prevent the persons goods from becoming the property of the crown if they were found guilty. Some chose this fate to ensure the security of their family. If you were judged to pay money which you did not have you would be imprisoned until you did.

One note on prisons – if you were sentenced to a prison like Newgate, your experience would be wildly different depending on whether you were wealthy or poor.

If you were wealthy and could pay a lot of money, you could have a private room, with good meals, and even pets and private visitors. If your money ran out, though, it was down to the common rooms for you, which were filled with disease, fleas, rats, and all manner of discomfort. Meanwhile, you couldn’t even scratch your flea bites because you were manacled and chained to the wall.

So on that lovely note, I’m wrapping up this episode. The book recommendation for this episode is Stories of True Crime in Tudor and Stuart England (Amazon affiliate link). Remember to go to the website for the transcript, to sign up for the awesome mailing list, and lots of other fun stuff, englandcast.com. You can also contact me with any thoughts, ideas, etc., at englandacst.com or through the facebook page at facebook.com/englandcast, or through twitter @teysko or the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO. Next episode we’ll talk about Tudor Health, so stay tuned for that!
Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll talk with you soon!

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)