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Elizabethan Crime Punishment Law and the Courts

Why were people jailed during Elizabethan era?


The jail had been primarily used for the detention of criminals and not for the punishment of those who had done wrong. It was used to hold people awaiting trial and those found guilty and awaiting punishment. These sentences were usually corporal (whipping, flogging, etc.) or capital (the death penalty) and so the detention period was short.

The jail was also used to hold those who had been sentenced to transportation to other countries and who were awaiting their departure day. The jail could also be used to hold people who had been called as witnesses in a trial but whose attendance was doubtful. They would be held until the day of the trial and escorted to court to ensure that they testified.

Elizabethan Crime Punishment Law and the Courts

What types of punishment were common during Elizabethan era?

There were various kinds of punishment varying from severe to mild. The most severe punishment used to be to pull a person from the prison to the place where the prisoner is to be executed. This was a manner to shame the person. After that the prisoner would be hanged till half dead and further the body parts would be ripped open and thrown into a burning fire.

Another form of punishment would be to hang a person till he is dead and then cut him and bury him. In cases of murder or robbery, the offender would be hanged at the place of commission of offence. Also, in cases of murder the right hand of the person with which the offence was committed would be cut or burnt.

If a person committed suicide, then his body would be buried with a stake put across the body of the person. In cases of theft, the property of the offender would be committed while he would be killed in any of the abovementioned ways or by placing heavy weights on the body of the person.

Elizabethan Crime Punishment Law and the Courts

Basically, the person would succumb to death when left under heavy weights for a span of time. At other times the offender would be burnt so that others could distinguish him as an offender by the burn marks. The other kind of punishments prevalent in those times is mentioned below:

  1. The Pillory and the Stocks
  2. Whipping
  3. Branding
  4. Pressing
  5. Ducking stools
  6. The Wheel
  7. Boiling in oil water or lead (usually reserved for poisoners )
  8. Starvation in a public place
  9. Cutting off various items of the anatomy – hands, ears etc
  10. The Gossip’s Bridle or the Brank
  11. The Drunkards Cloak

What were the jails like during Elizabethan era?

By the 1860s there were two distinct types of prison in Victorian England, the local and the convict prisons. The older type, which dated from as far back as Saxon times, was called the local prison. This itself was made up of two equally distinct parts: the jail (or gaol) and the house of correction.

The Jail

The primary purpose of the jail was for the detention of criminals and not for the punishment.

The House of Correction during Elizabethan era

The house of correction was used as a solution to the inefficiency of the punishment methods that were used to prevent begging, petty thieving and moral slackness. The house of correction was where thieves, beggars and other petty criminals would be put to hard labour in an attempt to reform their criminal tendencies. Most of the inmates would not be in for a period any longer than two years. The aim was to reform the criminal as well as punish them for the wrong that they had done.

Local Prisons during Elizabethan era

The Prison Act of 1865 formally amalgamated the jail and the house of correction. Because there were other prisons in existence at this time, i.e. those run by central government, the new amalgamation was known as the local prison and those run by central government as convict prisons. The local prisons were now not just holding facilities but were also places of punishment for people sentenced for up to two years.

The Victorian prison were smelly, cold and oppressive places and hygiene levels were poor, with convicts often being allowed no more than a few minutes in the bathroom. It had been hoped that prison could overcome the immorality that produced criminal behaviour by suppressing it with hard labour, routine and religion.

Elizabethan Crime Punishment Law and the Courts

The prison regime also tried to disconnect prisoners with their old criminal identities by giving them new haircuts, a bath, a uniform and a number instead of a name when they entered the prison for the first time. Prisoners slept on simple plank beds and their diet was very basic and monotonous,

Although it is interesting to note that it has often been described as being of a higher standard than that given to the paupers in the workhouses. Those prisoners with sentences of less than three weeks were fed on bread and gruel, those in for longer had potatoes and soup and those in for the long term, or on hard labour, were provided with a little meat.

What types of crimes were committed the most during Elizabethan era?

The Upper Class and the nobility were well educated, wealthy and associated with Royalty and high members of the clergy. They would often become involved in Political intrigue and matters of Religion. The nobility could therefore become involved in crimes which were not shared by other people. The most common crimes of the Nobility included:

  1. 1.High Treason
  2. Blasphemy
  3. Sedition
  4. Spying
  5. Rebellion
  6. Murder
  7. Witchcraft
  8. Alchemy

The most common crimes were theft, cut purses, begging, poaching, adultery, debtors, forgers, fraud and dice coggers. Taking birds eggs was also deemed to be a crime and could result in the death sentence. The Elizabethan government made begging a serious crime. Travelling without a license was also a crime. Even acting in the Elizabethan era was considered as a crime.

How was this different from today?

Most of the crimes committed in the Elizabethan Era was similar to that of present day crimes, but the punishments were very different. Strange, weird, brutal and more severe punishments were given in those times. Punishment for poaching animals used to be different during day and night. A person guilty of public drunkenness would be made to wear a barrel, that had holes for the arms and head and it was used for public humiliation.

Elizabethan Crime Punishment Law and the Courts

It was called the drunkard’s cloak. Punishment for a woman who gossiped freely was to make her wear a large iron framework whose strip would either be sharpened, or be filled with pikes, so if there was any movement of the tongue, it would cause severe injuries to the mouth. Pillory was common where a person’s head and hands were locked into a wooden post, shaped as a T.

Another punishment for gossiping was ducking stool wherein a person would be locked to the chair, and then the stool would be lowered down into the water. Also, acting begging and travelling without license were crimes then, but not now. During the Elizabethan time, crimes of treason and offenses against the state were treated with the same severity that murder and rape are today.

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