Crime and punishment in Elizabethan England
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“Every rascal is not a thief, but every thief is a rascal.”
Besides the fear of death by the plague, there was nothing that threatened the people of Elizabethan England as much as crime. Crime was a very frequent happening especially in England’s capital, London. Its citizens were victims of many different crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The punishments for these crimes are considered harsh by today’s standards but because of the high crime rates, they were necessary.
London’s streets were bustling with excitement, but where the rich shopped and socialized there were always criminals ready to pounce. Most of the crimes were committed by unemployed poor people called ‘rogues.’ These people were concentrated in certain areas and were usually up to no good. Two very common types of thieves on the streets were pickpockets and cutpurses. Pickpockets slyly grabbed purses and watches from their victims; they, then, ran from the scene of the crime. Cutpurses carried knives and ran by women, slashing the straps on their purses and collecting whatever fell out.
When a criminal was caught, he was brought before a judge to be tried. In Elizabethan England, judges had an immense amount of power. They could sentence the accused to death, torture or seclusion but if the accused criminal was a priest, the punishment would be lessened. In order to prove that he was a priest, the criminal would have to read a passage from the Bible in Latin because only clergy could read and write. If the criminal attempted to read the passage, it was called “pleading the benefit of the clergy.” The verse most often read was the fifty-first Psalm which later became known as the ‘neck verse’ because reading it could save a man from hanging. By the 1800s, this “priest” loophole was eliminated because most people were literate.
After the criminal was convicted, a punishment was given according to the severity of the crime committed. The worst punishments were saved for people who committed acts of treason because these usually involved a plot against the throne. The Tower of London was “an infamous high-security prison that was the site of unspeakable acts of torture on political criminals” (Stewart 79). The torture device most used at the Tower of London was the rack. The rack had a plank of wood on which the prisoner laid.
Ropes were tied around the criminal’s wrists and ankles and the ropes were then attached to cylinders which were rotated pulling the prisoner apart at the joints. This method of torture was used for extracting information from the prisoner.
There were many other forms of punishments for wrongdoers. For less dangerous criminals, there were the pillories and stocks. Both were made of wood and restricted the captive from moving and forced them to remain in very uncomfortable positions. A pillory had three semi-circles cut into it for the head and arms of the criminal. It kept the criminal hunched over and sometimes red-coated constables would nail the captive’s ear to the pillory. Stocks were very similar to the pillory but instead of restraining the head and arms, it held the legs. Other punishments included amputations and branding. If a thief stole the equivalent of only a few dollars, he was sentenced to have a body part amputated. Occasionally, an arm or hand was removed but usually, an ear or earlobe was cut off so the criminal could still do physical work. Many criminals were branded with red-hot irons in the shape on a letter-T for thief or D for drunkard. Branding served two purposes, it was very painful and it prevented the criminal from claiming that he was a first time offender.
The death penalty was used often, carried out publicly and in many different ways (including beheading, being boiled to death etc.). More than 1,000 executions were performed each year. The most common form of the death penalty was a three-step method- being hanged, drawn and finally, quartered. The accused was hanged until he was barely alive. Then his innards would be ripped out of him and burned. Finally, his limbs would be cut off and he would be beheaded. His head would then be impaled on a stick and set on the London Bridge as a reminder of what would be done to other criminals.
Many women were accused of witchcraft. The Elizabethan Era was a time when everyone believed in witches and witchcraft but over a period of several centuries witches were seen differently. In the 15th century, people claimed to have seen witches flying on brooms and meeting other witches in caves, while during the 16th century witches were accused of “killing their neighbor’s cows, deforming children’s toes and causing trees to fall on barns” (Stewart 85). People blamed witches for a failing businesses, bad crops or other unlucky occurrences because it was easier than explaining it in another way.
If a woman was accused of witchcraft, she had to be tested. All witches were thought to be made of wood and therefore would float. The accused woman’s arms would be tied across her chest but her legs would be left free. Then, a rope would be tied around her with two men holding either side of the rope. They would then toss her into a deep lake or pond. If she floated she was a witch; if she sank the men would pull her out and would let her free.
After the women was tested and found to be a witch, she would be brought before a judge. If the woman could bring in neighbors or friends that could say she was innocent, she would be let free; if the neighbors doubted her, she would receive a public punishment. Sometimes, she would have to go to church wearing a white sheet and ask for forgiveness from the people and from God. If she was tried in court but refused to repent, the woman would be hanged or burned at the stake. If a judge doubted a woman’s innocence he would order a “swimming test.” This is when her right thumb was tied to her left toe and she would be thrown into water. If she floated, she was thought to be aided by the devil and she would be fished out and killed; if she sank, she would drown. So if a swimming test was ordered the accused woman would die no matter what.
Because the economy was depressed during Elizabethan Era, the government didn’t have the space or the money to keep criminals in jail. This is why the punishments were so quick and harsh. In conclusion, crime was a common occurrence Elizabethan England and severe punishments were always soon to follow.
Elizabethan Crime and Punishment. 10 Mar. 2006 .
Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Vol. 2. Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. New York: Charles Scrabner’s Sons, 1999.
Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.
Stewart, Gail B. “Crime in Elizabethan London.” Life in Elizabethan England. Farmington Hills, MI: Lucent, 2003. 76-85.