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Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Hear the words crime and punishment in the Middle Ages, and you might imagine a dank dungeon deep in the belly of a cold stone castle, full of poor wretches tortured into confessing crimes they didn’t commit.

However, this is not quite accurate.

In the early Middle Ages there were few, if any, actual prisons. And though medieval England had nothing like the police force we have today, it was far from a lawless society.

The Anglo-Saxon Legacy

Before the Norman invasion of Britain, Anglo-Saxon society had its own methods of maintaining law and order. These included tithings, groups of ten neighbouring householders who were collectively responsible for monitoring each other’s behaviour.

Saxon law was often thought to be brutal but fair to the crime!

The practice of ‘Hue and Cry,’ enabled victims of crime to call out a summons for their neighbours to assist them in hunting down the suspect. Failure to respond to the hue and cry was a crime in itself.

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And finally, the Anglo-Saxons practiced ‘trial by ordeal’. This involved subjecting the accused to a painful or dangerous experience. Their survival would determine their innocence or guilt.

1066 And All That

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror retained the Anglo-Saxon methods of fighting crime. However, he included a few additions necessary to maintain law and order in his new feudal society.  

He appointed sheriffs who had the responsibility of reporting any criminal behaviour to the King. If the hue and cry failed to flush out the accused, then the local sheriff would take up the search with his posse (a group of handpicked local men).

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Manor courts were held to discuss and sentence criminal behaviours that took place on the land of the local lord. And where disagreements over land or money couldn’t be settled privately, trial by combat was introduced.

Church courts managed any criminal behaviour among the clergy. A church court was generally more lenient offering the accused the chance to ask God for forgiveness.

Scutchamer Knob,
Punishment wasn’t just handed out. Here is Scutchamer Knob, the Saxon Court for Berkshire.

Petty crimes were managed on a local scale. The village community was involved in the whole process from catching the culprit to sentencing and administering punishment. This meant that punishments varied in severity from village to village.

Let’s take a look at some common medieval punishments that you might face for a minor crime.

The Cucking Stool

(not to be confused with the Ducking Stool used for scolds in the Tudor era or the later concept of swimming a witch.)

The cuck stool was an instrument of public humiliation mainly used on women who had a loose tongue. Gossips, being rude to your husband, speaking too loudly or slanderously in public or indeed privately could see you being strapped to the cuck stool.

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This may have been a simple wooden chair or a chair which resembled a toilet with a hole cut into the seat to further add embarrassment. Why a toilet? Well, ‘cuckstool’ is a modern evolution of the Middle English words, cukkan meaning to defecate and stol, meaning chair.

A Cucking stool from Kent. A humiliating affair.

You may have been left, secured to the chair, in a public place exposed to the jeers of your neighbours. But for maximum humiliation your local cuck stool may have the addition of wheels so that you could be wheeled around town setting a clear example to all the other townswomen. They might now think twice before speaking out of turn!

The Stocks and the Pillory

Another defining feature of medieval correction, the stocks and the pillory were two staples in the medieval punishment toolkit. Often a permanent fixture in the village or town square and installed and maintained by members of the community.

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You might find yourself in the stocks for petty crimes such as being drunk, swearing in public or short-changing your customers. Your feet (and sometimes hands) would have been secured through holes in between two, hinged planks of wood. And this is how you would be left, in a seated position, for a specified period of time.

While in the stocks the least of your worries would be listening to the jeers of your peers. Depending on the offence, filth may also have been hurled at you in the form of rotten eggs and vegetables, possibly even animal excrement.

Stocks were designed to clamp the feet. Leaving the accused to ponder obviously!

There were rules about not throwing hard objects such as rocks or potatoes which could cause serious injury not befitting the crime. It is likely the Sheriff or one of his posse would standby and observe this conduct to see the sentence was appropriately carried out.

Standing Tall

Often confused with the stocks is a similar innovation – the pillory. Instead of being seated, the offender would be in a standing position with their head and wrists secured through the hinged boards.

Its use again dates to Anglo-Saxon times where it went by the name, “Healsfang” or “catch-neck”. We now use an English version of the old French name, pellori, possibly derived from the Latin pilar, meaning pillar.

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Like the stocks, the pillory was fixed in a public place and its victims would be subject to the taunts of passers-by and the occasional pelting. The accused may also have a sign hung round their neck indicating in large letters the reason for their punishment. 

Mutilation or Corporal Punishment

In more serious criminal cases such as theft or poaching, the accused might have his fingers or even an ear cut off. He may also be ‘branded’ with a red-hot iron featuring a symbol or letters indicating the offence. This left a permanent mark.
These punishments would serve as visible evidence of wrongdoing for the rest of his life.

These medieval stocks are in Belstone in Dartmoor. They remain unused in recent years!

Seditious Libeller

Occasionally, the pillory and corporal punishment were used together as in this prominent case from the 1633. One William Prynne, standing on trial for sedition and libel, received a rather brutal sentence from the lords of the Star Chamber.

This was not the first time Prynne had been in trouble for his outspoken rhetoric against King Charles I and the Anglican Church. After a lengthy trial Prynne was disbarred from the legal profession and removed from his position of influence at the university. He was also to be pilloried…twice!

On each occasion in the pillory one of his ears was to be ‘cropped’ (a portion cut away) while copies of his book were to be burned in front of him. He was to be fined the sum of £5000 and to then be imprisoned for life.

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However, this was not enough to stop Prynne who continued to write and smuggle out seditious pamphlets with the assistance of a gaoler, from his prison cell at the Tower of London!

Again, he got caught! And in 1637 he appeared before the court again. This time, he was not only sentenced to further stints in the pillory but both of his ears were to be fully removed. His nose was to be slit and he was to be branded on the face with the letters ‘SL’ for seditious libeller!

Trial by Ordeal: An Ancient Practice

Trial by ordeal was unlike any other form of punishment practiced in the West. It relied heavily on God’s judgement as opposed to human reasoning.

The practice of establishing guilt through ordeals spread across the globe with the growth of Christianity. In the medieval mind, it was believed that only God could know our true intent.

Some punishments were designed to hi humiliate. Others were more brutal.

In early medieval Britain there were 3 types: trial by water, trial by fire and trial by combat.  Trial by water could involve hot or cold water.

In a cold water trial, your hands and feet were bound and you were tossed into the water. If you began to float then you were innocent. And if you drowned? Well, that was most definite proof of guilt.  

In a hot water ordeal, you were expected to retrieve a stone from the bottom of a cauldron of boiling water. Afterwards, your hands were ceremonially bound or ‘sealed’ with bandages.

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In three days, you were to present yourself to be checked, whereupon the bandages were removed. If your hands were unharmed or had begun to heal this meant that you were innocent.

Unfortunately if they had not healed, you were guilty and would face further sentencing.  If the bandages had been tampered with (to apply healing lotions for example) you would automatically be considered guilty.

Dungeons were dark squalid places. Many people starved to death.

Trial by Fire and Combat

Trial by fire involved the accused carrying a red-hot iron for a distance of 9 feet. This would cause terrible burns to the hands which, as in the hot water trial, were bandaged after the ordeal and observed after 3 days for the results.

Trial by combat was later used to settle disputes. It was especially necessary if there were no witnesses to a crime. The two parties fought until one was killed or too injured to continue. The loser would likely face the hangman’s noose as God had judged him to be guilty by his failure…according to the Normans!

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As time progressed, the Saxon trials were replaced with a system of set fines or ‘wergild’, intended to compensate the victim and avoid the inevitable blood-feud that would follow. Later, William I would take this compensation for himself. I mean…for the Crown.

Prisons in England

In the 12th century, King Henry II again reformed the court systems. It was then that one of the most notorious prisons, Newgate, was built in a gatehouse along the old Roman Wall which surrounded London.

Conditions here were known to be excessively squalid. The ground was said to crunch under your feet as you crushed the bodies of the lice which infested its cells.

Old Newgate
Newgate Prions was one of London’s first purpose built prisons.

In the centuries before the building of prisons such as Newgate, you may have been outlawed and forced to survive on the fringes of society. A castle may have had its own in-built prison, known as a dungeon, but besides this nothing purpose built really existed.


Because, the community would be expected to pay for its construction, its maintenance, its staffing and this was simply too much money. Holding people in prison was an expensive business.

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Unlike today, being sent to prison was not seen as a punishment in itself. Instead prison was a place where you could be held until your innocence was proven by trial or until your actual sentence could be carried out…if you survived that long.

Magna Carta

This remained the case until the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215 where it was declared in Article 39 that, “No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.” This heralded a new system of trial by jury, replacing the trial by ordeal process of the early medieval period.
Even after the Magna Carta was signed, if you found yourself locked up you would be held in appalling conditions. You would have slept on bare earth unless you could afford to fund your own bedding.

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Bread and water may be provided for you every other day but your gaoler would be looking to boost his income by extorting wealthier prisoners. He could charge you for everything; food, blankets, fuel for warmth, more lenient treatment and even just to loosen your shackles.

If you couldn’t pay, you would be reliant on charity. If there was none forthcoming you may well have died from starvation, disease or ill treatment. Oh, and if you couldn’t fund the discharge fee when you were eventually freed?

Well, they would simply leave you there to rot.


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