This timeline is a chronology of Crime and Punishment c1000 to Present Day and is linked to the GCSE topic of the same name
The majority of crimes in Anglo-Saxon England were incidents of petty theft. Violent crimes such as rape, assault and murder made up a very small proportion of crimes. The most serious offence was treason – rebellion against the King and/or plotting to kill the monarch.
There was no organised police force. Instead groups of 10 households were responsible for ensuring none of the group broke the law. This was known as tithing. Another method used was ‘hue and cry’. A person who had been wronged or who had discovered a crime began shouting and calling for help and those that heard would help catch the criminal. Local juries sat in judgement of those accused of crimes and decided appropriate punishment. Where the juries could not agree the accused were subjected to trial by ordeal:
Trial by Cold Water – If the accused sank he was innocent, if he floated he was guilty.
Trial by Hot Water – The accused put his hand into boiling water. The hand was then bandaged and unwrapped after 3 days. If the wound was healing he was innocent, if not he was guilty.
Trial by Hot Iron – The accused had to pick up a red-hot object. The hand was then bandaged and unwrapped after 3 days. If the wound was healing he was innocent, if not he was guilty.
Trial by Blessed Bread – If the accused choked on blessed bread he was guilty.
Sanctuary – Anyone accused of or guilty of a crime could seek sanctuary in a church or religious establishment. They could remain in sanctuary for a period of 40 days after which they had to face trial or go into exile abroad.
Wergild – This was a fine payable by the guilty party as a compensation to the person he had wronged. The rate of compensation depended on the wronged person’s place in society.
Corporal Punishment – beatings or mutilation – Repeat offenders would lose a body part – hand, ear, nose or eye.
Capital Punishment – execution – Those found guilty of treason faced execution by hanging or beheading.
William, Duke of Normandy, had conquered southern England and received the submission of the nobility. He was crowned King at Westminster Abbey.
Trial by Combat was introduced – two aggrieved parties would fight to the death.
Church courts – to try members of the clergy that were guilty of crimes. The church never advocated death as a punishment and this was known as ‘Benefit of the Clergy’.
The Wergild was abolished and fines were now paid to the king’s officials. However, the Normans preferred corporal or capital punishments.
In order to put down resistance to his rule, particularly in the north of England, William mounted a series of harsh campaigns known as the Harrying of the North. Houses, crops, cattle and land were burnt and more than 100,000 people died from starvation and cold.
This was introduced as a punishment for killing Normans. Anglo-Saxons had to prove that any corpse found near their village was not a Norman. If the dead person was a Norman then the whole village had to find the murderer and also had to pay a large fine.
King William I, who loved hunting, made large areas of woodland subject to Forest Law. This meant that everything in any designated area, including trees, leaves, birds and animals, belonged to the King and anyone using anything from the forest would be punished severely. This made life especially difficult for the common people who relied on the woodland for wood and food. Around 20 small hamlets were affected by William’s decision to create a New Forest in Hampshire.
This meeting of nobles, bishops and the King agreed that the King had jurisdiction over the Church and that the clergy would observe those rights in good faith. The constitution dealt particularly with ‘criminous clerks’ who had committed a secular crime but were being tried by ecclesiastical courts and not receiving due punishment.
This reformed the judiciary by introducing trial by royal judges for all those suspected of serious crimes. Royal judges were men who the King trusted – earls, barons, abbots or counsellors.
King Richard I introduced coroners to investigate suspicious deaths.
This statute was introduced following the Black Death when workers were in short supply and labourers were asking for higher wages. The statute imposed a maximum wage for labourers with a prison sentence for anyone who would not work for that wage. It also stipulated that all able bodied men and women should work. However in many cases those who needed labour tended to ignore the statute and paid the wages requested by their workers.
This act stipulated the need for maintaining peace and also defined those who were eligible to be a Justice of the Peace. It also stated that Justices of the Peace were to deal with ‘offenders, rioters and all other barators (those involved in brawls and fights).’
John Wycliffe was leader of an increasingly popular move against Bishops and Archbishops having power in government. He also believed that every man had the right to read the Bible in his own language and to interpret it according to his own convictions. Wycliffe’s followers were known as Lollards and they preached in the streets. This led to a new wave of rebelliousness among the ordinary people and threatened the Church’s authority.
This act proclaimed that anyone owning a copy of the Bible in English was considered a heretic. It also stated that the punishment for heresy should be death by burning at the stake.
As the population had grown so settlements and villages had become towns and there were more incidents of petty crimes. These larger communities needed a more centralised form of law enforcement. Unpaid constables were appointed to chase criminals when the hue and cry was raised.
Justices of the Peace had been introduced to help keep the peace and Manor Courts were established to hear cases in the local area.
In order to prevent people from committing crimes, punishments had become more severe with execution being used for more cases. Execution by being hanged, drawn and quartered was introduced, although members of the nobility were generally beheaded.
While awaiting trial or punishment an accused person would be held prisoner. For the high nobility this was often the Tower of London or they could be held under house arrest in the home of a trusted noble. Prisons were not generally used for punishment.
This act declared that ‘vagabonds (unemployed/homeless), idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights.’ They were only allowed bread and water and after their time in the stocks were run out of town.
This reasoning together with his infatuation for Anne Boleyn led Henry to the conclusion that he had to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He tasked his chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, with getting him a divorce as quickly as possible so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
This was a short document which made three concessions: 1. The clergy would make no new laws without the consent of the monarch. 2. The clergy would allow all existing ecclesiastical laws to be reviewed by a deputation appointed by the King. 3. Convocation would not meet without royal permission. The document had to be signed by all the clergy and it was done so, reluctantly by many.
This act made it a treasonable offence to deny any of the King’s titles. It stated that any malicious wish, will or desire to deprive the King or Queen of title or name of their royal estates was to be deemed treason. Slanderous publication of writing or words uttered describing the King as heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper would also be deemed treason. Treason was punishable by death – women by burning at the stake, men by being hanged, drawn and quartered. The monarch had the power to commute the sentence to death by beheading.
This act defined witchcraft and made it a crime punishable by death.
Edward Seymour was fearful of rioting and dissent and wanted people off the streets. This act stipulated that anyone who was able to work and was unemployed for more than three days could be branded with a V and sold into slavery for two years. However, many authorities felt the punishment extreme and refused to comply with the law.
This law stated that the deserving poor (disabled, sick and elderly) should receive relief from the Parish council while the undeserving poor (able-bodied who chose not to work) should be whipped, branded and/or sent to a house of correction where they would be made to work hard.
Relations between King Charles I and parliament had broken down. Charles believed that he ruled by divine right and stated that ‘Princes are not bound to give account of their actions, but to God alone.’ Parliament disagreed and wanted a greater say in the government of the country, they were also concerned that Charles had Catholic leanings. In August 1642 Charles raised his standard at Nottingham formally declaring war.
Matthew Hopkins gave himself the title Witchfinder General and mounted a crusade to prove that those accused of witchcraft were in league with the devil. His evidence was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 women over a two-year period.
For the first time convicted criminals were sent to the British colonies in America to work rather than being executed.
This important act stipulated that a person could not be imprisoned indefinitely without a fair trial.
This comprised a number of laws that defined around 50 crimes for which the punishment was death. It was believed that the harsh punishment would help deter potential criminals.
This act formally stipulated that criminals would be sent to British colonies where they would be set to work as a punishment for their crimes.
Towns had continued to grow and with the advent of the Industrial Revolution there was an influx of people moving from the countryside to the towns and cities to work in factories. Inadequate housing led to cramped conditions and a rise in petty crimes such as theft, drunkenness and prostitution.
Hue and Cry was still used and townspeople were expected to hunt down criminals themselves. However, Parish constables dealt with the details of law enforcement and had the power to inflict minor punishments such as whipping or a spell in the stocks. Watchmen were employed by larger towns to police areas and arrest drunkards, vagabonds and criminals but they were poorly paid and not very effective.
Improved roads led to an increase in trading with other areas and countries. This meant that goods and money were often transported by road. Highwaymen were armed, disguised men who travelled by horse robbing those on the roads at gunpoint.
A tax had always been payable on goods from abroad but it now increased significantly. This led to a rise in smuggling (bringing goods into the country illegally to avoid paying tax). It was impossible for officials to watch the entire coast of Britain making it easier for the smugglers to continue undetected.
The Bloody Code of 1688 had been extended and now included around 200 crimes for which the punishment was death.
Prisons were still used to hold accused persons awaiting trial or punishment but they began to be used as a punishment particularly for those who owed money to other people.
This act introduced a number of prison reforms. Male and female prisoners were separated and female warders were used to guard female prisoners. Prison warders were given a wage and prisons were regularly inspected.
This first police force was founded by Robert Peel. Constables patrolled the streets of London with a view to maintaining law and order. They were nicknamed ‘bobbies’ after Robert Peel.
George and James Loveless, James Hammett, James Brine and Thomas and John Standfield were arrested on a charge of swearing an illegal oath. The six farmworkers from Tolpuddle in Dorset had formed a Friendly Society to protest at their low wages. The men were put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to 7 years in Australia. The harsh sentence was given to discourage other workers from forming similar groups.
This new prison based on the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, was opened. Each prisoner had their own cell with toilet and washing facilities.
This act stipulated that a police force should be set up in every county in Britain. The force was to be funded by the government.
This act legalised homosexuality for men over the age of 21 years.
This act made it illegal to discriminate against a person because of their race or cultural background.
This act categorised drugs into three classes and set out penalties for the misuse of each category.
Although society is now very different many crimes committed are the same as those committed in Anglo-Saxon times – theft, drunkenness, assault and murder. However, new crimes such as motoring offences and cyber crimes are the result of new 20th century inventions. Discrimination and hate crimes have appeared since 20th century laws were passed that made discrimination and victimisation illegal.
Every town now has its own police force. Police cars are a strong presence in our society and mean that the police can quickly reach the scene of a crime. New technological advances such as finger printing, DNA testing CCTV and record keeping have made it easier to track down criminals. The National Crime Agency is tasked with detecting large-scale organised crime like drug trafficking and modern day slave rings.
Punishments for committing crimes has changed dramatically. The death sentence is no longer used and most criminals are punished with fines or time in prison. The focus of prisons tends to be geared more to rehabilitation and training rather than punishment. This is not always supported by the general public who feel conditions should be harsher.
Community sentences, where the guilty person spends time working in the community, are sometimes used as an alternative to prison.
Published Jan 27, 2021 @ 7:15 pm – Updated –
Harvard Reference for this page:
Heather Y Wheeler. (2021). Crime and Punishment in Britain c1000 – Present. Available: https://www.totallytimelines.com/crime-and-punishment-in-britain-c1000-present. Last accessed August 4th, 2022