If you were convicted of a crime in Early Modern England, what would be your fate? Just like today, it would depend on the crime. Because of some of the more infamous cases during this time, you might have the impression that the judgements were always harsh. But there was quite a bit of nuance to the sentences.
Death sentences could be the punishment for many felonies. But it is used most often for the most serious of crimes, such as treason, murder, or heresy. Death sentences were often commuted to lesser punishments, which included transportation to the colonies, military service, or forced labor.
Jails were not commonly used to hold people long term. You would go to jail while you awaited trial or your punishment. Communities often did not want to maintain jails, because they would be paying for food and lodging for someone who had committed a crime. Houses of correction were becoming more common. In these institutions, those incarcerated would work, and would also be provided with food and medical care. The hope was that those who were incarcerated, who were often poor, could “reform” their lives through work.
For many of the petty crimes, public humiliation like the stock or pillory were used. Women who gossiped or used abusive language were often made to wear the scold’s bridle, which fit over their head and pinched their tongue. They would often have to walk around town and may have to apologize to the person they had wronged.
Finally, for most nuisance crimes, the most important outcome was that the behavior would stop or the issue would be fixed. For these crimes, the court could charge a minor fine. Another punishment might be for the person to either stop doing whatever was causing problems in the town, or fix disrepair on their property. In cases such as these, the person would be bound over until the next court. If the issue was fixed, everything would be fine. If it was not, they might be fined or subject to public humiliation.
Image Courtesy of Wikicommons
Agecroft Teachers Notes, Robert HIcks
Wigan Court Leet Records