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Traveling Law: The Court of Assize


Rider on a horse

A judge riding a horse.

Image courtesy of Crime in Tudor and Stuart Epsom and Ewell,


In Hertfordshire in 1597, Eleanor Swyft was accused of poisoning her former husband with ratsbane in his curds, next his son with ratsbane in his pottage, and finally another man with ratsbane in a posset. Her cooking must have been good as she was found not guilty.


The system of assizes was England’s principal criminal court and served as a bridge between the central and local governments. England’s traveling assize judges adjudicated twice yearly in courts associated with main county towns. Assize judges were representatives of the highest authority in the state, with the power of life and death. Their arrival was made grand and ceremonial.

Assizes heard the most serious criminal cases - felonies including homicide, rape, and witchcraft – as well as private suits. They were paid for by the central government, and in Northwest England took place at Lancaster Castle. Principal land owners attended the assizes as Justices of the Peace, and a grand jury of "lesser gentlemen" with political ambition was drawn up.

Low-level offenses, including all cases of assault which did not end in someone’s death, were dealt with by magistrates sitting on their own (petty sessions) or as a group (quarter sessions). Agecroft Hall would have been included in the Northern circuit of assizes in Lancashire. One of the most famous trials in English history was conducted at the assize court in Lancashire – the trial of the Pendle Witches. We will look more closely at that case in the next two posts.


The following examples give a glimpse into the types of crimes these assize courts handled. Assize court cases were written into rolls until the assizes were abolished in 1971.

  • In Sussex, Stephen Tribe burgled four houses in the spring of 1617, taking bread, bacon, veal pies, and cheese, and was whipped. (National Archives, UK)

  • "Turner, assaulted in the highway at Ewell by three men in 1586, must have wished that he’d had his pistolet (value £1) at the ready, or even his sword (£1 6/8d), but they made off with these, as well as £34 in money and what sounds like a week’s worth of gentleman’s clothing including four shirts, thirteen bands and six pairs of socks." (Epsom and Ewell History Explorer)

At the Essex assizes between 1579 and 1603, 30% of those convicted of stealing sheep or cows successfully read the “neck verse”. In these cases, if the accused were able to read Psalm 51:1, they could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ and have their case moved to an ecclesiastical court, thus saving them from death by hanging.


"Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions." (Psalm 51:1)


Matthew Hopkins, Whichfinder General

Image courtesy of https://britannica.com


Elizabeth Clarke was the first woman persecuted by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, in 1645 in Essex, England. At 80 years old, she was accused by local tailor John Rivet. A 17th century notebook describes that in 1645: “witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins, notorious for his brutality against women, had been appointed to check villager Elizabeth Clarke for “devil’s marks”-like warts or moles. The assize courts could mete out severe punishments: hanging, whipping or transportation to far-off colonies. The National Archives in the UK holds most of the surviving historical records of the assizes.

Sources:

Booy, David, The Selected Writings of Nehemiah Wallington: The Thoughts and Considerations

Of a London Puritan and Wood-Turner, 1618-1654 (Ashgate, 2007).

English Assize Court Records. The National Institute. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk.

Knafla, Louise A. ‘John at Love Killed Her’: The Assizes and Criminal Law in Early Modern

England. The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Summer, 1985), https://www.jstor.org/.

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