Misdemeanors and Capital Crimes

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Every historical period has had its share of people who break the law and are punished for it, and the Elizabethan Age had extremely severe penalties for stealing, murdering, or committing treason. The consequences of such lawbreaking activities were not always the same for different individuals -- how you were treated if you were accused of a crime depended on whether you were poor or rich, a commoner or a noble. Crimes were classified as either misdemeanors or capital offenses.


A minor offense, as in the breaking of a city law, is termed "misdemeanor". The penalties are of a lesser nature than a felony (murder, grand theft), but are designed to warn the individual that he/she must abide by the rules. Common crimes in the Elizabethan Age included:

*Wandering around the streets in a drunken state. The offender would be publicly humiliated via the stocks, or be required to wear a barrel (holes were cut on the sides for the person's hands and head, causing it to become like a heavy, awkward shirt) as he was led through the town so villagers might jeer at him.

*Cheating a customer would most certainly land a shop owner in the pillory or stocks. A baker purposely might not measure the bread ingredients properly, or a butcher's scales might have been tampered with. A horse trade might put garlic in the animal's nose to make the horse appear "lively", (the animal would be in a frantic state), but the buyer would soon realize that he had been cheated when the horse became ill or died shortly after the sale.

*The finger pillory was used in upper class halls to punish the disorderly during social gatherings.

The Stocks were used to publicly humiliate one who had committed a misdemeanor

The Pillory was also used for public humiliation, but the comfort level was more severe than the leg stocks

A finger pillory (sometimes called a "finger stock") enclosed one's fingers in a block of wood, bent at the middle joint - very painful!

The "Drunkard's Cloak" gave everyone a chance to jeer at the offender.

*Gossiping or speaking too freely would place the offender (usually a woman) into a cage-like contraption placed on her head. A metal strip on the "BRANK" fit into the mouth and was either sharpened to a point or covered with spikes so that any movement of the tongue was certain to cause severe injuries to the mouth.

*The ducking stool was also used as a punishment for over-talkative women. It was a chair attached to a large lever system which stablized the seat so that it would remain upright with the offender strapped in. The chair was then lowered into the water any number of times. Sometimes the offender would drown from the time spent under water.

*Petty theft, coinage or items less than 12 pence (a shilling) guaranteed the offender a public whipping, or time in the stocks.

Public whippings were also the punishment for misdemeanors.

The device used for free-speaking women

Another type of brank being put to use on a woman found guilty of gossiping

A symbolic graphic of the dunking stool, used sometimes for misdemeanors as well as capital crimes

Capital Offenses

*Capital offenses were murder, manslaughter, rape, arson, or witchcraft. These offenses carried a mandatory death sentence - commoners were hanged, nobles (upper class) were beheaded. Execution could be avoided by obtaining a royal pardon, of which about a hundred a year were issued. Juries often undervalued the value of goods that had been stolen to to avoid passing the death sentence. In some instances serious crimes might be punished by branding the individual with a hot iron, or by the removal of a body part such as a hand or an ear.

*Stealing more than a shilling (12 pence) was a capital crime, yet one of the most common crimes committed in London during the Elizabethan Age was "cutpursing". There were no pockets sewn in clothing (they hadn't been invented yet!) and coins were carried in small leather pouches (purses) that hung from the waist. A thief might take a person's money by slitting open the bottom of the purse, or the strings that held the purse were cut, the weight of the coins sending the pouch to the ground where it was snatched up and taken. Public gatherings such as plays, marketplaces, or fairs were favorite hangouts of the cutpursing thieves.

*Robbery was also a capital crime when the goods were of value. Hooking was another common crime that happened often because there was no glass on windows. A hooker carry a wooden staff five or six feet (2 meters) long in which a little hole had been bored at one end. A small hook was placed into this hole, and the hooker would use this device to reach inside open windows to "hook" or retrieve clothing or purses when people were sleeping inside, or when the rooms were unoccupied.

*The most serious of all crimes in the Elizabethan Age was high treason- plotting to overthrow the queen. The punishment was unique: Hanging, Drawing, Quartering. The traitor was hanged, taken down before he was dead, dragged face downward through the streets by a horse's tail, and then hacked into four pieces. The body parts were displayed in a public place as a warning to others who might be tempted to do what the traitor had done. So, when visiting London Bridge, the squeamish are advised not to look up when approaching the gate at the southern end of the bridge. On display on the end of long poles, are the shriveled heads of those executed for high treason.

Public hangings, like beheading, were frequently held in public as an example to others. Unfortunately, executions were viewed by many people as entertaining.

The Block and Ax was the final destination for Nobles who committed a felony.

An Elizabethan who committed treason would ultimately be "quartered", or cut into four sections for public display

The south end of The London Bridge displayed the decapitated heads of those who had committed treason

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