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Elizabethan Crime and Punishment
Elizabethan era - Crime and Punishment - Executions - Beheading

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT DURING THE ELIZABETHAN ERA - THE NOBILITY
Elizabethan England was split into two classes - the Upper Class, the nobility, and everyone else. Punishment would vary according to class. The Upper class were well educated, wealthy and associated with Royalty and high members of the clergy. They would often become involved in Political intrigue and matters of Religion. The nobility could therefore become involved in crime which were not shared by other people. The most common crimes of the Nobility included:

  • High Treason
  • Blasphemy
  • Sedition
  • Spying
  • Rebellion
  • Murder
  • Witchcraft
  • Alchemy

INSTRUMENTS OF TORTURE DURING THE ELIZABETHAN ERA - THE COURTIERS
Various means of tortures were use to extract confessions for crime. Women did not escape torture and punishment during this violent era - Anne Askew was put to the rack for her religious beliefs, and subsequently died, during the reign of Elizabeth's father King Henry VIII. The highest nobles were automatically exempt from torture but other courtiers were not. Instruments and means of torture, for unproven crime, included the following:

  • The Rack
  • The Scavenger's Daughter
  • The Collar
  • The Iron Maiden
  • Branding Irons
  • Assorted instruments designed to inflict intense pain

Click here for information regarding full details of Middle Ages Torture and Executions

CRIME & PUNISHMENT - JUSTICE?
Just being accused of one of the serious crimes could well result in torture. A Defendant's chances in receiving any acquittal in court extremely slim. Trials were designed in the favour of the prosecutors and defendants accused any of the above crimes were not even allowed legal counsel!

PUNISHMENT DURING THE ELIZABETHAN ERA - THE COURTIERS
Life in Elizabethan England was chronicled by a man called William Harrison - this included details of Elizabethan crime and punishment. The most dreadful punishment of being Hung, Drawn and Quartered was described by William Harrison as follows:

"The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose."

Other punishment included death by burning and beheading. Being burnt at the stake was a punishment which was used during the reign of 'Bloody Mary' - Queen Elizabeth's elder sister. Yet another terrible death. Executioners sometimes showed mercy to their victims by placing gunpowder at the base of the stake which helped the victims to a swifter, and less painful, death.

PUNISHMENT AND EXECUTIONS BY BEHEADING
The punishment of Death by the axe was a terrifying prospect. The executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed. The punishment of death by Execution were held in public and witnessed by many people . Following the execution the severed head was held up by the hair by the executioner, not as many people think to show the crowd the head, but in fact to show the head the crowd and to it's own body! Consciousness remains for at least eight seconds after beheading, until lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness, and eventually death. The punishment even continued after 'death'. Traitors Heads were placed on stakes and displayed to the everyone in public places such as London Bridge. The most feared place in England was the Tower of London

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT DURING THE ELIZABETHAN ERA - THE COMMONERS
Crime and Punishment for commoners during the Elizabethan era included the following:

  • Hanging
  • Burning
  • The Pillory and the Stocks
  • Whipping
  • Branding
  • Pressing
  • Ducking stools
  • The Wheel
  • Boiling in oil water or lead (usually reserved for poisoners )
  • Starvation in a public place
  • Cutting off various items of the anatomy - hands, ears etc
  • The Gossip's Bridle or the Brank
  • The Drunkards Cloak

The most common crimes were theft, cut purses, begging, poaching, adultery, debtors, forgers, fraud and dice coggers. Theft for stealing anything over 5 pence resulted in hanging. Taking birds eggs was also deemed to be a crime and could result in the death sentence. Punishment for poaching crimes differed according to when the crime was committed - Poaching at night resulted in the punishment of death, whereas poaching during the day time did not.

MINOR CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN SMALL TOWNS IN ENGLAND
Crime and punishment in Elizabethan towns like Stratford upon Avon were dealt with by the Justice of the Peace. Many crimes during the Elizabethan era were due to a crime committed and the law broken due to the desperate acts of the poor. Every town parish was responsible for the poor and unemployed within that parish. The Justice of the Peace for each town parish was allowed to collect a tax from those who owned land in the town. This was called the Poor Rate which was used to help the poor during the Elizabethan period.

BEGGING WAS A SERIOUS ELIZABETHAN CRIME - POOR BEGGARS

The Tudor and Elizabethan governments made begging a crime and therefore illegal and 'poor beggars' and as their punishment they would be beaten until they reached the stones that marked the town parish boundary. The beatings given as punishment were bloody and merciless and those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and even hanged as their punishment.

TRAVEL IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND - A CRIME WITHOUT A LICENCE
People did not travel around a lot during the Tudor and Elizabethan era. Travelling during the Elizabethan era could be dangerous, money was necessary and a license, obtained from the Bailiff in the Guild Hall, was required by anyone who needed to travel around England - it was a crime to travel without a licence. This law ensured that the spread of disease, especially the plague, was contained as much as possible and that the poor and the homeless did not travel from one village to another village - an Elizabethan ploy to lower the crime and punishment levels in England. William Shakespeare would have required a license to travel to adhere to the law of the land and his decision to move to London would have been a serious one and no doubt worried his family who he left in Stratford upon Avon.
Travel during this period in Elizabethan England era was indeed a dangerous and difficult undertaking. Actors who, by necessity, had to travel to earn their living and together with peddlers, pilgrims and  soldiers were thought untrustworthy and potential law breakers.  At the very least they would have been viewed as potential carriers of the Bubonic Plague. Strangers were treated with suspicion and risked being accused of a crime and suffering the appropriate punishment. Travel in Elizabethan could easily end as being viewed as a crime and punishment was inflicted accordingly.

ACTING IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND - A CRIME WITHOUT A LICENCE
Actors were treated with as much suspicion as beggars. Anyone who needed to travel to earn their living, such as actors, were treated with suspicion and could be expected to be accused of crimes. An actors standing in Elizabethan England was only slightly higher than a beggar or a thief. When plays started to become more popular rich nobles, or high ranking courtiers of the land, acted as their sponsors. It was soon decreed that licenses should be granted to legitimise certain Acting Troupes. This raised the actors status somewhat and lead to fewer accusations of criminal activities. A license also had to be granted by Town Councillors when a group of actors came to town. Many actors received punishments for real and sometimes imaginary crimes which included the punishment of branding with red hot irons.

For more information we recommend this page www elizabethan era org uk

 Elizabethan era - Crime - Torture - Punishment
Elizabethan Crime and Punishment

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