University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Not so merry England: a Swiss visitor comments on Elizabethan criminal justice

English people tend to think highly of our long-established legal system.  But as second-year student Liam Fisher explains, visitors from Europe didn’t always see things the same way.  Liam’s blog is based on work he did for the second-year module: Underworlds: Crime Deviance and Punishment: 1500-1900, taught by Fiona McCall and Brad Beaven.

The English justice system during the early-modern period was iconic both socially and politically, ingrained into English culture and minds as something to be proud of. While the wider European population were no strangers to barbaric forms of punishment, the extent of English glorification and creativity of punishment would no doubt come as a shock to outsiders.  While visiting England on a trip in 1599, a Swiss visitor, Thomas Platter, documented various aspects of English culture, including his experiences in-person with the judicial system at work. An extract from Platter’s work provides some valuable insight into English culture from an outsider’s perspective, especially given the piece’s nature is that of a diary extract, which are rare in the early-modern period, and particularly rare before 1600.  Platter writes:

Line Engraving of Thomas Platter in later life.

Thomas Platter II. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Every quarter when the law courts sit in London … there is a slaughtering and a hanging, and from all the prisons … people are taken and tried; when the trial is over, those condemned to the rope are placed on a cart, each one with a rope about his neck, and the hangman drives with them out of the town to the gallows, called Tyburn, almost an hour away from the city; there he fastens them up one after another by the rope and drives the cart off under the gallows, which is not very high off the ground; then the criminals’ friends come and draw them down by their feet, that they may die all the sooner. Rarely does a law day in London in all the four sessions pass without some twenty to thirty persons — both men and women — being gibbeted. [1]

A Students Lamentation (1595) with images of apprentices being hung on Tower Hill

In June 1595, four years before Thomas Platter’s account, around 1,000 apprentices rioted on Tower Hill in London. They were mostly very poor and their grievances included the cost of food and the mistreatment of other apprentices. Five of the rioters were convicted of treason and hanged, drawn and quartered on Tower Hill. STC 23401.5 Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



While Platter may not have had any specialist insight into the English justice system – especially given his England trip is only a small fraction of his diary’s contents – his note of the popularly-discussed Tyburn tree shows his perceptiveness of English culture.  Tyburn tree and other execution sites were cultural landmarks built on the back of English methods of punishment with such landmarks being ingrained into the lives and minds of English people in the early-modern period.[2] Platter’s diary extract holds an ambivalent tone (having witnessed an execution at Tyburn), seemingly adopting a more formal descriptive style in illustrating the style of English justice. This may be due to the extract being isolated and translated from its source, but the descriptive content shows clear familiarity with English culture on Platter’s part, giving value as an outsider’s understanding of English culture even if intention is unclear.

Platter’s conflicted tone towards the executions during his England visit can be understood by looking at the roles of punishment in early-modern England. Not only were public executions common-place in England, they were seen as a grand performance that were celebrated in public areas and in particular landmarks – some having been said to be attended in the thousands.[3] It wouldn’t be a mistake to assume that public execution was intended as a deterrent – or as Foucault ponders, an assertion of control from the sovereign, especially given the presence of law enforcement and less commonly, cavalry, at these public displays.[4] These displays had become a part of English culture, but did not create unanimous respect for the law and certainly weren’t effective as a deterrent, at least in the case of the English – evidenced by punishment-based insults aimed at law enforcers becoming wide-spread as a result of the new-found punishment culture.[5]   Whether this was intended as a celebration of the punishment or as a deterrent from committing such crimes, the role of punishment in English life had been embedded in English culture. Platter’s perspective as an outsider shows this in his mention of Tyburn as a cultural landmark and the judicial practices as a large seasonal event.

Early 18th century satire on the execution of thief-taker Jonathan Wild, illustrated by gallows and a devilish funeral procession.

This early 18th century satire on the execution of the thief-taker Jonathan Wild shows a carnivalesque funeral procession featuring devils and a gallows at the top and below two columns of mass executions on two triple gallows. Execution at Tyburn is illustrated by a roundel at the bottom. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Platter’s diary, having been written in 1599, was written relatively early in the development of English justice culture.  In the case of Tyburn which Platter refers to, it would not see a significant reduction in usage until the late eighteenth century, due to the displays having an economic burden as well as stopping traffic; the judicial traditions so ingrained in English culture would continue at various other crime scenes and cultural landmarks regardless.[6] Platter’s conflicted tone towards the English culture of punishment shows that from an outsider perspective, such an extravagant display of punishment wouldn’t be looked upon in a positive moral light and as such, anticipate later judicial developments indicating a move towards a more modern moral perspective. Despite this shift in attitude from the wider judicial system, these traditions would continue well into the 19th century, which is a testament to the lasting impact these public displays had on English culture.[7] This can hardly be seen as a shift to a more modern and less barbaric way of thinking, but rather the next step in developing English way of thinking for judicial culture.[8] The continuing use of landmarks and upholding on judicial traditions into the following century support this.  In this sense, Platter’s diary extract offers a time-capsule insight into the workings of the English judicial system during this period and an interesting point of comparison.

Platter’s diary shows understanding and interest in English culture as well as providing a first-hand account of an outsider’s perspective, which can be exceedingly rare considering the period. The context of this source in analysing English culture makes it enticing, however the extent of its usefulness is limited as a result of the fact that it is a small portion of Platter’s diary in a short period of time when analysing the development of a culture that spans multiple centuries. This makes Platter’s diary most useful as a comparison point that should not be viewed in an isolated manner, especially given the nature of it being a translated work which makes the tone ambiguous and easy to misunderstand without first contextualising it. Regardless, the content of this extract provides an interesting perspective on English culture from someone who has witnessed both the judicial decision-making and a public execution at one of England’s most renowned landmarks for executions. Thus this source is useful and potentially one-of-a-kind when approaching the topic of English judicial culture.

[1] Thomas Platter’s Travels in England (1599) trans. Clare Williams (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937).

[2] Paul Griffiths, “Punishing Words: Insults and Injuries, 1525-1700” in The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England: Essays in Celebration of the Work of Bernard Capp ed. A. McShane and G. Walker (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2010), 67-68.

[3] Steve Poole, “‘For the Benefit of Example’: Crime-Scene Executions in England, 1720-1830” in A Global History of Execution and the Criminal Corpse ed. Richard Ward (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015), 71-72.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 47-49.

[5] Paul Griffiths, “Punishing Words: Insults and Injuries, 1525-1700”, 70-73.

[6] Steve Poole, “‘For the Benefit of Example’: Crime-Scene Executions in England, 1720-1830” in A Global History of Execution and the Criminal Corpse ed. Richard Ward (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015), 76, 96.

[7] Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering. Executions and the Evolution of Repression: from a Pre-Industrial Metropolis to the European Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1984), 45.

[8] Simon Devereaux, “Recasting the Theatre of Execution: The Abolition of the Tyburn Ritual”, Past and Present 202 (2009): 172.

, , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply