University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Criminal punishments in Devon, 1598-1638

In the second-year UoP history module, Underworlds:  Crime, Deviance & Punishment in Britain, 1500-1900, taught by Dr Fiona McCall and Professor Brad Beaven, students study the history of crime and punishment between 1500 and 1900. Students can take this option on a range of courses at Portsmouth, including History, Criminology and English Literature.  In this blog post, based on his work for the module, second year UoP history student Edward Sainsbury discusses what can be learned from a detailed table of statistics on sentences given to criminals at the Devonshire assizes and quarter sessions courts between 1598 and 1638.

Over the course of an almost 30-year period almost 10,000 punishments were recorded in Devonshire in the early 17th century. These punishments were overseen by the Courts of Assize, which were justices appointed by the sovereign and travelled around England and Wales trying people for crimes. Also included in this source, is the Court of Quarter Sessions, which were county level courts that were typically held 4 times each year. The source meticulously catalogues each punishment from a list of 16 categories. The source, based on surviving archival records at the Devonshire Heritage Centre, was compiled by historian J.S. Cockburn as evidence for his research on court proceedings in the Western Circuit.[1] In this post, I will be analysing the source to discuss what it can tell us about executions and public punishments in the early modern period.

Detail from John Reynolds, The Triumphes of Gods Revenge Agaynst The Cryinge, & Execrable Sinne, of Willfull, & Premeditate Murther (1670)

Detail from John Reynolds, The Triumphes of Gods Revenge Agaynst The Cryinge, & Execrable Sinne, of Willfull, & Premeditate Murther (1670)

Executions were clearly a popular punishment during this time period. During this time there were a number of ways people were executed but the use of gallows was by far the most common way to execute someone.[2] The source tells us that 620 people were sentenced to execution, this makes executions the third most popular punishment in Devon behind being granted clergy and whipping.[3] Crimes which merited a criminal to be executed were those where breaking the law was seen as an attack on the sovereign and punishable by death.[4] This led to minor crimes being punishable by death. A source depicting the percentage of crimes that resulted in execution in Sussex suggests that 94% of horse theft crime resulted in the accused being executed, while a more serious crime of murder was only 65%.[5] The number of executions over the period the source covers do not seem to change too significantly. The rate of executions in Devon would not drop significantly until the start of the civil wars.[6] The source ends in 1639 but by 1637 the rate of executions looks to be in decline.

A section from Cockburn's table of punishments.

A section from Cockburn’s table of punishments.

During the 17th century, punishments were often conducted in public spaces; it was seen as a spectacle.[7] On the source we are looking at, punishments such as execution, stocks/pillory and whipping would commonly be done in front of a live audience.[8] Visual punishments were useful as they acted as a reminder of authority within the lower classes. Public trials and punishments were an innovation that came about during the Tudor Period, these punishments were originally reserved for the upper-class as a way to show the power of the crown, but their effectiveness as both entertainment and societal control meant they were gradually used on the lower ends of social hierarchy by the end of the Tudor Period.[9]

Whippings as a form of punishment remained largely popular throughout the period. They were overwhelmingly popular for the Quarter Sessions, being the most common punishment inflicted. This could be because the Quarter Session would typically look over lesser cases. For the Assizes it is a fairly even split between whippings and executions. Public punishments often had religious motivation as well. The punished were encouraged to redeem themselves, for public executions this often meant the punished was expected to make a speech humbling the crowd and seeming accepting of death in order to be ‘reborn again in death’.[10] This gives us an idea of the role religion played in everyday life and more importantly in the legal framework of 17th century England and Wales.

Moving on to religion, a notable inclusion to the list of punishments presented, is ‘granted clergy’. This involved the accused proving to the courts that they are a member of the clergy. This could be proven by reciting a verse of the bible. The original idea was that if the accused successfully convinced the judge he was a clergyman, they would be required to be tried in the ecclesiastical courts, which were notoriously more forgiving with their punishments. By the early modern period you did not need to be in religious orders to make this plea.  Crimes which would overwise condemn a man to the gallows like grand larceny and manslaughter were commonly saved with ‘benefit of clergy’.[11] The number of people who were granted clergy stayed healthy through the time period recorded in the source, which suggests this was a tried and tested method for criminals to get out of a worse punishment. This was clearly an exploited part of the legal system as many years more notably in early years like 1598 and 1609 being granted clergy was close to being the most common verdict in the courts.

The source shows us what punishments were used during the early 17th century. It gives us insight into what people experienced during this time and it gives us a specific idea of the standard practices of English and Welsh courts. From this period, we know that capital punishment was commonly used and that the executions were public spectacles, which could hint at one reason for their continued use. Religion played a significant role in the legal process. This source only applies for Devonshire but with the information it provides it could be cross referenced when looking at punishments of other counties.

[1] J.S. Cockburn, A History of the English Assizes 1558-1714, (Cambridge, 1972), 94-96

[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. Angela McShane and Garthine Walker, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 79.

[3] For certain serious offences, it was possible for criminals to be spared execution by pleading ‘Benefit of Clergy’, by proving they could read.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (London: Penguin Press, 1991), 49.

[5] C.B. Herrup, The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in Seventeenth-Century England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 169.

[6] J.S. Cockburn, “Criminal Proceedings,” in A History of the English Assizes 1558-1714, 93.

[7] Griffiths, “Punishing Words: Insults and Injuries, 1525-1700”, 68.

[8] Sarah Covington, “Cutting, Branding, Whipping, Burning: The Performance of Judicial Wounding in Early Modern England,” in Staging Pain, 1580-1800: Violence and Trauma in British Theater, ed. by James R. Allard and Mathew R. Martin, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 95.

[9] Sharpe, “Civility, Civilizing Processes, and the End of Public Punishment in England,” 221.

[10] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700. (London: Taylor and Francis, 2015), 63.

[11] Sharpe, “Civility, Civilizing Processes, and the End of Public Punishment in England,” 223.




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