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Tudor Crime and Punishment

Tudor Crime and Punishment

There was no police force in the Tudor times, but there were plenty of strict laws. The king or queen would appoint noblemen to be Justices of the Peace, who were responsible for making sure that the laws were kept in their part of the country. If you were found to have broken a law, you would be punished. The type of punishment depended on the crime - however it was usually harsh, cruel, humiliating, and carried out in public. The Tudors believed that this would deter the criminal from re-committing the crime, while at the same time serve as a warning to others. Watching punishments was encouraged, and even seen as a form of entertainment. Executions in particular were public events which attracted large crowds.

 

What types of crimes did Tudors commit?

Begging

Life was very hard for the poor during Tudor times. If you didn’t have a job or land to grow crops or rear animals, you had no way of earning money or getting food unless you begged or stole from others. However, only the disabled were allowed by law to beg. Some people tried to make themselves look sick or disabled so they would be able to beg, however if you were caught begging when you weren’t supposed to be, you could be sentenced to death by hanging.

 

A Tudor man begging
A Tudor man begging

Stealing

Whipping was a common punishment for stealing. You would be tied or chained to a post in a public place, stripped to the waist and whipped. You could be punished like this for something as minor as stealing a loaf of bread.

There were lots of thieves and pickpockets in Tudor times, especially in London. At this time, people kept their money in a purse tied to a belt with string. Thieves were called cutpurses, because they would cut the string so the purse fell into their hands. If you were caught stealing, you could have one of your hands cut off. You would also be branded with a ‘T’ on your forehead to show others you were a thief. Branding is when a very hot iron is put on the skin to burn it and leave a mark. 

 

A pickpocket at work in a market
A pickpocket at work in a market

Gossiping/talking too much

If a woman was thought to be a ‘gossip’, spoke too freely or told their husbands off too much, they were put in a scold’s bridle (or brank’s bridle). This was a small metal cage that was placed over a woman’s head with a bit to put between her teeth. It was extremely uncomfortable, and made speaking impossible. The husband could then lead her around with a rope attached to the bridle to humiliate her.


View and download a free Tudor Crime and Punishment Word Search

Drunkenness

If you were found drunk in public, you would be forced to wear the ‘drunkard’s cloak’. This was a barrel with holes cut out for your head, legs and arms. It was very heavy and awkward to move around in.

A woman in a scold’s bridle being led around by her husband, and a man in a drunkard’s barrel.
A woman in a scold's bridle being led around by her husband, and a man in a drunkard's barrel

Drunkenness, as well as other minor crimes including: swearing, fighting in the streets, failure to pay debts, or failing to wear a hat on Sunday, were also commonly punishable with either the stocks or the pillory. These were wooden frames which trapped you inside them (in the stocks, you sat down and your feet were trapped, and in the pillory, you stood up and your head and hands were trapped.) Passersby would then throw rotten food or stones at you as punishment for whatever crime you had committed.

A man in the pillory
A man in the pillory

Poaching

The time of day was important when poaching (hunting animals on someone else’s land) - if you were caught at night you were punished with death, but if caught during the day you were given a lesser punishment. This type of crime was commonly committed by the poor, as due to poverty, they had no choice but to get food by illegal means.


Witchcraft

Women who were suspected of being a witch were punished with the ducking stool. They were put on a stool which was placed over water and then dunked under. If the woman was innocent, she would sink to the bottom of the water and drown. If she was guilty, she would float to the top of the water. She would then be burned at the stake for witchcraft. Either way, if you went into the ducking stool, you didn’t come out of it alive.

 

A woman accused of witchcraft being punished with the ducking stool
A woman accused of witchcraft being punished with the ducking stool

Murder

If you were found guilty of murder, hanging was the usual form of punishment. However, in 1531, Henry VIII, who was himself afraid of being poisoned, passed a new law whereby those who had committed murder by poisoning were boiled alive in a cauldron of scalding water.

 

Heresy

Heresy is holding a belief or opinion that contradicts the accepted religion of the time. In Tudor times, it was thought to be going against God. Anyone who opposed, fought against, or spoke out about any religious changes made by a monarch were accused of heresy, and sentenced to death by burning at the stake.

When Mary I came to the throne after her father, Henry VIII, died in 1553, she wanted the country to follow the Catholic faith. It is thought that she had over 300 people who refused to convert from Protestantism burnt at the stake. This earned her the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’.

 

Burnt at the stake
Burnt at the stake

Treason

This was a very serious crime in Tudor times. Treason was defined as any crime against the monarch. If you believed something different to the king or queen, or tried to harm them or their servants in any way, you were convicted of treason. Petty treason was when you murdered someone you owed allegiance to, such as a husband or master. For this crime, you could be beheaded (your head cut off with an axe), burnt at the stake (burned alive in a fire) or hung, drawn and quartered (hung by the neck until nearly dead, then taken down and your intestines removed, and your body cut into four parts).

For nobles, or even members of the royal family who had committed treason, their form of execution was usually beheading. Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s wives, was beheaded for this crime. Sometimes, the chopped-off head of a traitor would be put on a spike and displayed in public places to remind people of the dangers of committing a crime.

 

If you are looking for some ready-to-teach, fully-resourced lessons on the subject, take a look at our Crime and Punishment History scheme of work for years 5 and 6, or our The Tudors Topic for Years 3 and 4.

 

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