There have been a few times in the past, when I have jokingly remarked it would be fun to see a set of stocks on the village green…. I may not have been saying that if I had lived in this house a couple of hundred years ago, even less so if I had been one of its first occupants….
Wind back to when No.3 was first built – England would still have been governed under the Feudal System. Feudalism was introduced when William I took control after the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century; it was to become the way of Mediaeval life. As William was still also the Duke of Normandy he had to divide his time between England and France, so was absent for many weeks at a time. Therefore, he needed people he could trust to run things for him in his absence. In order to do this, he divided the country up into large chunks, similar to the counties we know today. These plots of land were ‘given’ to those he considered the most trustworthy, namely those that had fought with him and were prepared to die for him. The land was not ‘given’ to them unconditionally, they had to swear an oath of loyalty and collect taxes for the King. The noblemen (barons, earls and dukes) were the most important men in their allotted portion of land, they were known as ‘tenants-in-chief’. They in turn divided the land further into smaller pieces, called Manors, which were entrusted to Norman knights, who had also served well in battle. Each also had to swear an oath and it was his duty, as Lord of the Manor, to manage the land and its occupants. He had to collect taxes on behalf of the tenant-in-chief and provide soldiers from amongst the men living within his Manor to fight when ever needed. It was also the lord’s responsibility to ensure law and order was upheld….
The Manorial Court dealt with crimes that were of a less serious nature. Courts were held at regular intervals throughout the year and all villagers were required to attend, or face a fine. Trial was by jury, which consisted of twelve men, selected by the villagers. A steward, chosen by the lord, was in charge of the Court. The community was divided into groups, called tithings, each tithing represented by ten adult (over the age of 12) men, who were then responsible for each other’s behaviour. If one member (or part of his household) broke the law or behaved in an inappropriate way, it was the duty of the other nine tithe members to bring them before the Court.
More serious crimes were referred to the King’s Court; these included murder, treason, heresy and witchcraft. Trial by jury did not come to the King’s Court until 1275. Before this time, trial was by ‘ordeal’; it was believed God would decide whether a person was innocent of the crime he or she had been accused of. There were three types of ordeal used to determine a person’s fate:-
Ordeal by fire: The accused was made to walk a distance of approximately 9 foot holding a red-hot iron bar, (or similarly, picking up a stone from a boiling cauldron of water). The hands would be bandaged. Three days later the bandages would be removed, if the wounds showed no signs of healing, the person would have been pronounced ‘guilty’….
Ordeal by water: The accused would have been thrown into water with their hands and feet bound together; if they floated, they were declared ‘guilty’….
Ordeal by combat: Reserved for noblemen. The accused would fight with his accuser, usually to the death; the victor being considered the one in the ‘right’….
In 1215 the Pope made a ruling that priests must not help with enforcing ordeals (as it was his belief they were wasting too much of God’s time) – as a result the King’s Court also became trial by jury. This was actually not popular with the people, some thought those with a grudge against them may use the system to their own advantage. In 1275 a law was introduced permitting the use of torture if trial by jury was refused. Torture was also used to extract confessions or to get the names of accomplices and other information about the crime in question….
Punishments were issued to fit the crime and reflect the social standing of the person who had been found guilty. The worse the crime, the harsher the punishment. For serious crimes, death was usually inevitable; as well as murder, treason and witchcraft, highway robbery and the stealing of livestock carried death sentences….
Although prisons existed, they were used as a holding place for people awaiting trial rather than as a punishment. They were squalid places, lack of food and disease often meant prisoners died before even coming before the Court. Prison sentences were usually not an option as the money to keep long-term prisoners was not available; it was cheaper to either execute or mutilate them….
Most towns had a gibbet. People were hung on them and their bodies left to rot to act as a deterrent to others. Witches were strangled or in severe cases, burnt. Sometimes beheading was used as a form of execution. Serious theft could result in hands being cut off, branding may have been used, along with other barbaric punishments, such as the poking out of eyes. Punishments and executions were always in public….
Courts were often biased, the poor discriminated against and judgement would often have been known before the case even came to trial. If somebody did not turn up to attend the Court they were automatically considered to be an outlaw; their possessions would have been seized, becoming the property of the King. Outlaws would often band together and live in hiding; of course, one of the most famous being Robin Hood….
Lesser crimes were dealt with within the community and it was up to the Lord of the Manor to decide a fitting punishment. The Middle Ages had a tendency to use ridicule to punish petty crimes, public humiliation was common practice. Anything from being forced to wear an animal mask to being publicly flogged…. Not working hard enough, cheating on a spouse, blasphemy, not observing the Sabbath and being drunk and disorderly were all punishable crimes in Mediaeval England….
Petty theft could result in being given extra, unpaid work and/or a fine. Slacking at work would warrant a flogging….
Women who nagged, scolded and gossiped could find themselves the centre of the utmost ridicule….by being forced to wear a ‘scold’s’ bridle. Although it looked like a torture contraption it was not really designed as such, more for humiliation. It consisted of a metal bridle that strapped about the head and had ‘bits’ that went into the mouth. Sometimes the bits had spikes to prevent the woman from talking. She would then be paraded through the streets for up to twelve hours; some bridles even had bells attached to them, to add to the indignation….
Another punishment used for women who found themselves fallen from grace was the ducking-stool, popular especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. The offending woman was strapped into a chair on the end of a long pole; she was then repeatedly dropped into a river or lake…. The last recorded ducking in England was in the Herefordshire town of Leominster. Jenny Pipes was a notorious scold and was dunked in 1809. In 1817, Sarah Leeke was found guilty of the same crime; fortunately for her, the water in the ducking pond was too low, instead she was wheeled around the town strapped in the ducking chair, to receive the ridicule of the townsfolk….
Another variation of this was the cucking-stool, in which the guilty person was made to sit, to endure being paraded through the streets….
To us now, the ducking-stool may conjure up quite a comical image…. However, it was a terrible ordeal for the woman concerned. Deaths did occur, either through drowning or shock. In more severe cases, for example a person accused of witchcraft, the chair would be held under the water for several minutes, repeatedly. If the accused survived it would be assumed they were guilty. If they drowned, the only consolation would be their name was cleared….
In the City of Canterbury, Kent, the original ducking chair can still be seen in its place at the back of the Weavers House Pub on the banks of the River Stour….
Of course, one form of punishment we commonly associate with days gone by is that which got me on to this subject in the first place….the stocks; (and we must also contemplate their cousin, the pillory, too)….
The stocks go back to at least Anglo-Saxon times…. A wooden construction, where the convicted person would sit and have their ankles trapped in holes within the structure and sometimes their hands too. Occasionally, although not commonplace, even the neck would be entrapped. Most stocks were capable of holding at least two prisoners at one time….
In 1351 the parliament of King Edward III passed a law prohibiting labourers from leaving their home Manor to look for better paid work. After the Black Death there was a desperate shortage of labour – workers were in a situation where they could demand better conditions and wage increases…. To curb this the Statute of Labourers was instated….all upstarts were sentenced to the stocks. In 1405 it was made law that every town and village in England should have them….
A spell in the stocks could last anything from a few hours, to days, even weeks! A part from the obvious discomfort of being pelted with rotten fruit, vegetables, eggs and possibly even worse, the fact the prisoner was unable to shift position in all that time, has to be taken into consideration; that and our great British weather….!!
Stocks and pillories were always positioned in the most prominent place in the town or village….be it the market square, near to the church or on the village green….
The pillory tended to be used for slightly more serious offences. Similar to the stocks but this time the person was in a standing position with their head and wrists entrapped. A term in the pillory was usually shorter, not normally more than a day. Additional punishments may have been administered, depending on the crime. Sometimes the victim’s ears might be nailed to the pillory, to stop movement of the head. Often, the prisoner’s ears would be ripped off through their struggles; if the ears were still intact at the end of the ordeal, they were more than likely to have been cut off at the time of opening the pillory anyway. Branding the face of the criminal, nose slitting and even boring through the tongue with a red-hot iron were all punishments some prisoners of the pillory had to endure….
Being drunk and disorderly, cheating, blaspheming, not observing the Sabbath, or simply being a vagrant could result in a spell in the stocks or pillory. However, it was possible, if a person was well liked in a town or village, that no real hardship was suffered. Some places stipulated only soft missiles could be thrown, to prevent stoning….
In 1703, Daniel Defoe, a popular writer of the time, was sentenced to the pillory because his work ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’ was considered seditious libel (criticising and discrediting the King and Church). In the July of 1703 he was taken on three consecutive days to some of the busiest parts of London; The Royal Exchange in Cornhill, Cheapside and finally Fleet Street, to spend an hour each time in the pillory. Huge crowds were expected to turn out and mock him and hurl whatever they deemed fitting; however, all that was thrown at Defoe were flowers, whilst his friends read extracts of his work to onlookers….
The pillory was abolished in 1837. The stocks, although never officially abolished, began to die out in England in the early 19th Century. The last recorded case of them being used was in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1865.
Most stocks were made of wood (although there have been examples made of iron), so many of the original stocks deteriorated and rotted over time. However, many villages, proud of their old stocks, have managed to preserve them as a reminder of the ‘olden days’. Several villages local to Dunsfold still have theirs, including Chiddingfold and Alfold. Dunfold’s have long gone – and after learning all this, I am not quite so sure now that I would like to see a new set on the green after all….