On this day in history : 31st July 1703 – As a punishment for offending Parliament and the Church, with his satirical writing, Daniel Defoe is put in the pillory – but is bombarded with flowers….

Daniel Defoe in the style of Sir Godfrey Kneller – Public domain

Defoe was a married man, a father to eight children, the owner of a brickworks, a government spin doctor, a writer – and a dissenter (English separatist; a Protestant Christian who had broken away from the Church of England)….

At the end of 1702 he wrote an anonymous pamphlet entitled ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’ – in which he mocked the High Anglican powers and satirised contemporary politicians…. His ‘advice’ being that the best way to deal with dissenters was to ‘banish them abroad and send their preachers to the hangman’…. The pamphlet suggested that ‘the Church of England was like Christ crucified between two thieves, Papists on one side and Nonconformist Sectarians on the other’… It went on to say ‘let us crucify the thieves. To go on tolerating them is like allowing a plague to continue without medical treatment’….

Needless to say, although written as satire, neither the authorities nor dissenters found it amusing…. Defoe’s identity was soon discovered and a large reward offered for his arrest…. Defoe went into hiding – and to try and clear up the misunderstanding, published a further pamphlet – ‘A Brief Explanation of a Late Pamphlet’…. Parliament, still not recovering its sense of humour, responded by having the hangman publicly burn ‘The Shortest Way’….

Defoe was captured in Spitalfields in May 1703 after being betrayed by someone tempted by the reward money…. He was held at Newgate Jail – it has to be said in relative comfort, paid for out of his own pocket…. He managed to secure bail the following month – and awaited his trial, which was set for July….

Daniel Defoe – Image credit : immugmania via Flickr

He pleaded guilty to the charge of committing seditious libel – and begged for mercy as it had not been his intention to be taken seriously…. He was sentenced to stand in the pillory three times and remain in prison either for seven years or until he had paid a large fine….

The pillory was used mainly for petty crimes and minor offences – such as cheats, liars and rioters….it was intended as a way of humiliating and shaming…. Those held in the pillory could expect to be pelted with all manner of unsavoury items; rotten fruit and eggs, mud, dead rodents….and worse…. Sometimes things could turn violent – stones and larger missiles could be thrown….serious injury or even death could occur….

Defoe’s scheduled time in the pillory was set for the last three days in July, at one hour at a time…. Three of London’s busiest locations were chosen; outside the Royal Exchange at Cornhill (which was close to his home), near to the Conduit at Cheapside and near to Temple Bar, Fleet Street….

Admittedly it was raining most of the time (making it a little unpleasant for Defoe) – or perhaps people were simply disinterested – but for whatever reason the crowds kept away when Defoe was placed in the pillory…. All that was thrown at him were flowers….whilst his friends sold copies of ‘The Shortest Way’ and ‘A Hymn to the Pillory’ – which Defoe had written specially for the occasion – to those who did bother to turn out to witness the spectacle…. With his friends ‘drinking to his good health’, one can almost imagine a party atmosphere….

Daniel Defoe in the pillory, 1862 line engraving by James Charles Armytage after Eyre Crewe – Public domain

Defoe was returned to Newgate, as he was unable to pay his fine….since his brickworks had now gone bankrupt…. However, a few months later the government decided he might be useful…. In the November his fine was paid on his behalf – in return he was to publish a newspaper showing the establishment in a positive light…. He was also to act as a spy on behalf of the government…. In 1706 he was sent to Scotland to gather political intelligence…. He also established himself in writing government propaganda…. It wasn’t until much later in his life that he turned to writing fiction…. We know him best for Robinson Crusoe….

Public domain

2 thoughts on “On this day in history….31st July 1703

  1. Hello

    I really enjoy reading your blog posts – they are always extremely interesting and informative! I just wondered if I could ask you about something that I’m curious about. Please forgive me if I’m confused about this – I didn’t actually go to school in England so there are lots of basic things that I probably should know but have just never picked up!

    Before I read your post I had always thought that the punishment where your head and hands were locked in a wooden frame like the one in the picture was called “the stocks” – people who had been naughty had to “stand in the stocks”. I found it really interesting that you have a different name for this punishment. Do you call it “the pillory” rather than “the stocks”?

    Are “the stocks” and “the pillory” just different names for the same punishment? Or are the stocks and the pillory actually slightly different?

    I just wondered if the height at which the punishment took place may be significant. I’m pretty sure that when I saw a picture of the stocks in a history book that I borrowed from my local library it seemed as if the punishment was taking place at ground level. I think that the stocks were in the middle of a busy marketplace and a woman was standing in them. It looked as if the stocks had three holes – a big hole in the middle plus two smaller holes, one on each side of the big hole. The woman’s head and hands were poking through the holes – her head was poking through the big hole and her hands were poking through the two smaller holes. The stocks were made of wood and looked quite similar to the wooden frame in your picture. The big difference, though, was that it looked as if in the picture in the book the punishment was taking place at ground level rather than up in the air – I’m pretty sure that the stocks weren’t on a platform and that the woman who was being punished was standing with her feet on the ground.

    I just wondered if the height at which the person being punished had to stand may have something to do with the difference between the stocks and the pillory – was the pillory a bit like the stocks only on a platform, so that the punishment took place up in the air rather than at ground level?

    I would be extremely grateful if you could help me understand the difference between the stocks and the pillory!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Alisha,
      I’ll try and help here if I can… The stocks and the pillory served the same purpose – to punish by humiliation…. All villages and towns in Britain once had them… The aim was that offenders would be placed within them for a period of time, be it hours or days – what ever the weather….for folk to show their disapproval… Rotten fruit, vegetables, eggs – sometimes worse, including stones & objects that could seriously hurt would be thrown at the offender… it depended on the crime and how much infuriated the people felt…
      There is a main difference between stocks and pillory….but both served the same purpose…. The pillory held people fast by their head and arms…so they were standing…. The stocks by their feet…so they were sitting…. Villages tended to have stocks, which were usually situated on the village green, or near to the church – or wherever most people tended to gather – larger settlements (towns) tended to favour the pillory more…
      It all resulted to the same… The person who had done wrong was contained in a contraption that allowed people to punish them in the way they thought fitting of the crime… Sometimes people even took pity if they thought the person was not deserved… Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe) is a good example of this…. He was held in the pillory and people threw flowers at him…. Hope this enables you to understand… Thankfully we have moved beyond all this Xx

      Liked by 2 people

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