Crime and Punishment: A Fascinating English History

Up until the 19th century, the English justice system was nothing like what we’re familiar with today. From the perspective of our modern eyes, these laws made zero sense and are so backwards from what we’re used to. Forget being homeless or even expecting the law enforcement to arrest the perpetrator themselves because you’d be asking for too much. Below are five startling facts about crime and punishment in English history.

1. You Had to Pay to Be in Jail

Prisons in Anglo-Saxon England were a very lucrative business for the people who ran them. Nothing was free and prisoners, even if they were later proved to be innocent, had to cough up cash for just about everything—soap, bedding, candles, even to have their leg irons put on and removed. If someone happened to die in jail, then a relative had to pay a fee to get the body back. Long-term prisoners made a quick buck as well; pay or strip. Pay a fine to keep your clothes or strip down to your birthday suit.

2. You Could Be Arrested for Wandering Around While Poor

In the old days, English counties used to be divided into parishes. Every single local homeowner was charged a form of property tax called rates which were used to help the poor within each parish. However, citizens weren’t so eager to help the poor from, which would cause traveling from place to place, despite the action being heavily discouraged. Those who did travel were labeled as vagabonds or vagrants and could be subjected to various punishments if found walking the streets. This law was taken so seriously that two men were sentenced to the gallows in 1695 for breaking it

3. Executions Were More Entertaining Than Scary

Public executions were the government’s way of instilling fear into the people and potential criminals. This may have worked in the beginning but eventually it became a bit of a spectacle and up until the 18th century, hanging days were marked as holidays. Over 200,000 people gathered to watch the event, many with snacks and drinks in hand. As for the accused? They were the real entertainment as they often made a mockery of the courts and witnesses. Some wore their finest clothing and others were too inebriated to tell what was even going on.

4. You Had to Arrest Criminals Yourself

Police officers weren’t a thing in Anglo-Saxon England. Rather, the responsibility of stopping crime fell into the hands of every able-bodied male between the ages of 15 and 60. So if something went down, they had to “raise the hue and cry” something along the lines of “Stop! Thief!” And they also had to keep weapons at their homes, just in case. This also meant that if one person broke the law, everyone in the community had failed likewise. So the entire community had to work together to restore justice.

5. You Could Pay a Thief to Catch Another Thief

As mentioned earlier, England didn’t have a police force for a very long time – not until 1829. The people policed each other instead. So when someone was unable to track down stolen goods, citizens would turn to another thief who acted like a sort of private detective and bounty hunter known as a “thief-taker.” Using his contacts and for the right price, the thief-taker would track down the item or items and take the perpetrator back to the sheriff. Unsurprisingly, some thief-takers were con artists who were the culprit behind the crime they were investigating!


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