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Law and Order

Before the Norman Conquest law and order was administered through ‘tithings’ where groups of men would be made responsible for each other, so if one broke the law they would all be punished. This was hard to administer, so this system was removed, and responsibility for law and order was given to a professional hierarchy, as we have today.

Records show that there different types of laws and courts for different types of crimes in medieval times. There were customary laws by which people were expected to live and in towns there was community law, but what happened when these rules were broken was not written down.

There were also religious courts and law courts. Many of the records of what happened in those courts do survive, and were often one-sided and biased, so making Lincolnshire sound much worse in terms of crime levels than it actually was, rather like today’s media. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t crime and violence, just as today; we know how people are told to behave, but they don’t always do as they’re told.

The courts were often corrupt and were run according to the vested interests of those in charge. Most peasants would not see justice.

Described below are the positions and roles of those who were responsible for law and order in Lincolnshire and the rest of England.

Sheriff comes from the Old English for ‘shire reeve’. A sheriff was a royal official responsible for keeping the peace throughout a shire or county on behalf of the King. They were usually chosen by the King, only occasionally being elected. There was ample opportunity for corruption and making money, but equally they had many potentially expensive responsibilities, which meant they were rich individuals. By the thirteenth century sheriffs were allowed to hold their position for one year. They had under-sheriffs to help them with their duties.

In the late twelfth century the position of coroner was introduced. They were like sheriff deputies, in that they had a responsibility to maintain law and order, and to hold inquests on the dead. They tended to be landed locals, and held their positions for life. By 1300 there were 14 coroners in Lincolnshire.

A bailiff was usually chosen by the sheriff, and acted as the sheriff’s representative in the field. They were sometimes professional administrators, and sometimes local country gentlemen. They would also sometimes use their position to extort money and property when the opportunities arose.

Itinerant justices were appointed in the twelfth century and regularly and systematically travelled circuits to work in the courts with local juries.

Justices of the Peace were appointed from the fourteenth century, as ‘wardens of the peace’. They later became known as magistrates.

The Beadle was like a village policeman, or parish constable.

Poverty was a major cause of crime, and when times were hard crime levels rose, as it does today. There tended to be more crime in towns, particularly associated with markets, probably because they were big concentrations of people, who were often very poor. Urban crime was sometimes different to rural crime, as the towns would usually have quite a number of wealthy people.

People were punished inconsistently and often brutally. Other punishments could be excommunication from the church, or being sent into exile and banished from the law, thus becoming an ‘outlaw’.

The kinds of religious crimes which were tried in the Rural Dean’s courts were assaults on the clergy, violent seizure of churches, infringement of church rights, embezzlement, theft, poaching, brawling, adultery, fornication, bigamy, desertion of a spouse, arson, attempted suicide, body-snatching, incest, illegal abortions, house breaking and robbery with violence.

Other kinds of crime were trespass and felonies. Trespass included forcible entry, making threats, abduction, extortion, conspiracy, assault (which could encompass ambush, robbery, extortion, abduction or rape).

Felonies were more serious and included homicide, treason, larceny, burglary, robbery and arson. Homicide was the third most common crime, and tended to happen between March and August, and on Sundays. It is suggested that this is because between those months people tended to work together more, and competition for resources grows during those months, and that Sundays provided more leisure time for people to get into trouble.

Towns could also have their own by-laws which could cover grazing rights, selling of land, damaging bridges, maintaining dykes, debt, fines and illegal gaming.

There were also sometimes gangs who acted in self-interest and caused a lot of trouble, but had respectable roots in allegiance to their lord. Legends surrounding these gangs may have encouraged them to continue in their activities.

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Last updated: 3 March 2011

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