7. Crime & Punishment

The Sheriff in medieval times was the representative of the King, in the local region, in charge of justice, tax collecting and the County Court. The Sheriff would have had a Deputy, or several in larger counties, who investigated crimes, as well as legal clerks at the court. In 1198 John de Toriton, Baron of Torrington became joint Sherriff of Devon & Cornwall, with William Wrotham.

The Ordinance of 1252 enforced the Sheriff to appoint Constables to each Parish to quell breaches of peace, arrest criminals and to summon men to do military duty. By the later 13th century royal justices, (judges) visited each county court, holding special sessions, known as ‘assizes’ several times a year. ‘Prison’ wasn’t fully established as a deterrent for crimes until the 1270s.

On a local level justice and taxes were controlled in Torrington by the Lord of the Manor until the Charter of Incorporation in 1554. A Steward administered the Lords estate and a Bailiff was an officer of the local manor court, they served summons and enforced court orders and executed warrants for arrest. The Bayliff was also responsible for security and would have been aided in this by a group of trained men at arms, known as the ‘town guard’, most towns had defensive walls or demarked boundaries and entrance was via gates, with guards, controlling access and egress. Each town had a number of ‘watchmen’, the precursor to the police and ‘night watchmen’ who also looked out for fire, which was an ever present threat to a medieval town with lots of wooden buildings. Often these split levels of jurisdiction led to confused rulings and arguments between differing groups over who had a right over a certain prisoner/criminal; there was a lot of bribery and infighting.

Serious crimes like attacking an official, treason or murder would result in the criminal being indicted at the Manor Court then taken down to Exeter to the county court. Many would be hung or executed in a different way. For treason the punishment was hanging, drawing and quartering; where you were hung until stunned, cut down and your intestines were cut from your body whilst still alive and then the body cut up into sections. Beheading was also used for nobles accused of crimes. In the early days of Torrington Castle criminals bodies may have been displayed on spikes if they had been executed, or left to hang on the gibbet, as a deterrent to others.

Most ‘crimes’ in the medieval period meant a fine; drunkenness meant you would be locked in the town stocks (go and see Torrington’s stocks at the museum!) or flogged in the market square, humiliation being thought enough for many minor crimes. Gossiping and libel might mean you were locked in the scolds bridle and displayed in the town square. Depending on the consequences of the lies/gossip and if found to be malicious and untrue, the tongue could be cut out in serious cases. Most gossips would be made to pay a fine or reparations to the subject of your gossip. Crimes like theft may result in a night in gaol, the stocks or a fine, depending on the value or importance of the goods. If someone was a repeat offender in Medieval times, a finger or even a hand could be cut off! Thieves could also be branded on the forehead and therefore facilitate them being wholly excluded from Market Towns like Torrington. In rural areas, where bad weather could easily result in a failed harvest and starvation of the rural poor, the theft of crops or stock could be amplified in the eyes of the Manor Court and particularly in a time of poor harvest may result in hanging.

Poaching was a common crime in the Torrington area until the 1800s; in 1194 William, the 3rd Baron de Toriton granted 365 acres of land in and around the town itself to the people, to be made into Common land. Towns-people could hunt animals and fish the river and gather berries nuts and fruit on the commons, but outside of that all belonged to the Lord of the Manor and if found hunting in the wider valley a poacher would likely be hung, or possibly blinded or outlawed. The town possibly bred game such as rabbits along Warren Lane (a warren is an artificial site housing and breeding rabbits), to counteract hunger in winter. Between 1198 and 1217 if you poached a royal deer on the Kings land, you would be blinded and castrated; there were deer parks, with protected deer at Stevenstone, Annery, Yeo Vale, Shebbear and Sheepwash in the surrounding area.

In later periods poaching resulted in a fine, a jail sentence, often ‘hard labour’ and sometimes transportation to the colonies. In repeat offenders it could result in hanging, just like smuggling, well into the 19th century. Poaching, a crime against the landed gentry or like smuggling was considered to be stealing from the crown-estates often had the most severe sentences in rural communities. Many estate owners like the influential family at nearby Stevenstone employed specialist estate staff like game keepers and even their own hunting hounds and huntsmen to manage the land, keeping down predator populations, first wolves (hunted into extinction in c.1600s) and then foxes, as well as watching out for and deterring poachers.

Criminals could controversially claim protection from the church by claiming ‘sanctuary’ in a parish church or at a religious house, such as a monastery. A person could not be forcibly taken out of a church, if they had entered to claim sanctuary and had committed to repent of their sins. A problem arose however if they later wanted to leave, as they were only protected as long as they were within the consecrated grounds, the minute they left they could be arrested and retried for their crimes.

After 1554 the Charter document recognised the Borough as a separate civic unit, which transferred many duties and responsibilities to elected town officials. The Mayor assumed the leadership of a Town Guild or Council. A Treasurer dealt with the finances. A Town Clerk headed up an office of administrators and copy writers who produced all of the documentation. Other roles were purely ceremonial, like Officer of the Mace, who carried the town regalia during processions. The Town Beagle and Parish Constable continued the medieval roles of administering justice and social control/poor law rules, with officers supporting, who took over responsibility of the town guard and watchmen. The town ‘pound’ or ‘gaol’ remained on the site of the ruined castle, a square stone tower-like building with cells and was where dissenters, criminals, drunks or vagabonds may be locked up for a night or longer. The pond survives today as ruined stone walls forming a square courtyard and can be seen next to the castle mound on Castle Hill. The Guild/Councillors would have been elected by the people of the town, the various roles assigned by the council from amongst themselves. There were fairly prescriptive rules for Boroughs and Corporations on a national level but often certain families became dominant and multiple generations may hold roles on the Corporation.

News of national events and the outcome of trials and town announcements were provided by the Town Crier. The Town Criers role often overlapped with the Parish Constable and often they were involved in putting people in the stocks, or floggings in the market square. Town Criers had to be protected by law, as they often had to deliver bad news. Attacking a Town Crier would result in being hung. The Town Crier represented the King directly, via the Borough Corporation and their most unpopular role was announcing tax increases.

Later in the 1600-1900 period, people, even children could be ‘transported’ to the colonies for theft, as little as a loaf of bread could see you brought up in front of the Town courts. People who were transported were not just exiled, often they were condemned to a long period of enforced labour or sold into indentured servitude, until the debt was paid off. Theft of Crops/Stock, particularly in a time of poor harvest may result in hanging. Gentry may have been sent to Exeter to the prison or a debtors prison.

Indictment of 1483 – Wars of the Roses

There have been several very famous trials in Torrington, one of which was held in the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between ruling factions in the royal family in the 15th century (1455-1487). The main protagonists were the House of York and the House of Lancaster, both of which had claims to the throne, as well as their many supporters.

King Edward IV head of the House of York, died in Aril 1483 aged only 40 years old, leaving behind his wide and seven surviving children. Richard his younger brother was made ‘Protector of the Realm’ or ‘Regent’ for his nephew the future Edward V, a 12 year old child. Richard supposedly locked up Prince Edward and his next eldest brother Prince Richard, in the Tower of London and was reputed to have killed them, taking the throne in July 1483. Nobles across the kingdom rebelled; there was a big rebellion in October 1483 in Exeter.

Nobles who were even loyal to the Yorkist cause rebelled, horrified at the throne being taken by Richard. Richard was vilified by Shakespeare 100 years later in his play ‘Richard III’ but more recently people have questioned if Richard did in fact kill his nephews or if they were exiled to France and given new identities. The lack of clarity on the fate of the two princes led to several ‘pretenders’ or rivals for the throne trying to front further rebellions after the Tudors ascended to the throne; one, called Perkin Warbeck in 1487 being supported by the Burgundian royal court and several European monarchs, who were also related to the Yorkist royals.

In November 1483 King Richard III sent Lord Scrope of Bolton and a group of soldiers and officials to Torrington to hold an inquisition of ‘the gentlemen of Devon’. This trial was held in the Guildhall chambers, with the indictment being read in the town square. The Kings men were stationed in the castle and in the moated manor house, surrounding the town. The trial was to investigate ‘treason’; which men had been involved in the rebellion and who supported his main rival for the throne, the current head of the House of Lancaster, Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor.

Indicted at the trial in Torrington were: Robert Burnaby, William Chilson, Thomas Fulford, Thomas Greenfield, Sir Hugh Lutterell, Sir John Crocker, John Norris, Bartholomew St Ledger. Many of the men were attained, which means all of their lands, titles and possessions were seized and their heirs were precluded from inheriting; Thomas Fulford, Thomas Greenfield and Bartholomew St Ledger and Sir John Crocker were all eventually pardoned in 1484. Quite a few rebels however escaped to Devon ports and fled overseas, indicted in their absence, reuniting with Henry Tudor, such as Sir Hugh Lutterell, Richard Edgcumbe.

Held for trial in Exeter at the same time, were also Sir Thomas St Ledger (who had been Richard’s brother in law and brother of Bartholomew), Richard Edgcumbe and Sir John Rame. Sir John Rame and Sir Thomas St Ledger were both imprisoned at Exeter castle where they were beheaded.

Witchcraft and Heresy – Religious Trials
Beliefs in magic and witchcraft, as well as local folklore tales and semi-pagan rituals, like May-Day were retained in the Westcountry for far longer than in other areas of England and were more pervasive in society. This meant that to a certain extent people who practiced, such as apothecaries and healers had an easier time than in some regions.

Ancient burial sites, such as the barrows on Darracott were shrouded in superstition, believed to contain spirits and wider superstitions were commonly accepted, such as burying certain executed criminals out of town at cross-roads, so that their ghost couldn’t rise and seek out revenge. Many of these superstitions were carried into Christianity from pre-Christian beliefs. In the Westcountry many pre-Christian holy sites such as wells or springs were adopted into the church and became ‘Holy wells’ associated with early medieval Christian saints.

The belief in the more negative aspects of witchcraft can be seen to have been common however and often focussed on agricultural misfortune in a rural place like Torrington. Archaeologists often find witch-marks in houses, evidence of what people believed were protective marks which would stop a witch entering their home and these are also commonly seen in barns and on agricultural buildings; the most common type of witch-mark seen in Devon is the ‘daisy-wheel’.

Witchcraft was officially deemed a form of heresy in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII. It became a capital offence (punished by death) in England in 1563.

The English Reformation officially changed the religion of England and Wales to Protestantism in the 16th century, under Henry VIII. Henry himself was still fairly sympathetic to Catholic traditions and those who retained the old religion but did so privately weren’t sought out; however many of those fanatically loyal to the Pope started to conspire behind the kings back, to replace him with a Catholic monarch and ‘restore’ what they saw as the rightful religion. Asa part of the conversion Henry ‘dissolved’ the great religious houses who were loyal to Rome and the Pope and took all of the land and wealth for himself, distributing it amongst his courtiers. Nearby Frithelstock Priory an ancient site already 300 years old at this time, was closed along with all of the others and fell into rack and ruin, part of the building redeveloped as a farmhouse, most of the land sold away. You can see the ruins form the churchyard (as they are on private land).

Henry’s son Edward VI (1547-1553) was a fanatical Protestant and it became illegal to be Catholic. England then reverted to Catholicism under Henry’s daughter, Mary I (1553-1558). It then became illegal to be Protestant. Under Henry’s younger daughter Elizabeth I an English-specific solution was adopted, mixing elements and intended to stop religious faction warring for power; later in her reign however the scheming of Catholic groups t put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne inspired further crack-downs on Catholic families. All of this swapping from one doctrine to the other and the constant edicts outlawing one or the other made ordinary people into criminals just for their beliefs.

‘Heresy’ was the crime of following the religion which was considered to be wrong at the time, or having been perceived to have insulted the church or God. Heresy was punishable by various methods, depending on the perceived insult to the church; confiscation was the forcible removal of all property and goods and expulsion from the community, fines could be levied for lesser charges and acts of disrespect, which crossed over into secular jurisdiction and were often levied by the Manorial courts; such as for adultery or for having an illegitimate child ‘Chidewrite’ or sex before marriage if female, ‘Legerwyte’.

Adultery was a crime which regularly crossed the boundaries between the ecclesiastical courts which decided the punishment and the relative fines being enforced by the manorial or secular courts or later borough corporations. Punishment for adultery was often a form of penance or public humiliation, such as parading through the streets wearing a white sheet or having ones head shaved. Ecclesiastical jurisdiction over adultery cases continued from the medieval period until the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857). The adultery of women was punished much more harshly than of men, as women were considered to belong to their husbands, after marriage, right into the 20th century.

From the 11th century onwards people accused of heresy by the ecclesiastical courts could be burnt at the stake, the punishment specifically used for heresy in both male and female defendants. The concept behind the burning was that not only was it a torturous death, reminiscent of the ‘fires of hell’ but it also meant that no parts of the body would survive to be turned into a religious relic for their community, if the person was identified as a religious martyr. Mary I became particularly synonymous with burning protestants, becoming known in popular culture as Bloody Mary. Almost 300 people were burned at the stake during her short five year reign, a horrendous statistic when considering the population of England at the time was only three million in total!

In the 16th century heresy scandals were replaced across Europe by outbreaks of fear over witches. Academics debate the causes of the rise in witch hunts and it is believed it may be connected to wider education, religious freedoms and increasing economic independence of women and indeed it was women who were the main victims of this social hysteria. The type of witch craft feared at this time was very much the form we would recognise today, with witches flying on broomsticks, holding black mass on wastelands with bonfires, having animal familiars etc.

Witch hunting developed in England in the early 17th century, King James I himself was obsessed with witches and witchcraft and drove much of the action, which was largely based in the south and east of England for much of the period, particularly the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Kent. People set themselves up as witch hunters, travelling from village to village and through towns, questioning and often torturing people to get false confessions. Most, if not all of these accusations were the result of local feuds or discrimination against poverty or disability. Confessions and ‘tests’ for being a witch involved all sorts of things such as pricking or burning with a candle and ‘dunking’ or being ‘swum’ where a witch was strapped to a stool or pole and forced under the water of a river or lake to see if they floated or sank. If the person sank or even drowned they were considered innocent, if they floated they were considered guilty and were condemned to further punishment. Most witches were imprisoned, some were later pardoned, the majority were hung.

At the end of the17th century most witch hunts across England had stopped but in Devon the prosecution of witches developed slightly later. In 1659 Wilmote Dorvells and Elizabeth Walter from Torrington were condemned and committed, ‘upon suspicion of witchcraft’. The records of what actually happened to these women have not survived, presumably lost in the town hall fire of 1724.

Later in the 1670s and early 1680s there were a last few scandalous cases in Bideford but there was also a case in Torrington. Tibble Brewer who came from a well known family, who had been associated with Torrington market for centuries was an accused of being a witch and had apparently acted out a pantomime of ‘snipping the chord of life’ with a set of sheep shears. She was supposedly condemned as a result of a trial held in the town square. Unlike the Bideford witches she was not sent to Exeter Castle for execution, she may have been executed in Torrington or imprisoned and later freed. Her legendary sheep shears are displayed at the witchcraft museum in Boscastle, Cornwall.

School Resources and Links

Children – teaching resources
PDF downloadable fact-sheet – crime and punishment 1066-1485
Reading Museum

Horrible Histories episode covering punishments in Charles I times

BBC Bitesize
Key Stage 2 – Crime and punishment through the ages

Year Six – Ark Curriculum Partnerships
Workbook downloadable PDF

Spartacus Educational
Sources and Questions on Mary Tudor and Heresy Laws

BBC Bitesize
The Impact of Religious Change in the 16th century

Schools History – English Reformation Worksheets

National Archives
English Reformation Links to Sources and Activites

National Archives
Early-modern witch trials – sources and resources


Further reading

Link to page with numerous articles from BBC History Extra Magazine

Heresy – definition, examples and links to further reading
Encyclopaedia Britannica

Royal Family Archives and Links
Mary I

Tudor Sites to visit

Link to Scheduled Monument – National Record
Frithelstock Priory

Church Guide to Frithelstock Church

Plaque to the Devon witches in Exeter
Exeter Civic Society

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic
Boscastle, Cornwall

Parliament Website