Medieval Justice – In the time of King Edward the First – a brief outline.

Here comes the Judge!

Most medieval communities did have a judge and jury system, though hearings were much speedier than today’s lengthy, made-for-TV affairs, generally lasting less than a half-hour. If the judge so chose, he (and it was always ‘he’) could ask a few simple questions and deliver a verdict himself without ever consulting anybody else.

Boys will be Boys.

Medieval villages and towns grouped youngster together by age. The oldest child would be responsible for the younger ones and if anyone committed an offence or a social faux pas they could be punished by the ‘leader’ without recourse to the village elders. But along with leadership came responsibility for if the ‘leader’ let someone get away with it then they would be punished as well.

The main protagonist in The King’s Jew grew up in such a village. Longhurst by name LINK to BOOK

Hue and Cry.

Earlier medieval communities had much more social responsibility than today, in fact. If one member of a village claimed they’d been wronged, he or she would raise a “Hue and Cry” and every resident had to join in the hunt and persecution of the criminal or else they would all be held responsible.

By the Statute of Winchester of 1285, 13 Edw. I cc. 1 and 4, it was provided that anyone, either a constable or a private citizen, who witnessed a crime shall make hue and cry, and that the hue and cry must be kept up against the fleeing criminal from town to town and from county to county, until the felon is apprehended and delivered to the sheriff.

The Church.

The pious Middle Ages were serious about their religious offenses, and each town’s church generally ran its own kind of court to investigate everything from bad attendance to heresy. However, the church was also a place where criminals could avoid sentencing or punishment. The concept of sanctuary was well known in medieval times and let offenders escape the law. But woe to those who stepped outside church property.

Beaulieu Abbey - the remains

In the novel “The King’s Jew” Cristian Gilleson and Mathew ride through the vast holdings of BEAULIEU ABBEY to meet his father. Being approached by mounted men Cristian is informed that the Abbey grounds are the haunt of ‘dangerous’ men for ‘they dwelt there in sanctuary from the law of the land’.


Three strikes and you’re out.

Criminals who committed lesser offenses were often subject to a policy of three strikes and you’re out-literally. Rather than killing them off or letting them clog up prisons, repeat offenders were often simply banished from the town and not allowed back. Humane and cost efficient eh? Pity the folks in the next village though!

Movie myths.

Hollywood would have us believe that medieval evil-doers were killed on a whim and often in public squares for everything from slapping a soldier to stealing the king’s chickens. In truth, capital punishment was sentenced only in the most serious of cases, which included murder, treason and arson. Hanging was the punishment of choice.


“The criminal condemned to be hanged was generally taken to the place of execution sitting or standing in a wagon*, with his back to the horses. When the criminal arrived at the place of execution the noose was placed around his neck from which he was suspended and thereby strangled to death. When the words “shall be hung until death doth ensue” are to be found in a sentence, it must not be supposed that they were used merely as a form, for in certain cases the judge ordered that the sentence should be only carried out as far as would prove to the culprit the awful sensation of hanging. In such cases, the victim was simply suspended by ropes passing under the arm-pits, a kind of exhibition which was not free from danger when it was too prolonged, for the weight of the body so tightened the rope round the chest that the circulation might be stopped. Many culprits, after hanging thus an hour, when brought down, were dead, or only survived this painful process a short time.”

In the novel – only one person is hanged – you’ll have to read it to find out who and why! LINK to BOOK

Was the King above the law?


Well, kind of. While medieval nobles did enjoy certain privileges when it came to bending laws or decreeing new ones to serve their purposes, most European countries had legislation preventing their kings and queens from completely running amok. England’s Magna Carta, which limited the monarchy’s financial powers among other things, is just one example. But then again the King and his nobles could only be tried by their peers and thus got away with a lot of misdemeanours. Nothing changes eh?

Off with his head?

Beheading-was swift and painless, as long as the axe was sharp! It was considered a “privilege” to die that way and was reserved mainly for members of the nobility, rarely commoners. Treason was their crime of choice and the beheading usually took place inside private castle walls.

A burning issue.

Though a few pagan “witches”- as presumed by their persecutors- were certainly tried and burned at the stake during medieval times, it is only during the Reformation period (circa 1550) that this practice really took off. Still, even at the height of hysteria, witches in England were rarely burned. They were usually hanged instead.

What’s this ear?

Mutilation, like the severing of an ear or hand, was occasionally used as a punishment against those who’d committed serious crimes, especially in larger towns. More often, though, medieval law enforcement simply used the prospect of losing bodily bits and pieces as an empty threat, rarely actually carrying out the deed (one wonders how long it took criminals to figure that out?).


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