Medieval Law and Order

Medieval Law and Order

Medieval law and order in England was very strict as people leading the area believed the only way to learn appropriate behaviour was to have severe punishments for even small offences.

Authorities were afraid of the poor as they outnumbered rich people and revolts could be prove a significant damage, just like the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

A Medieval Court
A Medieval Court

Once Henry II became king, the legal system in England improved as Henry sent out London judges of his own to hear cases all through England’s counties. Every person accused had to endure one of three ordeals:

Ordeal by fire:

The person accused had to hold a red hot iron bar and walk three paces. Their hand would be bandaged and left for three days. The person was declared innocent if their wound was noticeably improving after the three days, the person was innocent. But the verdict was guilty if the wound had not got better.

Ordeal by water:

The person accused was tied up and thrown into water. If they floated they were guilty.

Ordeal by combat:

Noblemen who were accused would use this to fight with their accuser in combat. The winner was right and the loser was usually dead once the fight had finished.

The Pope made the decision in 1215 that English priests were not allowed to aid ordeals, and instead they were replaced with jury trials. At first people did not welcome these as they worried their neighbours would bear a grudge, therefore use the trial as revenge. A law got passed after 1275 allowing people to face torture if they did not attend trial in front of a jury.

People found guilty of a crime could face a harsh punishment - for instance, thieves had their hands cut off, women murderers were strangled and burnt, the ears of illegal hunters in royal parks were cut off and punishment for high treason was being hung, drawn and quartered. Not many prisons were available as they had to be paid for and local communities did not want to keep paying for them. So for this reason it saved money to execute or harm someone and then just released them.

Towns usually had a gibbet residing on the outskirts, where people would be hung and their bodies left to rot as a way to warn other people from committing crimes.

Even so, people did not seem to be afraid of these grim punishments as in 1202 Lincoln had a total of 114 murders, 89 violent thefts and 65 people who were injured in fights. Just two people faced execution for all of these crimes, meaning it is clear that the majority escaped from their crime free of charge.

See also:

Medieval Towns

Medieval Kings and Queens

MLA Citation/Reference

"Medieval Law and Order". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.