Most crimes in Roman Britain were
against property- such as petty theft,
selling underweight goods and
Crimes could be against the person-
such as street violence or murder- or
against authority- plots against the
Emperor or refusing to worship their
The death penalty was
used in the Roman
Some examples of punishments were
floggings and beatings, repaying the cost
of stolen goods, the amputation of limbs,
being sent into exile if you were a noble,
being forced to become a gladiator, and
execution via lions or crucifixion.
The Roman legion was in
charge of dealing with riots
People reported crimes to the local centurion, who decided
whether it should go to court. They were often harsher to poorer
people. The victims of the crime had to gather their own evidence
and bring the suspect to court, which was difficult if you were
Less serious crimes were dealt
with in local courts with Roman
officials, called magistrates,
More serious crimes were
tried by the Roman governor
Background- History and the Law
The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD under Claudius
due to the farmland and riches that could be found
there. Britain increasingly suffered barbarian
invasion, such as Boudicca's campaign. They failed to
capture Scotland as they could not commit enough
troops to it. They left in 410 as Rome was under attack
from the Visigoths, and the army needed all the men
it could get.
The entire empire was ruled from Rome, where
the Emperor was. The laws were made by the
Emperor (while he did have advisors). This was a
strong central government which kept things
simple. Roman society was hierarchical,
patriarchal and unequal.
The laws were written down (known as the
Twelve Tables, which were kept simple as
literacy wasn't high amongst plebians) and
put in public places so that everybody knew
what they could and couldn't do, Also, they
had a "innocent until proven guilty" attitude
in their laws. This was very fair.
The laws themselves were not based on
religion and so were fair in that regard,
but those lower down in society faced
harsher punishments. The fact that the
government did not care about those in
poverty was unhelpful.
The Anglo Saxon Period (400AD to 1066)
Background, History and the Law
When the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, the law
collapsed. Britain was conquered by the tribes from
Germany, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who formed
different systems of laws in their kingdoms.
As the kings ruled their kingdoms from
inside Britain, things got a bit more local
than the Roman system. This could be
seen as a regression from the Roman
times, leading to the Dark Ages.
The kings were in charge of the law. Some of them,
like Alfred the Great, drew up codes of law, but most
of the laws were based on custom and spoken word,
and not written down. The power of the kings
increased as Britain became more unified later on.
After the Synod of Whitby in 664, most Anglo Saxon kings
were Christian and this impacted the law. The church had
more power, so and created new crimes by criminalizing
certain actions. The church preferred punishments which
allowed criminals a chance to repent. This also led to trial by
Most crimes were of theft of
low quality items like food or
As said up there, the church impacted
punishments after 664. Capital punishment
became rarer as they wanted sinners to
Sometimes trial by ordeal was
used if the jury in a court was
indecisive, which meant that the
criminal's fate was thrusted into
Trial by cold water meant that you were tied up
and placed into a pool of holy water. If you floated,
the water didn't want you, and so you were guilty.
If you sunk, you were innocent, but probably dead
Trial by hot water or hot iron meant that you
were branded with an iron or scolded by water. If
the wounds healed or didn't get infected, you
Trial by bread was used on priests. They
were handed a piece of holy bread, and if
they choked on it, they were guilty.
Fines and compensation was the most common
punishment. The wergeld was a payment made by the
family of the murderer in compensation for the murdered
person, depending on how important they were. This
reduced violence and improved relations.
Floggings and beatings were also used as
deterrence. The confiscation of property, and the
removal of the hands, feet or tongue was also
Initially, blood feuds were used to avenge a relative by
killing someone in the killer's family. This would be
avenged too, leading to feuds that could last
generations. The wergeld increasingly replaced it.
Anyone who witnessed a crime had to raise a hue
and cry by shouting to alert others, and then
chased the criminal. This was all about local
community spirit, and you could be fined if you
didn't take part.
Tithings were a collection of ten men. If
one of the ten was accused of a crime,
the others had to make sure that he
went to court or they paid a fine for him.
Anglo Saxon courts, also called folk moots, were attended by lawyers, a judge, and a jury of 12 people.
The victim collected the evidence and brought it to court, and brought along witnesses. The victim
and the accused told their stories. Oathbreakers were brought along to ensure that they were telling
the truth. The jury then made the decision about their innocence or guiltiness. Most people were
scared of going to hell and so wouldn't lie in the courts.
The Norman and Later Medieval Period (1066 to 1485)
Background, History and the Law
In 1066, William of Normandy conquered Britain and
unified the laws. He kept the Angle Saxon laws and added
some of his own, making him the 'greatest' king so far in
terms of power.
The church's power increased, which meant
more laws! Immoral actions, like sex outside of
marriage, were made illegal, among several
other laws a couple centimeters down.
Everything hit the fan in 1135, when a war hit
Britain. Henry II emerged triumphant, and him
and his descendants changed law enforcement,
punishments and the power of the kings, and the
Henry II brought together the Anglo Saxon,
Norman and Royal laws into one big system,
called the Constitutions of Claredon, which is
the basis of our Common Law today.
The crimes didn't change that much, but William did add
the Forest Laws, which prevented people from hunting or
chopping trees in certain areas (around 30% of Britain).
The taxes on this increased the king's wealth and power.
He also protected the Normans as he
made killing or hurting them have massive
consequences. This was due to the
resistance at the time by the locals.
After Henry II took over, petty crime was still the
most common crime, and the Forest Laws
were still hated. As the conditions got
worse, crime increased, and vice versa.
The use of the death penalty rose dramatically to make
people behave. Mutilations and amputations also
increased. People paid compensation to the government
and not the victims. Very minor crimes were still
punished by fines, whipping or stocks and pillories.
Another trial by ordeal added was trial by combat, which meant
that the victim and accused (or their champions) fought until one
was beaten or killed. The loser was hanged, as they were
evidently guilty in God's eyes.
After Henry II took over, hangings gradually decreased
but physical punishments continued. Fines
became more common. The king also pardoned
some criminals. Crimes against authority were
still harshly punished.
The church also influenced
punishments, returning to the idea
that punishments should reform
and not kill criminals after the civil
Trial by ordeal and combat was made
forbidden in 1215.
The Anglo Saxon system largely remained in place. County courts were
set up for more serious crimes, and church courts were set up to deal
with immoral actions . The clergy often got less harsh punishments, and
you could prove that you were were a member of the clergy by reading a
verse of the Bible to the priests. Many people learned this 'neck verse' to
escape severe punishment.
The right of sanctuary meant that you
couldn't be arrested in a church. If you
confessed to the crime, you were
allowed to simply leave the country.
There was an increasing use of central
government in law enforcement. Sheriffs could
form posses to catch criminals. County Keepers
of the Peace could arrest criminals. Royal courts
in London saw the most serious cases.
Juries were kept and were encouraged by Henry II
to decide guilt or innocence over God. Many
villages had a manor court where the local lord
acted as a judge for petty crimes.
The Tudor Period (1485 to 1603)
Background, History and the Law
The War of the Roses ended in
1485 with the House of Tudor
winning. They reigned until 1603.
The Tudors faced problems with beggars, treason and
heresy due to the mass unemployment, the wars and
the religious upheaval. Henry VIII became the head of
the church as well as head of state, and killed Catholics
who would not accept him as the head of church.
Mary I, who was a Catholic, made being
a Protestant illegal.
Elizabeth I, who was a Protestant, made being
Catholic illegal once again. Nobody quite knew what
was going on, and it was very easy to get executed for
heresy if you didn't switch back and forth.
Treason was also more common in this
period as there were disputes over who
should be king, and some people wanted a
monarch with a different religion. You
could be hung, drawn and quartered to
deter others. Nobles were beheaded.
There were many changes to
crimes from this point onwards.
Fundamentally, crimes rose
when prices, taxes and
unemployment rose, and a
weaker government also meant
The urban population increased, meaning there were more street criminals.
Increased unemployment meant that begging became illegal. An increase in
trade lead to more highway robberies. The end of feudalism led to an increase in
poaching as landowners did not allow people to hunt on their lands. Changes in
religious beliefs meant there was more 'heresy'. Trade restrictions led to
The number of beggars increased due
to increased unemployment and
there was no system to help the
needy. They were seen as a threat to
society, were hated and feared, and
people didn't want to pay money to
The Vagabonds and Beggars Act of
1494 meant that beggars were put
into stocks and then were sent back
to where they were born.
In 1531, beggars were classed as either
'deserving' who were sick or injured and
allowed to beg, or 'sturdy' who were
considered lazy and were punished.
The Vagrancy Act of 1547
meant that beggars were
forced to work and could be
whipped or branded.
As treason and heresy became
much more common (Guy Fawkes,
etc) due to the religious changes,
people were punished with the
death penalty much more often.
Beggars faced stocks and whippings to
deter other beggars from continuing to
Local judges began to build houses of
correction in 1576, where beggars were
sent. Rewards were offered by wealthy
victims of crime who could catch the
criminals- the origin of the thieftaker.
The Stuart Period (1603 to 1714)
Background, History and the Law
The Stuarts began rule in 1603 with James I.
The whole period is defined by its religious strife
and the impacts of the English Civil War between
the Roundheads and the Cavaliers.
Witchcraft and its punishments also
begun in earnest in this period, as
expanded on down below.
There were many reasons why witchcraft became a crime,
such as the war, james I's attitude, the religious
uncertainty, the economic problems with unemployment
and wages decreasing, the changing attitudes towards the
poor, the social attitudes towards lonely old women who
constantly asked for help, and the misogyny at the time.
People wanted something to blame their bad luck on.
Witchcraft laws were abolished in 1736, though the general
public were slower to change. Witchcraft trials continued well
into the 18th century. The laws were abolished because there
was greater prosperity and political stability, less superstition
and there were scientific answers for things thought to be
caused by witchcraft.
Witchcraft became a crime against authority in 1542 under
Henry VIII (but it had been a crime since Medieval times), but
the major witchhunts didn't occur until 1604, advocated by
James I. He had written Daemonlogie in 1597, and despite
his educated background, believed in witchcraft
From 1642-49, the English Civil War sparked
the worst phase of witchhunting. Just 40
years later in 1684, the last witch was hung
in England. In 1736, witchcraft laws were
Witches were often
hung or executed.
In 1688, the Bloody Code began, which meant between 1688
and 1823 the number of crimes punishable by death rose
from 50 to 200. This was intended to deter people, but
instead the juries did not want to sentence thieves to death
and so the amount of executions dropped.
During the Civil War, the Witchfinder General, Matthew
Hopkins, accused 36 women of witchcraft and had 19 hanged.
He often tortured the women to make them confess. He
earned money for each witch he executed.
People convicting women of witchcraft would use several techniques to
determine if they were witches, such as unusual marks where their
familiars fed, not bleeding if they were pricked with a needle, if they
floated in water, witness accounts, 'possessed' children, other witches,
Watchmen, or Charlies, were paid to patrol London. Unpaid
parish officials called constables arrested beggars and petty
criminals. Minor cases were heard locally by one or two
Justices of the Peace. More serious crimes were dealt with
with a group of Justices of the Peace and a jury. The most
serious crimes went to the royal judges, who were the only
ones able to pass a death sentence.
Industrial Revolution and Late Modern Period (1714 to 1900)
Background, History and the Law
The move from agriculture to industry and from countryside to town dramatically
increased in the 1750s. Crime increased too, mostly petty theft, street theft, burglary,
drunkenness, prostitution, rioting and smuggling. This was due to workers being
replaced by machines, meaning more unemployment, and industrialization which
made owners very rich and workers very poor. Larger towns meant that it was easier
to hide, and there were tensions between the poor and rich.
In this period, cheaper newspapers were
developed and were very popular. Cases of
violent crime were publicized, which made
people aware and afraid of crime.
Following the French Revolution of 1789, the
government was scared that the people would
rebel against them. Many people wanted the right
to vote and strike, and the government was harsh
towards the protestors, but agreed to some
reforms by the mid 19th century.
Violent crimes decreased overall, but media
coverage presented a different story. Jack the
Ripper in particular was reported, alongside
'garrotters' who used chloroform or strangulation
to rob people.
Protestors wanted the right to vote and met at St Peter's Fields,
Manchester. The government sent soldiers to arrest the leaders, but
behaved violently resulting in deaths and injuries in what was
referred to as the Peterloo Massacre.
Another example is the Tolpuddle Martyrs,
who were transported to Australia for
swearing secret oaths and forming a trade
union to stop wage cuts. In 1836, public
protest brought them back
Smuggling increased in this period due to the high
taxes on some items. Smugglers would sell the items
cheaply after bringing them illegally across the border,
which made them almost like heroes in the public's
eyes, as they thought the government was being
The Hawkhurst Gang was a group of smugglers
who brought tea, rum and coffee across from
France using horses and tunnels. They had 500
horses used to bring goods across England. The
leader, Arthur Gray, was punished by being
executed for the murder of Thomas Carswell in
1748. The government could not do much prior to
that as their officers were killed went sent to get
the goods back to Customs.
The government tried to stop smuggling by using
mounted customs officers in 1690 and a
Waterguard in 1700. The taxes stayed high until
1850, and then large scale smuggling decreased. It
was particularly a problem during the war on
France,from 1792 to 1815, when taxes were raised
to increase the government's income and
smuggling reduced the profits. While people did
not like the high prices of goods, the smuggling
gangs were dangerous and violent and so were
In 1615, transportation to America begun for criminals. In 1776,
transportation stopped going to America. In 1787, transportation to
Australia begun. Prisons were built from 1842, and transportation
was stopped in 1868.
People felt that execution was too harsh a punishments, so much
so that juries were more willing to let criminals walk free than
sentence them to death. Transportation was increasingly used, as
it was a good deterrent, juries were willing to sentence people, it
reduced the population of criminals and they could be sent to
work in American plantations or Australian infrastructure.
Transportation ended because Australia no longer
needed forced labourers, some felt that it was too
expensive or not a good deterrent or too harsh,
and prisons were being built for the criminals
Prisons were developed by John Howard and Elizabeth Fry. John Howard's work led to the
1774 Gaol Act, which suggested how conditions could be improved. Elizabeth Fry visited
women in Newgate prison in 1813, and set up education classes, got them better food and
treated prisoners with kindness and respect. Robert Peel's 1823 Gaols Act paid gaolers,
provided education to prisoners and provided prison inspections. In the 1830s, the prisoners
were kept in seperate cells and given more work. The Seperate and Silent system was
introduced, with either Useful or Pointless work.
Jonathan Wild was the Thieftaker General in 1716. He commanded London's gangs to
steal objects from buildings, and then offered to 'find' the objects for the victims for
some money. He was seen as a respectable noble until 1725, where he was hanged for
receiving stolen property.There was a surge in robberies after his death, and a great
public distrust and anger.
Watchmen patrolled cities on foot
at night and parish constables
dealt with petty crime. Soldiers
were used to put down riots.
In 1749, the Bow Street Runners, set up by
Henry and John Fielding, caught criminals in
London. They were paid by the magistrates.
They also set up the Bow Street Horse Patrols,
but the crime rate in London was dramatically
increasing and there wasn't enough patrols.
Robert Peel, as Home Secretary, set up the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829. This introduced the
first police force. In 1842, a detective department was set up, in an attempt to not just stop
crimes, but solve existing ones. In 1856, every county and borough was required by law to have a
police force. The recruits were carefully selected and it was full time and well paid. They had a
uniform that made them look different from the army. They were unpopular at first, but
eventually the public realized that it was a force for good and most were honest and reliable, and
they reduced street crime by patrolling areas known for their high crime rates.
The 20th and 21st Centuries (1900 onwards)
Background, History and the Law
In the 20th century, Britain developed into a more tolerant
nation with an increase in multiculturalism. We were more
prosperous, equal and fast-moving than ever before. These
factors have had a impact on crimes, such as technology and
ways of enforcing the law.
New laws are partly due to government decisions because of modern
problems, and partly due to public pressure. New laws mean new
crimes. Many crimes that seem to be new, such as terrorism or car
theft, are not really new- Guy Fawkes and stealing horses at
gun/knifepoint, etc. There are some new crimes out there, such as
sex and race discrimination, as they were not crimes in the past.
Terrorism is seemingly increasingly becoming a problem in
the world today- for example, in the 7/7/15 bombings, four
suicide bombers killed 52 and injured 770 people. In
reality, the sheer amount of media coverage makes it
seem like the world is becoming more unsafe by the day,
when the reverse is true. Social crimes, like tax evasion or
smuggling, are not always treated seriously.
The common crimes were and are driving offences or car theft, vandalism, assault, petty
theft and antisocial behaviour. The crime rate increased from 1900 to 1992, though that
can be attributed to more actions being classified as crimes, more victims of crimes
reporting them, and more ways of recording crimes. The crime rate has declined since
Conscientious objectors were criminals as conscription was a law during
both World Wars. Authority's treatment towards them changed, but the
general public thought they were traitors or cowards, and were attacked
and fired. Nowadays, people would be much less happy about being
forced to go to war and likely the majority of the public would refuse.
The World War I, about 16,000 men refused to fight. Only 400
were given total exemption. Those who were sent to prison
were treated very harshly. In World War II, over 59,000 men and
women refused to join in. All but 12,000 were given partial or
full exemption. Those who were sent to prison were treated
better than before.
There were the Alternativists, who didn't want to do combat roles
but would drive ambulances or do factory work, and Absolutists,
who refused to do any work that went towards the war. All of the
Absolutists were imprisoned in World War I, while most were not
imprisoned in World War II.
Capital punishment was completely abolished in 1999, and last used in 1964, as ideas about punishment changed and
controversial cases were reported on by the media. For example, Timothy Evans was hung in 1950 for killing his wife
and baby- but then evidence showed that he didn't do it. Derek Bentley was hung in 1953 for murder, even though he
didn't fire the gun and had learning disabilities, and Ruth Ellis was hung in 1955 for killing her boyfriend who had
abused her for years.
Different prisons have been introduced for different types of prisoners- e.g. high security. Since 1907,
prisoners have been released on probation, and are put in prison if they reoffend. In 1948, hard labour and
corporeal punishments were abolished. Seperate prisons for young people were established in the early
1900s, called borstals. Nowadays we have Young Offenders Institutions with high reoffending rates.
There are new punishments, such as community sentences,
treatment programmes, ASBOs and electronic tagging. Prisons
today attempt to reform and rehabilitate prisoners through
education- but the general public are not always in favour of
'holiday camp' prisons, where there isn't that much punishment
for their crimes.
Technology had deeply impacted how the police operate. Radios allow better
communication across large distances. DNA evidence is unbiased and helps solves
crimes. CCTV allows police to piece together what happened and where the
criminal/victims went. Computers allow the police to make databases. Cars, motorbikes
and helicopters let police reach the scene of the crime much faster.
Some of the changes are good, and some bad. While cars mean that police
can reach crime scenes faster, them not being on the streets means no
deterrent. The police officers are now armed and look like soldiers. The
force now includes women and ethnic groups. Neighbourhood Watches
allow people to detect and prevent crime, advised by police.
The Criminal Investigations Department uses detectives and forensic science.
The National Crime Agency detects and prevents largescale organized crime.
The Economic Crime Unit investigates fraud. The Police Central e-crime Unit
tackles cybercrime. The Special Branch prevents terrorism. The Traffic
department deal with road use and accidents.