Crime is fast becoming one of our specialities and on Tuesday, Wel was running our 18th century crime & punishment trials at Colchester Castle in Essex. Some of you might be familiar with our medieval crime & punishment trials, which Wel has run innumerable times, portraying a medieval sheriff. In these 18th c trials, Wel plays a bewigged and bespectacled magistrate.
Crime, the law & some of the punishments had changed a lot since medieval times. During the 18th century, broadsheets (like the Sun newspaper of their day) had whipped people up into such a frenzy of fear about crime that the number of crimes which carried the death penalty dramatically increased. In reality, the crime rate actually fell during this period. In 1688 there were only 50 crimes that carried the death sentence (bad enough you might think!), yet by 1815, 225 crimes could be punished by death. Crimes such as arson, poaching, forgery, even cutting down trees could lead to execution. The name given to the English legal system at this time was ‘the bloody code’, because of the high number of crimes which could result in the death penalty.
We ran the trials in the Charles Gray room, which we had used many times before for other displays but it seemed to lend a wonderful presence to the proceedings. Behind Wel stood a stone fireplace dating to 1500 and a wonderful carved wooden mantelpiece dating to about 1600. We were also allowed to use a piece of furniture in the room for Wel to stand behind, which gave an air of authority. The room started to fill up quickly and very soon an audience of about 50 people filled the room. We were immensely pleased as a large audience always makes for a good atmosphere. The room filled with hush as Wel called for order in the court.
Various cases were brought before him, notorious highway robbers, body snatchers, anglers and thieves. Unlike a modern court, in the 18th century the defendant had to bring forward witnesses and character references and should be able to prove his innocence of the crime. Almost a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ scenario which is the opposite of the way that English courts work nowadays. The 18th century trials are always very exciting for Wel to run, as we never know what the audience will do in response to their accusations or what character references they will bring forward. Sometimes complete strangers in real life are brought forward as character references or as alibis for the defendant, who very willingly often testify to the defendants innocence and good character! In other cases a true son will say his mother is of bad character. I’m sure that this happened in the real cases too. The defendant in an 18th c trial did not yet have to swear on oath that what he was saying was the truth, unlike the witnesses he brought forward.
An 18th century jury would be made up of moneyed and land owning men, as this would preclude a large part of our audience, our jury was made up of men, women and children. As was the case at the time, our jury’s were generally speaking very lenient and death sentences were commuted to transportation instead (about 70% of cases). There were several things that a defendant could do to help themselves. A woman could ‘Plead her belly’, in other words state that she was pregnant. If this was proved to be true, she could not be hanged as the innocent life inside her would also die and the child would need a mother once it was born.
They could also plead ‘Benefit of clergy’. This was a hangover from medieval times, originally designed to protect the clergy but by the 18th century any first time offender could read the ‘neck verse’ which could save them from being hung. It involved reading Psalm 51 from the bible in Latin. The psalm starts: ‘Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam (“O God, have mercy upon me, according to thine heartfelt mercifulness”). Many people, even the non literate memorized the verse to use but if it was found that they were not clergy, they could be branded on the thumb with a “T” for theft, “F” for felon, or “M” for murder), so that they were unable to obtain this benefit again. In some cases, they were even made to read other parts of the bible to prove that they were not clergy and get round this loophole.
They might also appeal to the king for leniency in their case who could also commute their punishments.
At the end of the trials, the convicted were taken down to the castles original 18th c prison cells for their punishments and to obtain a small feeling of what it must have been like for the prisoners kept there.