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Early Modern Web - British crime glossary
Category: History and Culture > Crime in early modern Britain
Date & country: 27/04/2012, UK
Words: 159

could be prosecuted in church courts; became, for a brief period during the *Interregnum, a *felony

appeal of felony
in cases of *homicide, the next of kin of the victim could appeal against an acquittal (overriding the usual rule of *double jeopardy) or *pardon

the process of bringing someone to answer formal charges in court

articles of misdemeanour/behaviour
a document, sometimes resembling a *petition and less formal than an *indictment or *presentment, in which an individual or group of individuals brought to a court a list of complaints against a disorderly, violent or dishonest neighbour or local official

a broad category of misdemeanours including physical attacks (with or without weapons) short of killing them, but also frightening a person with intimidating gestures and threats. There was a category of assault with intent to *rape, which (unlike rape itself) was also a misdemeanour

the most important courts held in most English counties, held twice a year and empowered to try *felonies and sentence convicts to death. Counties were grouped into circuits, and the Assizes were presided over by professional judges sent out from London to 'ride the circuits'. But see also *Great Sessions, *Old Bailey

freeing someone who had been arrested or imprisoned after they were bound over by recognizance to guarantee their appearance in court (and, sometimes, their good behaviour until then). See also *surety, *recognizance

a legal officer employed to execute writs, make arrests, distrain goods, etc

a *breach of the peace, which could be similar in form to *scolding

bawdy courts
a commonly used colloquial expression for *ecclesiastical courts

a salaried official in London *wards with a number of duties including supervision of the *night watch

the judge(s) presiding over a session of a court; magistrates at Quarter Sessions were also known as the 'county bench'

benefit of belly
convicted women could appeal for a *reprieve from execution on the grounds of pregnancy (they would be examined by a *jury of matrons). In theory, this was only a temporary reprieve until after the birth, but it seems likely that some women managed to escape execution permanently by this means. Should not be seen as comparable to *benefit of clergy

benefit of clergy
an extremely important escape route from execution, with medieval origins. Those convicted of *common law *felonies, on a first conviction, who passed a rudimentary reading test (usually reading from a verse in the Bible, commonly known as the *neck verse), would be branded on the thumb and then released. NB

marrying a second wife/husband while the first was still living (divorces permitting remarriage could only be granted by private Acts of Parliament); a *felony

binding over
see *bail, *recognizance

black act (or waltham black act)
a statute of 1723 that created over 50 *capital crimes, in response to fears of the 'Waltham Blacks', a gang of deer poachers in Hampshire who disguised themselves by 'blacking' their faces. Possibly the most notorious statute of the notorious *Bloody Code; repealed in the nineteenth century

bloody code
a term coined to describe the large numbers of *capital statutes introduced during the first half of the eighteenth century (and repealed in the first half of the nineteenth century)

a town with a number of special privileges giving it greater political autonomy than other towns; these varied depending on the terms of the borough's 'charter' but could include having its own *Justices of the Peace, *coroner and holding *Quarter Sessions, with jurisdiction over non-capital offences committed within the borough

breach of the peace
used to describe a wide range of offences, usually *misdemeanours, that disturbed the general good order of the realm, eg, *assault, *riot

see *house of correction

breaking and entering a dwelling at night (with intent to commit a felony)

burning at the stake
the punishment meted out to women convicted of *treason or *petty treason. It is believed that the executioner often strangled them before the fire was lit. (Abolished in 1790)

forms of secret slang used by some criminals, and the focus of much 'respectable' fascination

capital crime
a crime punishable by death

capital punishment
the death penalty

capital statute
a piece of legislation enacted in parliament that imposed the death penalty upon a named offence, in two main ways

certiorari, writ of
a legal process used to remove a case from one court to another (usually a lower jurisdiction to a higher)

church courts
see *ecclesiastical courts

a range of officials in law courts, including *prothonotaries and clerks of assize (at *Assizes) and clerks of the peace (at *Quarter Sessions), with responsibilities for recording court business, drawing up documents

Removing gold and silver from the edge of coins. The 'clippings' were then melted down and sold for their intrinsic value (classed as *treason)

manufacturing forged coins (classed as *treason)

commission of the peace
list of those empowered to act as *Justices of the Peace in a county

common law
the traditional body of law in England, dating from the middle ages and supplemented by legal decisions over the centuries. Not written down in any one place. Often contrasted with statute laws passed by Parliament.

accepting compensation for a *felony in return for agreeing not to prosecute the offender

consistory courts
see *ecclesiastical courts

an (unpaid) officer appointed from the ranks of local householders on a rotating basis; the constable served for a year at a time, to make arrests, conduct searches, among other duties. Additional temporary 'acting' constables might also be sworn in for specific occasions if there were fears of public disorder. See also *high/head constable, *petty/parish constable

a part-time legal official (of gentry status) who was empowered to hold post-mortem inquests (or inquisitions) to investigate the cause of sudden or suspicious deaths

court leet
a manorial court, to regulate behaviour and discipline infractions according to the laws of the manor

cucking stool
sometimes used for the punishment of scolds, by ducking or 'cucking' them in a pond or river

someone who stole from the person in a surreptitious manner, by literally cutting the ties of purses which were worn hanging from belts before pockets were commonplace

dark figure (modern term)
used by criminologists and historians to refer to the unknown quantity of unrecorded offences

see *slander

an instrument (animal or object) which caused the death of a person, and as such was forfeit to the crown

see *examination

unlawfully expelling a person from their own property (a *misdemeanour)

double jeopardy
the principle that a suspect could not be retried for a crime once a jury had given its verdict (but see also *appeal of felony)

ecclesiastical courts
courts with jurisdiction over spiritual and moral affairs, presided over by church officers. They were at their most active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in respect of church discipline, but continued to be used for litigation, particularly *defamation suits, well beyond that

formal interrogation of a witness or suspect by a JP or similar legal official (or a coroner in the case of homicides), shortly after the offence in question had taken place; the documents would be sent to the court to use at the trial. They were not regarded as formal legal documents and many courts destroyed them once the case was over

felonious killing
a criminal homicide without malice aforethought, another term for *manslaughter

a serious crime, which at some time in history was punishable by death. (*Petty larceny, however, was a non-capital felony)

a highway robber who operated on foot (the highwayman, often seen as being of higher social status, was always mounted)

fraudulently making or altering a written document, including wills, paper money, stamps and bonds; this was seen as an extremely serious offence and classed as a *felony

any kind of criminal deceit or misrepresentation

gaol delivery
clearing a gaol of prisoners by bringing them to trial; also used to describe a court which met to try those prisoners.

a customary (but increasingly controversial) practice by which the poor were permitted to collect corn left behind on the ground after harvesting

grand jury
a jury convened at the beginning of a court session to examine bills of indictment and decide whether there was sufficient evidence for them to be taken to trial. The grand jury was also a *jury of presentment

grand larceny
felonious theft of goods worth more than 1 shilling (12 pence). Many of the capital statutes that formed the Bloody Code during the eighteenth century involved redefining particular forms of simple grand larceny so as to exclude them from benefit of clergy, eg sheep stealing and cattle stealing (in 1741). See also *larceny, *petty larceny

great sessions
in certain regions of England (eg Cheshire) and most of Wales, this was the name given to the courts that were elsewhere known as *Assizes (informally, contemporaries frequently referred to them as Assizes).

habeas corpus

*parish officer with the same functions as a *petty constable

the principle that hearsay (secondhand reporting of events as opposed to what one has personally witnessed) was not admissable in court was beginning to emerge during the early modern period, although it was not strictly observed until well into the eighteenth century

high constable or head constable
a *constable appointed to supervise the *petty or parish constables in each hundred in a county, as well as to carry out similar law enforcement duties if required. They were also expected to bring *presentments of minor offences (including neglect of communal duties such as maintenance of highways), disorders and recusants to court sessions.

highway robbery
a *robbery that took place on or near the King's Highway

the unlawful killing of a person (by another person/persons)

house of correction
a particular type of prison, becoming increasingly common from the early seventeenth century, usually for offenders accused of minor offences - including petty pilfering, drunkenness and disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood, prostitution - that could be dealt with summarily by JPs. They were usually incarcerated for quite short periods and might also be whipped and/or put to hard labour. Also known as *Bridewell, from the name of the first institution of this type in London.

as *burglary, but committed during daylight hours

hue and cry
the traditional obligation of householders to pursue and apprehend anyone who had committed a felony

ships in the Thames used as prisons

a subdivision of a county (shire), an important unit of local government

ignoramus bill

until the Penitentiary Act of 1779, imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment after conviction; gaols (other than debtors' gaols) were primarily used to hold prisoners awaiting trial for no more than a few months; but see also *house of correction

formal accusation charging someone of a crime, taking the form of a written document containing brief, formulaic details of the accusation

the *murder of a new-born infant, by or with the consent of the parents

similar to a *deposition, but in the form of an accusation brought to a *Justice of the Peace by a third-party informant (frequently for a reward) rather than an official or the victim of a crime

someone who makes an accusation of an offence for profit (see also *thief-taker); suspects might also turn informer against partners in crime in return for lenient treatment

the period following the British Civil Wars between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660

a list of formal questions to be put to witnesses, used by some courts (such as *Star Chamber) when conducting investigations; *magistrates' and *coroners' pre-trial *examinations seem to have been less formally conducted

at the end of the eighteenth century, a radical reformer and supporter (often used pejoratively) of the French Revolution (not to be confused with *Jacobites)

supporter of the claim to the English throne of the exiled Stuart family after 1688 (not to be confused with *Jacobins)

jury of matrons
a panel of women convened to examine a female convict who had claimed *benefit of belly and to decide whether she was pregnant

jury of presentment
apart from their role in deciding whether bills of *indictment should go forward to trial, *grand juries were also responsible for making *presentments of offences - misdemeanours, breaches of the peace, neglect of communal obligations, absenteeism from church - of which they had personal knowledge (or which had been presented to them by high constables). Most courts also had other presenting juries, such as borough juries that presented such offences from within their own borough jurisdictions.

justice of the peace
Also known as a JP and a *magistrate. Usually substantial gentlemen (but see *trading justices), they heard criminal complaints brought to them by victims and constables, took *examinations and committed suspects to prison to await trial. They also acted as judges at Quarter Sessions

king's bench (or queen's bench)
a central court with a number of functions in criminal cases, including trying cases of high treason or of particular concern to the government; and as a court of appeal for cases originally begun in provincial courts

a *common law felony (and therefore eligible for *benefit of clergy), 'simple' theft without aggravating factors such as forced entry or violence. See also *petty larceny, *grand larceny.

last dying speech
speech given by a convict just before execution, usually declaring remorse for his or her crimes and warning others not to follow the same path. These were often published as pamphlets

latin in legal documents
many court documents were written in Latin (or partly so), mostly of a basic, formulaic nature (sometimes complicated by the use of abbreviations), until 1733 when legislation was passed requiring that all legal records should be in English

law french (or norman french)
French continued to be used in many legal documents in English law into the early modern period; it was however increasingly a debased and artificial form of the language. Some words and phrases are still in use today, eg, attorney, defendant

see *slander. A libel was also a formal document containing the charge against a defendant in litigation suits in some courts, including *ecclesiastical courts

longitudinal study (modern term)
a statistical study of long term historical trends, including levels of recorded crime (as well as wide range of other data, eg food prices)

another term for *Justice of the Peace

the malevolent activities of a witch against her or his neighbours, casting spells, curses, etc

a minor crime, not punishable by death; in contrast to *felony

a word coined in the late seventeenth century (a contraction of the Latin mobile vulgus, 'movable' or 'excited' crowd), to describe disorderly crowds and the lower classes more generally

to kill a person unlawfully, with malice aforethought

neck verse
a passage from the Bible (the 51st Psalm) that people were expected to read out in court in order to claim *benefit of clergy. Most 'passed'; it is often suggested that many illiterates simply memorised the passage in advance

night watch
local officials with particular responsibility for policing streets at night, becoming a permanent paid force in eighteenth-century London

a person who (regularly) stayed out late at night in bad company (especially suspected thieves and receivers)

norman french
see *Law French

old bailey
equivalent in London and Middlesex of the provincial *Assize courts, trying felonies, held 8 times a year