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Crime And Punishment In Elizabethan England

1164 words - 5 pages

"Every rascal is not a thief, but every thief is a rascal."--AristotleBesides the fear of death by the plague, there was nothing that threatened the people of Elizabethan England as much as crime. Crime was a very frequent happening especially in England's capital, London. Its citizens were victims of many different crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The punishments for these crimes are considered harsh by today's standards but because of the high crime rates, they were necessary.London's streets were bustling with excitement, but where the rich shopped and socialized there were always criminals ready to pounce. Most of the crimes were committed by unemployed poor people called 'rogues.' These people were concentrated in certain areas and were usually up to no good. Two very common types of thieves on the streets were pickpockets and cutpurses. Pickpockets slyly grabbed purses and watches from their victims; they, then, ran from the scene of the crime. Cutpurses carried knives and ran by women, slashing the straps on their purses and collecting whatever fell out.When a criminal was caught, he was brought before a judge to be tried. In Elizabethan England, judges had an immense amount of power. They could sentence the accused to death, torture or seclusion but if the accused criminal was a priest, the punishment would be lessened. In order to prove that he was a priest, the criminal would have to read a passage from the Bible in Latin because only clergy could read and write. If the criminal attempted to read the passage, it was called "pleading the benefit of the clergy." The verse most often read was the fifty-first Psalm which later became known as the 'neck verse' because reading it could save a man from hanging. By the 1800s, this "priest" loophole was eliminated because most people were literate.After the criminal was convicted, a punishment was given according to the severity of the crime committed. The worst punishments were saved for people who committed acts of treason because these usually involved a plot against the throne. The Tower of London was "an infamous high-security prison that was the site of unspeakable acts of torture on political criminals" (Stewart 79). The torture device most used at the Tower of London was the rack. The rack had a plank of wood on which the prisoner laid.Ropes were tied around the criminal's wrists and ankles and the ropes were then attached to cylinders which were rotated pulling the prisoner apart at the joints. This method of torture was used for extracting information from the prisoner.There were many other forms of punishments for wrongdoers. For less dangerous criminals, there were the pillories and stocks. Both were made of wood and restricted the captive from moving and forced them to remain in very uncomfortable positions. A pillory had three semi-circles cut into it for the head and arms of the criminal. It kept the criminal hunched over and sometimes red-coated constables would nail...

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