Thursday, 2 July 2020

English County Law & Order 17th -18th- early 19th centuries.

Before the introduction of Robert Peel's Peelers in the City of London 1829, many parts of the countryside in England and within the City of London and other notable cities were hives of lawlessness barring when a local Constable was keen on Law & Order. In modern terminology, if a Constable in the countryside rocked up on your doorstep he had good cause, and if you were a poacher, God help you when you went up before the Magistrates bench.   

In brief: 

County Court or Market Town - “Quarter Sessions”.

County and large Market towns boasted a Constable and several officers of the court. The Constable had the power of arrest, to charge immediate fines, impound goods or animals and impose restrictions, imprison offenders, investigate crimes such as poaching, rustling, rape etc, and then set offenders before the local Justice of the Peace (Magistrate) usually a local squire/lesser aristocrat (baron) at the Quarter Sessions held four times a year. A Constable often called on local county militia to assist in cases of smuggling, riots, and other where armed soldiers were required to keep the peace.

For centuries, Justice of the Peace also had local administrative responsibilities, upkeep of roads and bridges etc. Those appointed to the Courts Commission were usually substantial land owners whose social position and economic power meant their authority would not be questioned. Also as landowners, the JPs had the reputation of being particularly tough on poachers. Usually JPs’ study of the law was rudimentary. 'Stipendiary magistrates' were introduced in the mid-eighteenth century in London. They were legally qualified, either as barristers or solicitors.

County Court – Standard Assizes.

When it came to murder, highway robbery, and other more serious criminal acts outside of London, the offenders were kept in custody until the local “Assizes” were held within a “county town” and attended by “Circuit Court Judges”. CCJs were men trained in the law (lawyers), thus circuit court judges could preside over legal matters brought to court in any location. CCJs travelled from London or other large cities such as Bristol, second most important city port in the 17th -18th centuries. Sentences were often harsh, hanging, transportation to the colonies as bond slaves, etc.

In trial cases where lawyers were not present, judges also played a major role in conducting trials. They examined witnesses and the accused. Their summing up of the case often clearly stated their views on what the potential outcome should be. Sometimes judges would also place pressure on the jury, asking them how a verdict had been reached or asking them to reconsider it. A Jury consisted of 12 persons with no former criminal past.

County Court – Royal or Parliamentary Assizes.

In cases of Rebellion against the Crown (Treason & High Treason, County Assizes were unpleasant events: hanging, drawing, and quartering, and worse. Look up Judge Jeffreys and the Monmouth Rebellion. I cover that in my book s “Love & Rebellion” and “Lady of the Tower- Monmouth’s Legacy.”