Law and order was very harsh in Medieval England. Those in charge of law and order believed that people would only learn how to behave properly if they feared what would happen to them if they broke the law. Even the ‘smallest’ offences had serious punishments. The authorities feared the poor simply because there were many more poor than rich and any revolt could be potentially damaging – as the Peasants Revolt of 1381 proved.
By the time of Henry II, the system of law in England had been improved because Henry sent out his own judges from London to listen to cases throughout all England’s counties. Each accused person had to go through an ordeal. There were three ordeals:
Ordeal by fire. An accused person held a red hot iron bar and walked three paces. His hand was then bandaged and left for three days. If the wound was getting better after three days, you were innocent. If the wound had clearly not got any better, you were guilty. Ordeal by water. An accused person was tied up and thrown into water. If you floated you were guilty of the crime you were accused of. Ordeal by combat. This was used by noblemen who had been accused of something. They would fight in combat with their accuser. Whoever won was right. Whoever lost was usually dead at the end of the fight.
In 1215, the Pope decided that priests in England must not help with ordeals. As a result, ordeals were replaced by trials by juries. To start with, these were not popular with the people as they felt that their neighbours might have a grudge against them and use the opportunity of a trial to get their revenge. After 1275, a law was introduced which allowed people to be tortured if they refused to go to trial before a jury.
If you were found guilty of a crime you would expect to face a severe punishment. Thieves had their hands cut off. Women who committed murder were strangled and then burnt. People who illegally hunted in royal parks had their ears cut off and high treason was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered. There were very few prisons as they cost money and local communities were not prepared to pay for their upkeep. It was cheaper to execute someone for bad crimes or mutilate them and then let them go.
Most towns had a gibbet just outside of it. People were hung on these and their bodies left to rot over the weeks as a warning to others. However, such violent punishments clearly did not put off people. In 1202, the city of Lincoln had 114 murders, 89 violent robberies and 65 people were wounded in fights. Only 2 people were executed for these crimes and it can be concluded that many in Lincoln got away with their crime.