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The 17th century sense of justice is different than to contemporary minds. Power and status are more important in determining what is justice, even though officially everybody is equal before the law nobody expects it to be so. A noble might easily get away with rape, murder and of course wholesale corruption and fraud. In fact it may even be expected from a noble. If you want to see justice done you might have to use alternative means and informal channels.
Since 1189, English law has been described as a common law rather than a civil law system (i.e. there has been no major codification of the law, and judicial precedents are binding as opposed to persuasive). This may have been due to the Norman conquest of England, which introduced a number of legal concepts and institutions from Norman law into the English system. In the early centuries of English common law, the justices and judges were responsible for adapting the Writ system to meet everyday needs, applying a mixture of precedent and common sense to build up a body of internally consistent law, e.g. the Law Merchant began in the Pie-Powder Courts (a corruption of the French "pieds-poudrés" or "dusty feet", meaning ad hoc marketplace courts). As Parliament developed in strength legislation gradually overtook judicial law making so that judges are only able to innovate in certain very narrowly defined areas. Time before 1189 was defined in 1276 as being time immemorial.
In our time period the following laws were considered fundamental:
- Magna Carta between King John and his barons in 1215
- confirmation by King Henry III to Parliament in 1216, 1217, and 1225
- Confirmatio Cartarum (Confirmation of Charters) 1253
- a multitude of subsequent corroborating statutes, from King Edward I to King Henry IV
- the Petition of Right, a parliamentary declaration in 1628 of the liberties of the people, assented to by King Charles I
- more concessions made by King Charles I to his parliament
See main article Nightwatch
In the 17th century, the City of London began paying watchmen to guard the streets at night. In general, the night watchmen provided ineffectual protection for the public, as they were usually elderly gentlemen or other seemingly unemployable individuals, but for the next hundred or so years, they were the only public policing body in the capital.
On the outskirts of London a group of police officers called the Bow Street Runners, or "Robin Redbreasts" (on account of the red waistcoats they wore as a uniform), were far more successful against highway robbery.
As the central criminal court for the City of London and the County of Middlesex, the Old Bailey was the court where all trials took place for serious crimes which occurred in the London area north of the Thames. This includes all trials for felony (all crimes which were, or had been at one time, punishable by death), and some of the most serious misdemeanours. Specific offences were defined either by common or statute law. During this period, numerous statutes defined new offences (often as a result of the new types of property which came into use), and many more statutes were passed in order to specify more severe punishments for offences which already existed. Often differences between what appear to be similar offences are significant because one was punishable by death and the other was not.
With the exception of certain types of riot and assault, most of these offences were misdemeanors, and not punishable by death. Most trials for these offences therefore occurred at an inferior court, the Sessions of the Peace, and not at the Old Bailey. Only the most serious cases would have been tried at the Old Bailey.
Exceptions for the Peerage
Aristocrats arrested could be thrown in the Tower upon such offences. The King was able to provide pardon, which he would not do if it proved to be too unpopular. Peers were to be tried by their peers in the House of Lords. It was common to have bought witnesses and judges at the proceedings.
List of Crimes
Damage to Property
The crimes below are oft times of no concern to the nobility though common courtesy demanded that they would pay damages to any victims. If they did not do so, their reputation would be damaged. If the victims were of the gentry it might result in being shunned, a duel or a feud. If the victims were commoners this could result in tenants leaving and servants being more difficult to find.
- burning hayricks or stalks of corn
- killing or maiming domestic (farm) animals
- cutting down, destroying and removing trees, roots, or plants
- cutting down a riverbank
- destroying a fish pond
- cutting or defacing a piece of clothing while it was worn
- cutting and destroying silk in a loom, or damaging the tools used for silk weaving
- demolishing or attempting to demolish a house (when not part of a riot)
- breaking and entering a building (not a dwelling house) with intent to steal
- arson (malicious and wilful setting fire to a house or outhouses)
These crimes were often ignored by those of the gentry, corruption being a common thing and openly practised, though a case could be brought to justice in the House of Lords, especially if the Lord had political enemies who would make use of these offences to get rid of a rival.
Breaking the Peace
These offences could be cause for the King to throw a lord into the Tower. They could also cause members of the gentry to take the law into their own hands, hiring baboons to beat up the other person, challenging the other person to a duel etc. They were in effect rather common.
- Barratry - the act or practice of bringing repeated legal actions solely to harass
- Threatening Behaviour
- Petty Treason - any betrayal of a superior by a subordinate. Petty treason was essentially an aggravated form of murder. It consisted of:
- a wife killing her husband,
- a man (whether a priest or not) killing his prelate, or
- a servant killing his master or mistress.
Offences against the King
Sedition is the charge upon which many Whig politicians ended up in the Tower, it thought to eventually lead to High Treason.
- Religious Offences
- Seditious Libel
- Seditious Words
- Seducing from Allegiance
- Tax Offences
- High treason - a willful action which is wantonly disloyal to one's country. Participating in a war against one's country, attempting to overthrow its government, spying on its military, its diplomats, or its secret services for a hostile and foreign power, or attempting to kill the King.
Most of these cases were not brought to justice as they were devilishly difficult to prove and a woman's testimony not having much weight in the courts even if she's of the gentry, unless of course the perpetrator is common.
- Assault with Intent to Rape
- Assault with Sodomitical Intent
- Keeping a Brothel
- Rape - rape in this case includes seduction which ended in sex if the woman is not of age and had no permission of her father or guardian, making her consent irrelevant for it was not hers to give.
- Animal Theft
- Extortion and Blackmail
- Game Law Offences
- Petty Larceny
- Receiving Stolen Goods
- Simple Grand Larceny
- Theft from a Specified Place
Theft with Violence
- Highway Robbery
All Other Offences
- Perverting Justice
- Returning from Transportation