Crime and Punishment


Tracking the history of crime and punishment in Cambridge over the centuries shows changes in the crimes committed, how the authorities deal with crime, and attitudes towards offenders. We know very little about Anglo-Saxon Cambridge, but there is archaeological evidence of an execution cemetery at Chesterton Lane Corner, dating from the seventh to ninth centuries. Excavation of burials has revealed the skeletons of individuals executed either through beheading from behind, or by hanging. When the Castle was built in 1068 this was used as a prison and for the execution of offenders.

In the later Middle Ages the University was established, leading to tensions between clerks (scholars or churchmen) and the other inhabitants of the town. Our records are full of accounts of clerks causing trouble, either fighting amongst themselves, or against townsmen. In 1261–4 a group of clerks planned to burgle the house of a Cambridge wine merchant at Hauxton. They were betrayed by fellow clerks, and were caught in the act by the sheriff, who carried their decapitated heads back to the Castle. This tension between town and gown came to a head in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when there was an attack on University property, and the rebels burned University documents in the market place.

Whilst execution continued as a punishment for the most serious crimes in Tudor England, we also see a number of different punishments for lesser crimes. An individual accused of stealing could be whipped at the town whipping post, and branding offenders with hot irons was commonplace. There was a huge concern with witchcraft. A ducking stool would be used to decide if a woman was a witch. The woman would be dunked in the river, and if she floated she was a witch (and would be burned). If she didn’t float she was innocent but would drown anyway. This preoccupation continued well into the seventeenth century and the period of the Stuarts. In Cambridge the Town Gaol was separated into two parts: one to imprison witches, the other to house other criminals. The authorities thought it was necessary to protect the other prisoners from the witches.

In the Victorian period there was a greater leniency towards vagrants and beggars. A society was established in Cambridge 1847 to offer food and accommodation for travellers searching for work, and in the 1870s this operation was expanded to provide for others struggling in poverty. There was also a greater focus on the giving of alms: on the birth of the Prince of Wales in 1841, at a town meeting ‘The Prince of Wales’s Fund’ was established for the purchase of blankets, bread and coals for the poor, and to provide dinners for the Debtors in the Town Gaol. 

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Middle Ages

We don’t have much evidence for Cambridge in the Anglo-Saxon period, but we do know that there was an execution cemetery at Chesterton Lane Corner from the seventh-ninth centuries. The archaeological evidence points to individuals being executed through beheading from behind, probably with a sword, and some being hung. These were primarily young men.[1]

With the coming of clerks due to the University being established you have the start of a rivalry between the clerks and laymen. In the early years our sources are mostly concerned with the crimes of individual clerks, creating trouble with private vendettas both against other clerks and townsmen.

The rolls of the Eyre of 1272 record a story going back to 1261-4 of a group of clerks planning to burgle the house of a Cambridge wine merchant at Hauxton. They are betrayed by four of their fellow clerks, and the sheriff catches them in the act and carries their decapitated heads back to Cambridge Castle.[2]

We see tensions between Town and Gown in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, a national revolt which spread to Cambridge. College and University property was plundered and destroyed. On Sunday morning the rebels interrupted mass at St Mary’s Church and broke open the University Chest kept there, burning the documents inside (documents which outlined the rights and privileges of the University). The Mayor and bailiffs then forced the masters and scholars of the University to sign new deeds, renouncing the privileges of the University. All other charters of privileges were burned in the market place.[3]


Tudor England

Execution for the most serious crimes: political/religious criminals were beheaded. This was seen as a higher status form of execution because it was quicker and less painful, and so it was normally noblemen who were executed like this.

Hanging – normally for stealing, treason, rebellion, riot, or murder.

Burning – women found guilty of treason were normally burned at the stake.

Lesser punishments:
Whipping – usually towns had a whipping post. Normally whipped for stealing.

Branding with hot irons: a murderer would be branded with the letter M, a vagrant with the letter V, and thieves with the letter T.

Stocks – holes to put feet and arms, and people would through rubbish and rotten eggs at people in the stocks.

The ducking stool – to decide if a woman was a witch they would be dunked in the river. If they floated they would be considered a witch, if they sank they died anyway.

The Brank – a metal cage that was put on the head of the offender, there was a metal strip that fit into the mouth, and was either sharpened or covered in spikes, so that movement of the tongue would cause injuries to the mouth. It was used to punish women who gossiped or spoke too freely.

Some thieves would have their limbs cut off.

Victorian England

Crime was actually in decline, but you wouldn’t know it from the sources from the period, because newspapers tended to sensationalise e.g. focusing on the murders of Jack the Ripper.

Most offenders were young males, and most offences were petty theft. Crimes committed by women were normally linked to prostitution, or drunkenness, or vagrancy.

Capital punishment was only used for murderers and traitors, and transportation had reached a peak in the 1830s and had more or less ended by the 1850s.

There was a focus on the problem as a moral issue and consequently different punishments were attempted. It was thought that leaving offenders in periods of isolation might work – leaving the offenders in isolation, with a bible, having to work, and occasionally being visited by a chaplain, would encourage them to change their ways.

By the end of the century there was a shift to a more liberal policy.

Post Napoleonic Wars there was an increase in beggars because you had rising food prices and lack of employment. Cambridge had a serious problem, and in 1819 there was a meeting to establish a Society for the Suppression of Mendicity.

The meeting decided that there were too many beggars and vagrants in Cambridge, and that, besides obtaining alms on false pretences, these people were often guilty of extorting money by threats, sneaking into College rooms and dwelling-houses, and bringing along diseases with them. The Society was supposed to further the execution of the laws made to stop this, and to discourage giving money to beggars.

The society was dissolved by 1838, but prior to that they would send beggars to Hobson’s Workhouse.

A new society was established (by the same name in 1847) but more focused on helping beggars – the object was to assist artisans or labourers journeying in search of work by supplying them with a meal and shelter for the night.

Mendicity House was opened in 1848 in order to receive needy travellers.

Reformed again in 1871 under the auspices of Henry Sidgwick, who decided that the work needed to be expanded – didn’t just want to help travellers, but also those who genuinely deserved alms.[4]

[1] Full disucssion of site and archaeological finds: C. Cessford, A. Dickens, N. Dodwell and A. Reynolds, ‘Middle Anglo-Saxon Justice: the Chesterton Lane Corner Execution Cemetery and Related Sequence, Cambridge’, Archaeological Journal 164 (2007).

[2] A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and Univeristy of Cambridge (London, 1959), pp. 2–15.

[3] A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and Univeristy of Cambridge (London, 1959), pp. 2–15.

[4] All of this information (from Napoleonic wars until the end of the notes) taken from: F. Keynes, By-Ways of Cambridge History (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 135–7.

Crime and Punishment


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