17th Century Yorkshire: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Updated: Oct 29


In Yorkshire in the 17th Century, dealing with local crime and punishment was the responsibility of the constable or sheriff, a position filled from the landowners of the local community or their representative. Sworn in for the one-year period, the constable was responsible for dealing with local disputes, fighting and drunk and disorder. He was also responsible for collecting taxes on goods and often would have to go door to door to assess the rate of tax and collect it.


Constables at the time were ‘on call 24 hours a day and received no remuneration for their services; however, if a criminal had escaped or there was a murder the constable could be paid a shilling for his efforts. At the time, almost every office or service accepted bribes so sheriffs, and constables numbered among the officials willing to accept bribes in return for favours or leniency. Sometimes the constable could be more crooked than the suspects he was trying to arrest.


The local Justice of the Peace could not officiate on capital crimes, so perpetrators were sentenced to hang by the Assize Court judges which met once every three months. Hangings in the 17th Century were often short drop causing strangulation rather than a snapping of the neck and the victim would hang until suffocation occurred.



Halifax Yorkshire was well known for the gibbet an early form of guillotine, a beheading device. The perpetrator was placed on their front, hands tied with their head placed underneath a blade which dropped from a wooden structure. More can be read about this in the article: To Hell, Hull or Halifax. The gibbet could be used for the theft of any goods with a value of more than thirteen shillings. Most often than not this involved the theft of wool or cloth; however, often valuations could be raised or lowered for one reason or another.



In the 17th Century, there were fifty serious capital crimes punishable by death or torture. Religious crimes against the state were severely punished often with torture and disembowelment. One such torture involved placing rocks on the chest of the suspect until they confessed to the crime. If they did not confess then more rocks would be loaded until the chest was crushed.


Public embarrassment proved especially effective in the smaller villages and rural towns. Less serious crimes by non-capital punishments such as time in the stocks or pillory. A wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which offenders were exposed to public abuse. In most cases, the offender would be held in the stocks, on public display, for one full day per week for two to three weeks. In Puritan times, this was the usual punishment for drunkenness, swearing or failing to observe Godly ways. This punishment was often considered a form of entertainment and the offender would be pelted with rotten eggs, vegetables, slaughterhouse waste, dead rats and often the odd stone.


After the English Civil War rising inflation, taxation and famine created an environment where thievery and other crimes were carried out by the lower ends of society for survival. Any trespassing or stealing was often considered a felony and punishable by death. Larceny or theft was the most common form of crime throughout Yorkshire but often difficult to prove. Other correctional methods for these crimes were whipping, mutilations, branding or spending time in the cage. For the stubborn housewife or argumentative kitchen maid there was always the ducking pond.


Branding, an especially common disciplinary device, provided punishment for many offenders. The brand, located on a prominent part of the body, served to warn people of the crime committed by the person carrying the brandmark. It was hoped that this form of punishment would deter others from similar transgressions.


Constables and sheriffs often proved willing to investigate only certain classes of people, usually the lower class and vagrants. Offenders could be as young as eight years old, pregnant women, suspected witches or common beggars who had strayed too far from their own parish. The sympathies and judgment of the constable was an important factor and suspected perpetrators could be dealt with leniently or harshly depending on their class, gender or social disposition.





Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of two novels:

Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590.

"Was excellent reading . I intended to read it over the next week but once I started I could NOT put it down . Really enjoyed it !"

Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.

"A fictional, historical novel about a loving peasant family caught up in a 1642 shocking Civil War. Humour, romance, adventure and excitement are here to enjoy. A great story."

Dream of Courage- Coming Soon

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Peasant Sex and Mariage in 17th Century Yorkshire

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TALES FROM 16TH CENTURY YORKSHIRE

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