320 Justice and the State

Crime in England saw a sharp growth between the 1580s and 1640s; and the hand of justice lay heavy. But at the same time was forged a system of local and royal governance that was deeply participatory, was trusted by most and delivered social stability

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Michael McCormack’s paintings

Michael got to in touch with some of his work inspired by the history of England; there’s an example, the White Ship, below, and if you would like to see more please go to http://michaeljamesmccormack.com/ 



Ok, so last time everyone we talked about the stresses and strains on the late Elizabethan state, and hopefully added a bit of colour to the idea that the last decade or so of Elizabeth’s reign was a sort of golden age. Obviously, I am the kind of compliant person that hides my head in horror at the ever present marketing blurb of the ‘untold story’ or ‘mythbusting’ but if you can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em. So this week we continue the untold story of Elizabethan England and you and I are gonna bust those myths ladies and gentlemen bust those myths.

So to add to the pressures we talked about of war, death, riot and poverty, we must add crime, and also how successful or otherwise was the Elizabethan state in dealing with it. As I suggested last time, it appears that there was a crime wave between 1580 and 1630, with a dramatic fall from 1640. However, it’s worth thinking about population by the way, where the growth that started around 1550 seems to finally level off around 1630. Just saying, is all, just saying. I mean I know correlation doesn’t mean causation, as I learned from David Mitchel on Would I Lie to you, but here it just might play a role; certainly the increase in vagrancy gave Elizabethan worthies the feeling that all about them was a rising tide of anarchy, and the many headed monster of the poor. Some of this was reflected in a mania with True Crime in print and pamphlets just like today.

This is a period where the use and production of print was exploding; we must talk about literacy and culture some time, but as a headline rate David Cressy tried to measure literacy by the number of people who could sign their name; and concluded that by the end of the reign of Elizabeth the percentage of the total population able to sign their name would have been less than 30% of men and 10% of women. Given that the rate amongst gentle men and women would have been far higher this throws a bit of doubt on the amount of ordinary folks able to read these pamphlets. However you need to bear in mind that writing rates are different to reading rates, and anyway reading was not necessarily the private activity we nowadays imagine it to be now; back in the day, folks would gather in the inn and in the boozer and on the sabbath and the literate would read aloud or sing to their fellows. The plethora of ballads, libels, new boardsheets and pamphlets are an indication of the growth of a public space of shared news and comment. I am put in mind of that Tom Hanks film, quite recent at the time of writing, called News of the World. It’s a jolly good film if you’ve not seen it, so if you get the chance you should; anyway, Tom makes a few quid, or bucks should I say, by travelling round the country reading the news to a willing and eager audience. Similar things happened on a local level in Elizabethan England. So, hanks a lot Tom, and hello to Jason Isaacs.

Anyway why am I telling you are this in the wrong podcast episode? Well one of the pamphlets that went viral was called A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors by Thomas Harman. This was one of the earliest in a series of pamphlets that sought to expose criminals, and warn the public about the threat of itinerant men and women, to be on their guard; to make sure they didn’t become gulls as the target of thieves were called. It was a genre that attracted the same obsession as the True Crime podcast category – Rogue literature it was called. On the front of this particular pamphlet is a wood cut; on one side it shows a man called Nicholas Blunt, wearing smart, high status clothes. Now Harman’s intention is to give the honest reader, or gull, an introduction to the tricks of the trade and also to the cant of the dishonest, cant being the word the trickster used for their lingo. So here is he saying beware of the well dressed villain, trying to convince you through his clothes that he’s a decent chap fallen on hard times. In his smart clothes, Blunt is described as an Upright Man, a chief of the beggars. On the right of the wood cut our anti hero is decked out instead as a Counterfeit Crank, a beggar that feigned epilepsy to elicit alms – He presents a shocking spectacle dressed in rags, with mud and blood on his face. Apparently Ben Johnson the playright used such themes in the Alchemist and Volpone; I have never read a single line of either I am ashamed to say, partly because I have seen the suffering of my fellow school mates who did.

I’ll pop the woodcut on the website. There’s a good page on Wikipedia to boot. Bawdy Baskets were female vagabonds, doxies female companions of vagabonds; Rufflers were sturdy rogues who begged from the rich and stole from the poor, Priggers of Prancers were horse thieves. And so on. The point is that Elizabethan’s believed they were in the middle of a crime wave, and sensationalist literature didn’t help. Sensationalist literature rarely does I guess.  But alongside this there was a growing thirst for reporting from cased going through the courts – witch trials were widely reported, although comparatively rare in England; another rich vein was to publish the final last speeches of those condemned to die. There’s a religious as well as a moral aspect to the way murderers were perceived; they were anti Christian, as well as a threat to the stability of society.

The absolute number of crimes is horribly difficult to calculate. Edward Hext, a JP in 1590, claimed that less than 1 in 5 crimes actually reached court; while you may be jumping to conclusions that this is because England had such an unprofessional law enforcement system, and that’s true by modern standards, it’s probably that in Elizabeth society everything was much more local and discretionary, and more personal. So, the vast majority of criminal prosecutions depended on private initiative, in the absence of a police force. The expense of going to court was substantial, and so many would look to mediation to resolve the problem before the case came to court or very far through the process; and the system very much encouraged this.

In addition, there is an absolute mish mash of jurisdictions and courts; so gathering data from all the different sources is neigh on impossible; and you are left with using figures from courts where we do have evidence, and extrapolating or assuming they are typical. Our basic assumption I think is that Elizabethan England was a very violent place, and maybe contemporaries would have agreed. It is worth noting that the vast majority of indictments were for property crime – 80-90%. But homicide was also significant; and followed the profile we’ve spoken about of a rise in crime from 1580 to 1640 and then a long and permanent decline into the 18th century. But look, this is a podcast so I am honour bound to give you the best guesses I have seen. K J Kesselring puts the Elizabethan homicide rate at roughly 6 homicides per 100,000 people each year at their height in the 1580s; though the rate fell to 5 in 100,000 by the end of the reign[1]. I have seen higher estimates but probably less reputable of 10 in 100,000. These don’t sound like a golden age of stability.

But it depends a little bit on where you are standing and I might give you an idea of how it compares; because I reckon we’d all consider the Early Modern period to be a crime ridden one, although I’m never sure how people think about his; there was a report on stabbings in London recently, a nasty statistic, and the tenor of the response followed the ‘things were better in the past’ trope. So by comparison with many parts of Europe at the time, a rate of 5:100,000 looks pretty good despite the panic; rates in parts of Italy and France reached 40-60 killings per 100,000; rates in Stockholm for the 1590s were around 36, though I assume it’s hard to use an urban rate in comparison with a country wide one. For comparison with today; the 5 in 100,000 rate doesn’t look too awful either; after all it’s about the same rate as the US, thought European rates tend to be somewhat lower, and the UK currently 1.2: 100,000. But the super summary is that it’s easy to over emphasise the violence of the past.

One further point; although Elizabethan concerns with vagrancy sound ultra hysterical to the modern ear there was of course a connection between vagrancy and crime; the prevalence of property crime rather than murder suggests a population that was forced to move for work. People on the move, in a world which stressed the need to stay in the home parish, had to fend for themselves. There’s a fascinating study that looks at the location of crime, and finds a concentration on the roads around London and part of that at least seems to be people on their way to London to look for work. The nature of criminal prosecutions show that the profile of crime had changed by the end of the Tudor century, and had become heavily focused on the poor; and analysis of prosecutions in East Sussex show that 75% of those convicted were labourers. In Medieval England that had not been the case; offenders were often the village elite, who seemed to move in and out of crime as circumstances dictated, and you might remember those stories of noble criminals who actually made up the majority of organised crime. By 1600, organised crime was very rare outside London; and also that medieval tradition of aristocratic criminals had largely disappeared also – the end of what someone described as ‘fur collar crime’ which I have to say is a as fine a piece of copywriting as you could wish for. This association of crime with the labouring classes is part of a wider trend of social stratification, accentuated by the economic winners and losers thing – the richer got richer, the poor got poorer.

So, what we need to move on to talk about here, is how the English state responded to what was clearly a time of very considerable social stress, as shown last week by poverty and riot, and this week in crime. Now as it happens the very, very famous E P Thompson did once comment on the English state in the 18th century; Edward was a thorough going Marxist and brilliant historian who wrote one of those books everyone is required to read, the Making of the English Working Class. According to another thoroughly inspirational historian Steve Hindle, Edward declared that the English state was weak in its bureaucratic and nationalising functions, due to 3 key weaknesses of the 18th century English state[2]; firstly, they were reluctant to resort to ruthless repression in periods of public disorder which you might remember as an interesting point of comparison; secondly they were too attached to the liberties of their subjects and the rule of law; and finally they didn’t have an effective bureaucracy. We might consider if those three attributes are in fact not advantages; I am confident that it will turn out to be the case because that is the view of Steve Hindle, and Steve Hindle has a brain too large to carry on one neck so he has to keep his head in a motorised buggy. But I would like to give you my story of why these factors were in fact advantages, specifically with criminal justice.

Now, bearing in mind that you are already expert in the administration of morals and sex through the church courts which we did back in September 2019, I shall focus on secular justice. Now on that bureaucracy thing from our second favourite Marxist historian; it is very difficult to argue with Teddy Baby, and the word that comes to mind to describe Tudor justice is, um, well ramshackle. I’m going to read you a quote from a very grumpy observer who thought the Petty courts really ought to be more dignified than they were. You might or might not know that the Inn was a very important structure in most English towns; they were often the largest structure there and fulfilled a whole load of functions, and as the most substantial place available, the Petty session of the courts would often take them over. So you get this lovely image of the magistrate carrying out the solemn business of the delivery of state justice…in the middle of an inn among, according to the disgusted observer

The smoking of pipes, the cluttering of pots and the noise and ordure of a narrow room infecting with drinking and a throng

The ranter went on to rant a little more

The Magistrate should sit aloft and conspicuous upon the bench (as is becoming a place of judicature), and not be obliged (as may be seen sometimes) to hold a glass in one hand, whilst he signs a warrant with the other; though much more eminent was he, who to shew the steadiness of his hand, writ and signed a warrant upon the heaving belly of a boggy hostess

I do like that quote, and let me digress slightly my mentioning that one of the things it also demonstrates is just how closely integrated were the daily lives of the English and their drink; I’ve just done a shedcast on the topic of the English and their drink as it happens, and one of the features of the centuries is how in medieval and early modern times every time was drinking time; I dug out a nice quote from a Frenchman Jorevin de Rocheford, who visited England in the 1690s, and remarked wearily that

“No kind of business is transacted in England without the intervention of pots of beer”

They had the right idea back then.





Anyway where was I? Oh yes, ramshackle. Now look, far be it from me to suggest that this is the typical stage for all English justice – the Petty Sessions were after all the lowliest of all the royal courts, nothing like the dignity of the Royal benches at Westminster Hall. Although to be honest Westminster hall sounds only slightly less chaotic that Welford Road when the Tigers are playing the Saints on cup day; you’ve got the hall all cut up into the different courts, a bunch of blokes selling books and kit, evil looking folks drifting around outside with straw sticking out of their shoes to indicate that their testimony, any testimony, can be had for a very reasonable fee. But probably they weren’t all boozing. But the thing about the justice system was that at a local level it was in the main operated by unpaid magistrates, carrying out the job because they think they ought, a matter of their status and the duty attached to it, and anyway someone has to keep the unruly masses in check – these are the Justices of the Peace. I’ve gone on about it before, but the JP is part of the genius of the English system. The alternative might be paid officials, for posts that would probably have been sold, on the basis that the office holder would make a nice tidy profit out of it, which doesn’t lend itself to equitable and fair justice.  It might also become hereditary as it was in Scotland for example, making it impossible t remove them and therefore not a great way of enforcing competence.

Anyway, let’s take a step back to consider where the JP fitted in to the whole apparatus. At the centre in London we’ve got the various courts of royal justice – the equity courts of Chancery and Star chamber and the court of Requests; and the Common law courts, of common Pleas and the King’s bench. I am not going to warble on about those because I’m sure we’ve talked enough about the growth of royal justice before – what I’m really interested in here is how criminal justice was conducted in the bad lands, the provinces where of course our knuckles drag unavoidably on the floor and we can barely talk English anyway. But it’s worth noting that one of the important things about the development of central justice by this time is that the permanent institutions had allowed the development of expertise – of year books which kept a record of cases, on the inns of court where legal professionals were trained, in the law courts where judges developed their expertise.

Twice a year then, judges came out from the centre to hear important cases in both civil and Criminal cases, felonies by and large; the country was divided into 6 circuits, hence the phrase circuit judges. The court sessions of these circuit judges were called Assizes, and they  were by and large not ramshackle, and indeed were designed to be anything other than ramshackle. The Assizes were not just about law, they were basically the visits to the county town of the majesty of the state in all it’s frippery – trumpeters and spearmen provided by the sheriff, sermons to start off proceedings, robed judges – we are talking majesty, spectacle, ceremony to thoroughly overawe the bumpkins; in fact one clergyman in 1678 spoke of the ‘awful solemnities’ to overawe defendants of ‘low and common education’. Well if I was a defendant I would be tempted to tell them where they could stick their low and common education, but I don’t suppose that’s how Tudor England worked. The Assizes were an event, capital E capital…well V I suppose, everybody who was anyone was there, discussing business, making marriage alliances, spreading goss; often there were balls and concerts. It really was something of a hooley.  Now this was the opportunity for the centre to speak to the regions but more importantly, and this is a point I need you to understand, even if I need to hold your head in the loo and pull the chain a couple of times to make sure it’s gone in, it was also a chance for the region to speak to the centre. Here the JPs Book of Orders, their instruction manual if you like, might be communicated to JPs as part of their training; this might cover the latest legislation, or changes in the way law was to be administered; it might be about the way militia were to be raised and trained – seriously, dealing with criminals was just one part of this. On the other side, JPs would feed back to assize judges how the county was responding to legislation, the state of law and order, the attitudes that were driving local opinion. They might respond to specific queries the assize judges had tasked them to investigate.

There were two more types of court. Every 3 months, the Justices of the Peace, the magistrates, were required to hold quarter sessions of the court; the crimes they covered were much less important that the Assizes, usually petty offences. Once again, these sessions were not just courts; they were also occasions to carry out the business of local government and to take the temperature of the region. General issues about order and disorder were put to Grand Juries, juries of Presentment you might say, people of the county or indeed hundred who fed back on things like law and order, progress of the poor law implementation, feedback from Parish constables and church wardens, the progress of and need for road repairs – all sorts.

Still there was too much business to get done even with quarter sessions, and so was born the Petty sessions, which started to grow in Elizabeth’s reign, monthly courts run by the JPs for smaller cases. This this kind of court that might meet in the local inn, and be the object of our ranter’s disapproval for their basic informality.

There are a mess of other courts – manorial courts, courts leet, borough courts, franchise courts but seriously I am not going to over gild the lily; many of these, especially manorial courts were losing their authority and remit. So lets return to the efficient bureaucracy thing; the vast majority of people involved in this system – Justice of the Peace, Parish Constable, Churchwarden, Overseer of the Poor were unpaid. The state required them to do this according to their status – but more importantly the Parish required them to fulfil these roles. Behind the Churchwarden, Overseer, Constable lay the vestries of various types, the voice of the parish; as its own commonwealth, the most important aspect of the state to most people most of the time. The link between the parish and the county to the state beyond was the JP, and it’s hard to emphasise just how wide their role was all the aspects of justice, but the cost of apprenticeships, vagrancy, dealing riot and affray, seizing people spreading false rumours; their book of orders included action to be taken in case of plague; regulatory matters like seizing illegally made candles, supervising the sale of corn in times of dearth. I could go on – it is on the backs of these upper members of the gentry or lower orders of the nobility in the knights of the shire that the English government rested.

And it worked; despite its unprofessional aspect it worked because like most of the other aspects of local governance, it was participatory, and people had faith in the system; again that might seem strange to us given the potential for corruption and the opportunity for the great and the good to influence stuff. But the Sheriff, the old face of the royal administration in the provinces had largely been discredited, with many of them in the pocket of the magnates in a way that the wider range of JPs could not quite be. It was participatory also to quite a significant degree; so, in addition to Jobs, Constables and overseers, there were other tiers too – beadles, sextons, clerks nightwatchmen and surveyors of the highway. Even excluding these lesser roles, given that e=there were 10,000 parishes in England, and lets say 5 main office holders in each, about 50,000 every year would have been involved in local government. In addition, many of these offices were elected for a year – so the involvement went even deeper; in theory, over a 5 year period, about half the population would have had some hand in local government. Ordinary people played an important role in governing their own societies, and the situation was similar in boroughs. A Venetian visitor in 1557 remarked of the boroughs that they were

Like other kingdoms and Christian provinces governed by civil and imperial laws, but by municipalities, almost like a republic

In summary, England was a monarchy filled with little commonwealths and quasi republics.

The justice system meanwhile was popular; the Tudors loved their litigation. The records of the King’s Bench and the courts of Common Pleas show 13,300 cases at an advanced stage in 1580, rising to 29,162 by 1640, and this trend was also reflected regionally, and in church justice. Whatever the situation with the frequency of crime, litigation would hardly grow to such an extent in a system which nobody trusted.

There is a question then about who participated, which is where the story becomes a little less positive, because the Tudor era sees the start of the greater stratification of society. Or maybe that’s the wrong way of putting it because you couldn’t get much more stratified than Medieval England; and indeed with serfdom most people had possessed far fewer rights and access to law that Tudor England. But serfdom and landholding peasantry carried mutual obligation with it, and rights in common; when a large percentage of the population became wage labourers, 20-30% of them, it was quite hard for those members of society to take up active roles in the vestry or parish. Some very clever historian advised that in looking at any historical situation we should always ask ‘who paid the price?’ observations like this are the reason I never tried to become a professional historian, because I am simply incapable of such insights, I stand in awe of such incisive questions; and it is a relevant question here; because there becomes is a greater separation between those with some landed status, and those without, so it is probably those without who pay the price for all this participation. It is a trend that will grow into the 17th and 18th centuries.

Despite this, it’s clear that the justice system included people from a range of backgrounds. Litigants for example even in the central courts of star chamber were commonly yeomen, husbandmen and traders – 40% of them in fact. At the assise and Quarter sessions, an analysis of the courts of Sussex by Cynthia Herrup showed that the Grand Juries, the juries of Presentment, were dominated by gentlemen and substantial yeomen, but the role of Petty Juries in the courts themselves were mainly yeomen and husbandmen. The Constables meanwhile were ‘drawn from the more prosperous and more prominent section of village society’. Herrup looked at the kinds of submissions made by Grand Juries; and concluded that they took no prisoners as it were, they felt perfectly capable of saying it as it was; or as Herrup puts it

‘If judged by their decisions, grand jurymen were neither capricious, timid, nor overly concerned with the opinions of the social or legal establishment’[3]

Another characteristic of the justice system was in the large amount of flexibility and discretion embedded within it. Now hang on just a god darned minute Crowther, I can hear you say – discretion was exactly what we need to remove from a justice system isn’t it, justice must be uniform to be reliable; and I guess I’d be forced to agree, and at the central level that is what is progressively happening as training and education improves and standardisation increases – one set of rules for all. And legislation was of course common. However, we are still in a world where a few factors are important; one is that local custom remains very strong; another is that legislation from the centre is often draconian; we have not yet got to the extent of the Bloody Code in the 18th century, but punishments were still very harsh – you could be executed for Grand Larceny, and the definition of Grand larceny was theft of goods worth more than 12d. If rigorously applied, the justice system would turn into a blood bath. And so it was applied with local discretion.

Discretion applied throughout the system. So Magistrates for example, could demonstrate a love of exemplary justice – justice seen to be done in no uncertain terms, to demonstrate the danger of moving from the straight and narrow, an ‘elaboration of the theatrical element of public execution’. To discourage les autres, as a deterrent. And in times of stress conviction rates grew; reaching 64% in the 1590s. So it’s been rightly argued and I think I have made the point in the poor laws that discretion can also mean arbitrary. However, the scope for discretion existed at all levels; litigants could forbear from bringing cases; village Constables and Churchwardens in particular held a critical role in mediating between the concept of order and justice as held at the centre; the concept of custom and what was fair in the parish. So, Keith Wrightson gives an example of a pair of watchmen interrupting some noisy drinkers and allowing themselves to be sent on their way rather than leading to prosecution – the point being that application of the law needed to be proportionate and acceptable in the eyes of local custom. This kind of latitude made sure that central regulation and local customary enjoyed a precarious co-existence, rather than coming into disruptive conflict. And we’ve already heard that maybe 4 out of 5 cases never reached court but were sorted out by informal mediation.



Now we all know as I have said that punishment in Early Modern England seems quite horrendous; quite apart from the whipping, the penalties of death for a wide range of petty offences. But here in particular lay a whole range of opportunities for Magistrates and Juries to exercise discretion. One widely used was the Partial verdict; so let’s say that the silverware half inched by the defendant was worth £1, if convicted, and he obviously was guilty let’s say, the defendant could hang for the price of a plate. But if the jury decided that the plate was actually worth 6d then well, the defendant could be duly convicted and whipped – then the severity of the punishment would meet the severity of the crime. That does cut both ways to be fair; Partial verdicts could also be used to make punishment more harsh – to command let’s say a branding rather than a whipping or whatever it might be. Another route out of trouble was the gift to English society of our Thomas Becket – benefit of the clergy, which meant greatly reduced or gentler punishment, if defendants were allowed to take the ‘neck verse’ as it was called, demonstrate they could read, even if they were clearly repeating something they’d learned by rote, and qualify as clergy, despite quite clearly not being in holy orders. Finally, even those convicted could, and often did, apply for pardons.

The key points here are that justice needed to show the possibility of mercy for it to be effective in a society where the potential for repression by a state with no police force and indeed no standing army was very low. Participation and trust in the system was a requirement. It is an irony of the English system, that as the legislation became more blood curdling – and it did, especially in the 18th century – conviction rates fell. In Elizabethan England, outside of the times of panic like parts of the 1590s, you had about a 1 in 4 chance of being convicted; in the reign of Queen Anne at the start of the 18th century, in the era of the bloody code, you had only a 1 in 10 chance of being convicted.

It has to be said that as for so many things, the system looks very much male oriented – juries and magistrates exclusively drawn from the ranks of men for example, and justice has been seen as part of a story of oppression of women. However, historians more recently have rather moderated that view. Women in particular were much more rarely on the other end of conviction; by and large the areas where women are convicted are for cases of Infanticide, witchcraft and lesser offences like scolding. Scolding seems particularly hideous again to modern ears but it was very rare that a conviction would follow and hideous apparatus like the scold’s bridle very rarely used. Witchcraft conviction were low in England, particularly outside periods of panic. Women were also involved though court sessions – as witnesses, or used to identify the witch’s mark, or women of good reputation used to account for character. There’s plenty of evidence that women used the court system to pursue their own ends.

It is probably worth also saying though that there were inefficiencies in the system; so if you are looking at the Elizabethan system in terms of its effectiveness in making sure criminals were brought to brook there were many gaps. Simple things like apprehension of wrong doers – people just didn’t turn up at Wiltshire at one court; of 117 called, only 67 came. In Cheshire, the whereabouts of 20% of those convicted was unknown. Overlapping jurisdictions gave offenders ample opportunity to give justice the slip.

We should return then to Edward Thomson’s 3 weaknesses of the British state; its reluctance to resort to ruthless repression in periods of public disorder; that they were too attached to the liberties of their subjects and the rule of law; and they lacked an effective bureaucracy. It is worth noting that the 1590s to 1630’s were without doubt a period when the hand of justice was heavy; it’s not until later in the 17th century when it could be remarked that these are in fact not weaknesses, but as Steve Hindle puts it ‘luxuries afforded to a regime confident of its judicial supremacy’. The elites of Elizabethan England were convinced they stood on the edge of chaos, and exercised justice accordingly. But the period saw the establishment of a system that ensured great social stability, because it was participatory, and because it was trusted, from all ends; it’s notable that Justices paid at least lip service that the law should be not just a way of maintaining social order for the benefit of the rich, but also a ‘readie defence to the poore’.

To answer a more general question, we might return to that question of how Elizabethan England managed to negotiate a period of warfare, harvest failure and rising crime, and yet avoid the rebellion of the early and mid 16th century. Last time, I pointed to the influence of the poor laws. This week, I ask you to consider that the answer also has something to do with authority. Hindle again points out that we are used to evaluating or understanding states and political systems in terms of power; the success of the Elizabethan polity and beyond into Stuart England is that it is more readily understandable in terms of the authority; while power needs to be maintained by force, authority depends on a degree of reciprocity, the ‘acceptance by the governed of the legitimacy of their superiors’ rule’[4]. The structure of the Elizabethan state, specifically in the relationship between centre and parish delivered flexibility and reciprocity, and from that an acceptance of authority rather than the need t exercise repressive power.

That meant that it allowed the successful management of the potential tensions between central priorities and local culture; it managed to reconcile the demands of royal justice and the expectations of folk justice; between litigation and reconciliation, between exemplary punishment and mercy, institutionalised charity and casual charity. A large section of the population felt involved on a day to day basis in decisions and activities carried out locally and critical to local community life – but which were obviously national in orientation – rights of litigation both locally and at Westminster, the prosecution of criminals, service on juries, the exercise of parish office. Critically, all these citizens not only had some element of control, commitment and involvement, but had a mechanism through the Assizes and Quarter sessions and the Grand Juries which sent information straight back to the centre; and they were wildly popular, people crowded in to be involved, leading to disaster such as the Petty Session where the presence of 200 people caused the floor to collapse.

Royal government and local government were two parts of the same system by the time Elizabeth’s reign came to an end and this involvement allowed the state to ride out a period of enormous social stress, and was a critical part of the formation of the English state. Maybe it also points to why that system would fail to manage with the reign of Charles I and collapse into civil war; because Charles utterly failed to understand the way it worked and the strength this partnership gave to his kingdom; when he said

Sovereign and subject are clean different things

Charlie thoroughly misunderstood his own people, and demonstrated his unfitness to rule; Sovereign and subject were part of a delicate integrated system, and subject operated royal power locally.

[1] Kesselring, K Rebellion and Disorder in Doran The Elizabethan World p375

[2] Hindle, S The State and Social Change in Early Modern England p144

[3] C Herrup ‘The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in 17th Century England’, (Cambridge 1987), p113

[4] Hindle, S The State and Social Change in Early Modern England p236

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