Pirate Executions in Early Modern London

In the East London neighborhood of Wapping behind the Town of Ramsgate Pub lies a replica of a noose and hanging scaffold. This commemorates Execution Dock, most famous as the spot where pirates were hung for their crimes in early modern London.  Execution Dock was a place of execution for over four hundred years: the last execution to take place there was 1830.  Execution Dock served as the site for all fatally condemned maritime criminals, but the cruelest treatment was reserved for those to be hung for piracy.

‘A Perspective View of the River Thames’, 1780 (Photo courtesy of National Maritime Museum, PAD1370)

During the early modern period, the vast majority of criminals who awaited a fatal punishment were jailed in Newgate (now the location of the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court) and carted to Tyburn for a public hanging (now the location of Marble Arch).  Pirates and other maritime criminals, however, were instead often housed at Marshalsea Prison and carted southeast to Wapping for a public execution at Execution Dock.  Traditionally in English history, people were often executed at the place in which their crime occurred.  This was especially true with highwaymen, but over time the majority of criminal executions happened locally at Tyburn after incarceration in Newgate.  Pirates and other maritime criminals, however, still received traditional execution treatment by being carted down to the banks of the Thames. The Admiralty used Execution Dock as the symbolic location of the sea in which pirates committed their crimes.   

The High Court of Admiralty carried out the processes of pirates’ executions.  Initially established in the fourteenth century for early maritime legalities such as trade and funding overseas expeditions, the Admiralty Court had complete jurisdiction over maritime crimes by the mid-seventeenth centuries.  Once a pirate was captured, he was taken prisoner and shipped back to London to await trial and condemnation. Known as hostis humanis generis (enemies of all mankind), a pirate was immediately considered to be guilty before facing his trial.

The process of pirates’ executions had similarities to those hung at Tyburn, but there were key differences that set them apart from other criminals. As pirates were carted through the streets of London, they were led by a silver oar to symbolize the strength and authority of the Admiralty so all of London could see where the condemned were headed.  Once at the scaffold, the condemned pirate was expected to give the traditional ‘last dying speech,’ in which he would confess and atone for his crimes and warn others away from falling into his wicked way of life.  Pirates, notorious for their rebellious behaviour, sometimes used their speech as an opportunity to admonish cruel superiors.  

When this ritual was completed, the pirate would be hung by the neck until dead. However, his punishment was not a quick death. Nooses reserved for pirates were shorter than usual, causing a shorter drop and thus death by strangulation rather than a broken neck. This ritual became known as the ‘Marshal’s Dance’ because of the way the body would thrash around due to asphyxiation.  Generally, after a person’s execution, they were cut down from the scaffold immediately, but this was not so for pirates. The bodies of condemned pirates continued to hang at Execution Dock for a total of three tides to serve as a warning.  The most extreme case of this was of Captain William Kidd, executed for murder and piracy on the high seas, whose body remained strung up in the gibbets for three years to serve as a warning to other pirates.

‘A Pirate Hanged at Execution Dock’, c. 1795 (Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, PAJ 0887)

Pirates were unperturbed by these gruesome warnings.  By the turn of the eighteenth century, pirates had grown so numerous that it became nearly impossible to transport captured pirates back to London because of the lack of an organized navy and the economic drain of transportation. After the British secured their Caribbean colonies from the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, which stipulated that the British would rid the seas of piracy, they decided to establish Admiralty Courts in Port Royal, Jamaica and colonial North America (Boston, Providence and Charleston). This allowed British legal jurisdiction to grab a firm foothold in their overseas colonies whilst regaining maritime order. It is no coincidence that Admiralty Courts were established in Jamaica right after the 1692 earthquake that nearly leveled the island. The complete rebuilding of Jamaica transformed the island from pirate haven to a ‘civil’ society.

The establishment of Admiralty Courts in North America had a large impact because for decades, local governors enjoyed amicable relationships with pirates until 1698. The Navigation Acts of 1660, which required all goods traded with British colonies in the Caribbean and North America to sail through England whilst barring North America from trading with other nations, encouraged smuggling and acts of piracy. Pirates would plunder ships, sell goods along the eastern seaboard and thus enjoy a bit of autonomy.  These happy privileges would end in 1698 when the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy was passed.  This Act created official legal definitions of piracy and allowed for them to be lawfully ‘examined, inquired of, tried, heard and determined, and adjudged in any place at sea, or upon the land, in any of his Majesty’s islands, plantations, colonies, dominions, forts, or factories.’  This law expanded the Admiralty’s jurisdiction to the Caribbean and North American colonies.  These new laws along with the establishment of overseas Admiralty Courts caused a rapid decline of piracy until it was virtually eradicated from the Atlantic World by 1730.

Rebecca Simon, PhD Researcher, King’s College London, Department of History

Rebecca is based at King’s College London, researching the link between pirate executions and British sovereignty in the early modern Atlantic world. Prior to coming to Kings she earned an MA at California State University Northridge where she researched perceptions of piracy through the novel Treasure Island.

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History of the Solicitors’ Training Contract

Section 1: Contextual Overview of the Development of the English Legal Profession

Before a full sketch of the history of the Training Contract can be drawn, it is necessary to provide a brief introduction to the development of the English legal profession as a whole.

From the mid-12th Century, there existed a Bench of learned men at Westminster who were an extension, and administrators, of the King’s justice and heard legal pleas. After a few decades, they decided to travel the realm and administer justice locally, and naturally their number grew.

The development of anything that could be called a ‘profession’ was exceedingly slow at this time because ancient principles such as a pleader having to appear and speak on his own behalf hindered anyone being able to speak for the pleader and therefore represent him. However, some representatives were permitted and a few select names began to appear regularly on the records of the King’s Bench.

At a very general level, in circa. 1250, there were two types of professional appearing, (1) a class of Serjeants at Law who presented the pleader’s case and responded to any argument that arose out of it, and (2) Attorneys who appeared on behalf of a claimant and spoke for him. The Serjeants’ workload became focused on appearing in court, whereas professional Attorneys handled the managerial, preparatory side of affairs.  These broad distinctions developed over the centuries into what we now know as Barristers and Solicitors.

The profession was taking shape and the 1275 Statute of Westminster imposed penalties on lawyers who were found to be deceitful, an early sign of regulation. It took time for the above distinctions to be clarified through practice and throughout the 1300s there were a group of students that learnt the ways of the court, although they were not attached to any man in particular but to the Court itself.

In the 1400s, we see the word Solicitor specifically used and there was much work in the most used Court (the Common Pleas) due to the proliferation of litigation and increase in types of action; therefore the profession grew. The role of Attorney still existed but the two roles overlapped significantly, although the role of Attorney was not officially abolished until 1873.

Attempts were made in the 1500s to regulate this new branch of professionals but few regulatory inroads were built. From 1590 to 1630 in particular, certain judges attempted to eliminate the profession as it was seen as less honourable and gentlemanly than the role of Barrister. Their attempts failed and, in the early 1600s, Solicitors were most certainly a distinct profession in their own right.

Around this time, men began to operate as Solicitors in partnership with each other and as their businesses grew it became customary for new entrants to the profession to work and learn under these Solicitors, as ‘Articled Clerks’. These were effectively contracts that bound the Clerk to their master for a certain length of time. Certainly, by the 1630-50s, it was a strong convention that these Articled Clerkships had to be undertaken, but, as of yet, there was no regulation or law on the issue. It is at this moment that we can pinpoint the early beginnings of what are now known as Training Contracts.

Section 2: Specific Development of the Solicitors’ Training Contract

Things slowly and ponderously developed, as they always seem to along the winding path of English Legal History. Until the Attorneys and Solicitors Act 1728, it was not required by law that there be a central record of practicing Solicitors, however some Courts did keep Books of Attorneys for their own purposes before this time.

A record of the Attornies practicing in the Court of Common Pleas (National Archives)

A record of the Attorneys practicing in the Court of Common Pleas. (National Archives)

The Act specified that after the 1st December 1730, no man could practice as a Solicitor unless his name was on the Roll, and significantly, no man could practice as a Solicitor unless he had undertaken an Articled Clerkship for at least a term of 5 years.

Further regulation came into place over the coming years, such as the Continuance of Laws Act 1748, which specified that Articled Clerks, on completion of their Articles, had to file a statement to this effect at the Court within 3 months. This time limit was later increased to 6 months.

By 1843, pressure led to the reduction of the Articled Clerkship to a term of 3 years if you graduated from a degree at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Durham or London – as you were of a higher calibre. The 1785 to 1867 Register of Articled Clerkships shows the vast majority of terms being 5 years, but they are occasionally higher at 6 or 7 years and some at 3 years. One example recorded was for a mere 10 months.

A record of the mandatory registration of Articles of Clerkship. (National Archives)

In 1785, 129 Articled Clerkships (in the busiest court, the Common Pleas) were registered which we can contrast against the 4,869 Training Contracts registered with the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority in 2011. Please see some specific examples of Articled Clerkships in Appendix 1 to this post.

The Articled Clerkship continued to develop and began to generate additional complexities, exceptions and methods to ensure the quality of training involved was up to the high standards of a noble profession. In the Solicitors Act of 1860, it was established that if you worked as a de facto Articled Clerk for 10 years, you could enter the profession fully if you completed 3 years of a formal Clerkship. I believe this is the origin of the term known within the profession as ‘ten-year man’.

Around the same time as the 1728 Act, a group of Solicitors set up the ‘Society of Gentlemen Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity’. This was the predecessor body of the Law Society, which was incorporated in 1826, and now deals with many aspects of regulating Solicitors. The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority, a subsidiary arm of the Law Society, now specifically deals with the regulation of Training Contracts. It was the early forms of these bodies that imposed high standards on Solicitors and led the profession to be seen on the same level as Barristers.

In 1877, further legislation made it a requirement that you had to pass exams set by the Law Society before being allowed admittance to the Profession, however exams had been carried out by the Law Society since 1836. By 1936; you were required to submit evidence of good character to the Law Society at least 6 weeks before starting your Articled Clerkship. As an interesting aside, the Solicitors (Articled Clerks) Act 1918 made provision for time spent serving in the war as counting towards the term of years of your Articles.

By the time we reach 1922, the starting point is that a 5 year Articled Clerkship is still required although terms of 3 or 4 years became more prevalent. At this stage, the Law Society required a mandatory academic year to be undertaken by Clerks, although many still solely qualified through Articles. The quality of training of an Articled Clerk was again emphasised in the Solicitors Act 1936 where it is specified that a Solicitor cannot take on a Clerk until they have practiced for at least 5 years themselves.

An Act of 1956 codifies for the first time a structure of what one must do to enter the profession of Solicitor. You must have (1) completed an Articled Clerkship (by this time commonly referred to as just ‘Articles’ or ‘Articles of Training’, (2) passed a course of Legal Education, and (3) passed the Law Society’s exams. Towards these ends, the 1965 Act grants the Law Society powers to create provisions regarding the education and training of those wanting to be Solicitors. The Training Regulations of 1970 specified that the longest time that could be served under Articles was 4 years, although if you were a law graduate, this was most commonly 2 years.

The currently in force 1974 Act allows for further Training Regulations to be created, in conjunction with the Secretary of State. The transition between the 1989 and 1990 edition of the Training Regulations changed the term ‘Articles of Training’ to that of ‘Training Contract’ in an attempt to use simpler and clearer language. The term of years in those regulations is set at 2 years. It has been called a Training Contract since 1990 and the very detailed Solicitors’ Regulation Authority Training Regulations 2011 are the provisions that currently govern it.

There is currently a consultation being conducted by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority named ‘Training for Tomorrow’ which may significantly change the rules and procedures relating to Training Contracts. This consultation finishes on the 28th of February 2014 and we can only wait and see where the Legal History of the Training Contract will develop next.

NB – Information in the below Appendices can be used but only if credit is given to this Blog. Recommended citation: Ben Darlow, ‘History of the Solicitors’ Training Contract’ <link to this blog post> accessed [day] [month] [year]

Appendix 1: Examples of Articled Clerkships in the Court of Common Pleas between 1785 and 1867

  • Fiennes Wykham – Clerk to Richard Bignall of Banbury – Articles dated 12th July 1785
  • Thomas Berryman – Clerk to Samuel Plaisted of Bernards Inn, London – Articles dated 16th October 1788
  • William York Jr – Clerk to William York Snr of Thrapston, Northampton – Articles dated 27th November 1800
  • Michael Kennedy – Clerk to Edward Codd of Kingston-upon-Hull – Articles dated 10th November 1817
  • Thomas Powell Watkins – Clerk to Charles Bedford of Worcester – Articles dated 4th November 1843
  • Fred John Wise Jr – Clerk to Fred Wise Snr – Articles dated 8th July 1865
An example page from the Register detailing the names of Clerks, their masters and the term of years.

An example page from the Register detailing the names of Clerks, their masters and the term of years. (National Archives)

A page of the Register showing various terms of years of the Clerkships

A page of the Register showing various terms of years of the Clerkships. (National Archives)

Transition page when the Solicitors Act 1843 was introduced

Transition page when the Solicitors Act 1843 was introduced. (National Archives)

*Observation – from the register of approximately 9,500 Clerks in this 82-year period, approximately 1 in 5 are Articled to their father.

*Observation – unfortunately, the earliest Register of Articled Clerkships, between 1713 and 1837 is mould damaged at the National Archives.

Appendix 2: Examples from the Roll of Solicitors admitted 1729 to 1788

  • John Applegarth – admitted to the Roll on 8th July 1729 – Examined by Mr E. Probyn
  • John Forrest of Middlesex – admitted to the Roll 3rd July 1729 – Examined by Mr R. Raymond
  • Benjamin Holt of Hereford – admitted to the Roll 28th June 1729 – Examined by Mr E. Probyn
  • Samuel Plummer of London – admitted to the Roll 27th June 1729 – Examined by Mr R. Raymond
  • John Darrell of Cheshire – admitted to the Roll 14th June 1788 – examined by Mr Ashurst

*Observation – the register contains approximately 7,600 solicitors admitted to the Roll over this 60 year period.

The cover page from the Roll of Attorneys 1728 to 1788

The cover page from the Roll of Attorneys 1728 to 1788. (National Archives)

Examples from within the Roll of Solicitors.

Examples from within the Roll of Solicitors. (National Archives)

Appendix 3: Oath required by the Attorneys and Solicitors Act 1728 to be admitted onto the Roll of Solicitors

 I [Forename][Surname] swear that I will truly and honestly demean myself in the practice of an Solicitor, according to the best of my knowledge and ability. So help me God.”

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History of Defamation

The common law test for Defamation.

Before the early 1300s, actions for the predecessor of defamation were obscure and purely within the jurisdiction of the Church courts, it was not until much later that the King’s courts allowed an action for defamatory words. The often physically-based nature of the common law was not in favour of creating an offence which rested on mere words. It was much more concerned with the tangible actions and results of, for example, assault, theft and murder.

It took until the 1500s before a common law action for defamation appeared. Perhaps the key reason for this delay, as outlined above, is the fact that pre-1500, defamation was seen as a purely spiritual matter and was therefore dealt with by the Church courts. The Church courts tried Defamation as a criminal offence and could only sentence the offender to penance, admittedly quite a light punishment. This early distinction between the Church and common law jurisdictions will be examined in a later blog post.

However, before this time, there were occasional actions that touched upon issues of defamation and the tarnishing of someone’s character or reputation. For example, in the 14th Century, there were actions brought by nobles who had been slandered in the King’s open courts. A judge in 1358 recovered a sizable sum of money for being called a traitor at court. Moreover, some actions were brought regarding false statements about men having second marriages, a very damaging accusation that could ruin their reputations.

Around the same time, the 1378 Statute of scandalum magnatum allowed important judges and Church officials to bring an action if they had been insulted or defamed. The first common law defamation case on record was brought in 1507, where the King’s Court changed its mind regarding mere words and decided they could impact the honour of a man as much, or even more so, than physical attacks. At the time, three categories of Defamation existed: (1) Words accusing someone of a crime; (2) Words accusing someone of being incompetent at their job and (3) Words accusing someone of having a particular disease (such as the French pox).

Human nature being as it is, this led to a flood of actions and various forms of defamation became the bread-and-butter work of the King’s court, becoming its most dealt with action by the mid-to-late 16th Century. In cases of 1557 and 1565, several judges made attempts to limit the number of actions by (1) insisting on the claimant proving special and real damage to their reputation; (2) words said as jokingly or in anger were not actionable and (3) by interpreting ambiguous words as less defamatory than they could potentially be. This did serve to limit the actions slightly but they were still extremely common. Several specific rules were also created, such as a man being able to bring an action even if he already possessed a bad reputation.

Until 1660, the common law did not draw a clear distinction between defamation that was spoken or that which was in writing. However, defamatory words in writing were often punished with harsher sentences. The current distinction is between impermanent, often spoken, statements (Slander) and permanent, often written, statements (Libel).

The current law of Defamation is broadly that an action can be brought in the High Court by a claimant if a published statement would make a reasonable person think worse of them. The actions revolve around the Slander and Libel distinction mentioned immediately above. There are several defences to such a claim: (a) Justification (where the statement is true), (b) Fair Comment (where the statement would be believed by a reasonable person) and (c) Privilege (where the statement is privileged, for example, something said in the Houses of Parliament).

Defamation is still a very popular action and cases involving it are regularly headline news with a variety of celebrities claiming their reputation has been tarnished, often by statements made in newspapers. This modern flood of actions led to the passing of the Defamation Act 2013, which came into force on the 25th of April 2013. This Act is geared towards striking a new balance between the claimant and defendant, seemingly making claims harder to prove by outlining a new requirement of serious harm to the claimant’s reputation and improving the strength of the various defences. The Act only applies to defamatory statements after its commencement therefore the older defamation law will apply in many cases going ahead in 2014/15.

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Detection in England from Bow Street to the Met

Detectives have had a special niche in popular culture for many years. Beginning in the nineteenth century with the works of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and followed later in the century by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, detectives captured the nineteenth-century imagination. Today, crime novels, although still popular, have been supplanted by serialized crime dramas like the CSI and Law & Order franchises, and more recently by the revived Sherlock series and Luther. But where does this fascination with detection come from? Some have argued that the Victorians (and it certainly didn’t stop with them) had a keen enthusiasm for the macabre, whether it be executions, murders or other salacious tales of malice.[1] But it was not only the crimes that made headlines, it was the men who investigated them: professional detectives.

Bow Street police court

Bow Street police court

Formal detection in England began in mid-eighteenth century London with the Bow Street Runners. Begun by Bow Street magistrate Henry Fielding and continued under his blind half-brother John, the Runners were part of Fielding’s innovative approach to combatting crime. Since there were no centralized or professional police in England, the Runners were the first to systematize criminal investigation through information gathering. They investigated crimes for the government, helped private individuals, and even protected the royal family. Bow Street also had a series of mounted and foot patrols to police the city on regular beats. By the 1820s, however, the Runners’ reputation was in decline. Their legacy was tarnished by their association with thief-takers and they were known to collude with criminals to ensure the return of stolen property. Although effective, their methods were not as wholesome as the government would have wished and they were disbanded in 1839.[2]

The Bow Street Runners were an important forerunner to Scotland Yard’s detective force. Formed in 1842, shortly after the disbandment of the Runners and a horrific murder, the Detective Department was the first streamlined detective force in England. Given that the London Metropolitan Police (founded in 1829) was England’s first centralized police force, it made sense that the first police detectives operated in England’s, and Europe’s, largest city.

Old Scotland Yard (behind original location of the Metropolitan Police on Whitehall)

Old Scotland Yard (behind original location of the Metropolitan Police on Whitehall)

Scotland Yard’s detectives typically investigated serious felonies, especially murders. This is most likely because by the 1840s, the death penalty was only routinely applied for convicted murderers, and the government wanted seasoned officers to help investigate and prosecute those cases.[3] Such cases required flexibility in terms of time and location that regular police constables were unable to perform because they were restricted to their ‘beats’. To gain information, detectives made a habit of getting to know the criminal element in London, through frequenting pubs and races, employing informers and even using the newspapers to find information and discover possible frauds.

The Met’s detectives undertook inquiries assigned to them by the Commissioners of Police as well as undertaking investigative work for the Home Office, private individuals and institutions, and local magistrates. There were several sub-divisions within the detective department, with some men specializing in loan-office swindles, fraudulent betting, foreign inquiries, naturalization, and extradition cases. They also investigated political crime, guarded important figures of state, and kept an eye on foreign revolutionaries who fled their countries for safe haven in England. Detectives frequently undertook cases on behalf of foreign governments or institutions. In other cases, police detectives were asked to extradite foreigners back to their own countries, or to bring back English citizens from abroad on extradition warrants. Investigating forgery and coining offenses was also a routine detective activity.

Some of the men became quite famous. Charles Dickens took a shine to the first wave of detectives. He published interviews with them in his journal Household Words. He praised their talent for catching criminals, writing, “If thieving be an art…thief-taking is a Science.”[4] In his novel Bleak House, Dickens based the character Inspector Bucket on real life Detective Inspector Charles Frederick Field. Wilkie Collins also included a Met detective in one of his novels. Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone was based upon Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Both detectives are portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful and judicious men, albeit with a touch of mystery about them. The positive portrayal of police detectives by Dickens and Collins was a sea change in the way educated Britons perceived centralized policing. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, centralized police were considered symbols of continental despotism. By the 1850s the police and detectives had proved their worth by maintaining public order during turbulent periods (it is notable that unlike most continental states, England did not have a revolution during the nineteenth century) and combatting and investigating crime.

The ‘Bobby’ remains one of the more beloved figures in English culture – an accolade the English police worked hard to earn. The perseverance of nineteenth-century English policemen and detectives in the face of public skepticism and, at times, outright hostility paved the way for future police organizations. The creation of Special Branch in the 1880s, MI5 in the early nineteenth century and the explosion of domestic and foreign espionage organizations during the First and Second World Wars owe their pedigree to the first waves of English detectives at Bow Street and the Met.

Rachael Griffin

Rachael Griffin is a PhD candidate at The University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis is entitled: “Detective Policing and the State in Nineteenth-Century England: The Detective Department of the London Metropolitan Police, 1842-1878.”

For further interesting blog posts and resources, please see Rachael’s blog at http://victoriandetectives.wordpress.com.


[1] The best recent work on the subject is Rosalind Crone’s Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in nineteenth-century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012). Although less academic, Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011) identifies the Victorian fascination with murder.

[2] J.M. Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); David J. Cox, A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A History of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839 (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2010).

[3] Philip Thurmond Smith, Policing Victorian London: political policing, public order and the London Metropolitan Police (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), 18.

[4] Household Words, July 13, 1850.

** This post is the result of independent academic work and is intended for future publication by the author. Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author (reblogs excepted). Any questions or concerns can be directed to Rachael Griffin via the Feedback page

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Arson in Medieval Ireland

Photograph by Riona Doolan.

Photograph by Riona Doolan.

The medieval Irish law tracts, popularly known as the Brehon Laws, were in use from the early medieval period to the start of the seventeenth century in Ireland. The canonical text of most of these laws were first written down between AD 650-750, and the laws with associated gloss and commentary survive in manuscripts from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Though many of these laws have been rendered into English, a large number have yet to be critically edited and translated.

Punitive imprisonment was not regularly used in medieval Ireland for a crime; instead, compensation was paid to a victim according to his or her status in society. This compensation could involve a specific crime-related payment plus a payment of honour-price (wergild) depending on the seriousness of the crime. There were two main units of value in medieval Ireland: cumals (1 cumal = 3 milch cows) and séts (1 sét, generally = ½ ounce of silver, depending on the law text), with a man’s worth regularly measured in livestock.

Some of the original canonical texts are no longer extant; this unfortunately limits the amount of information we have regarding how certain crimes were treated in the early medieval period. In Britain, a large amount of medieval case law survives which show us not only the extant laws but how justice was applied in individual situations. In Ireland however, hardly any case law remains which means we must interpret the laws primarily as they are presented in the manuscripts. One such canonical tract that is no longer extant is Bretha Forloisctheo ‘Judgments on Arson’. Even though we no longer have the primary text, five legal commentaries on the law tract do survive to inform us regarding this crime. These commentaries were written in the late medieval period in legal schools based in various locations around Ireland.

Arson was treated as a serious crime in the medieval period. Buildings were mostly made of wood, and fires could spread easily. It was a crime that had the potential to impact not just the victim but also the entire community, with disastrous consequences if the fire got out of control. I have recently completed a translation of the oldest of the five commentaries on arson dating to the fourteenth century. It is divided into three separate sections. The first section deals with deliberate burning of a house. A fine of six cows and full compensation had to be paid; compensation was awarded if a house alongside or opposite burned down as well. There was no exemption from payment for negligent burning of a house, but leniency could be granted to the guilty party if the fire spread to adjacent buildings, and if other people in the area failed to help bring the fire under control.

The second section is concerned with industrial buildings such as mills and kilns. A penalty of three cows and full compensation had to be paid if these structures or the adjacent buildings were deliberately burned. If these were being used without the permission of the owner, then negligent burning was considered to be equivalent to deliberate arson. However, if they were being used with the permission of the owner and a fire accidentally broke out, the penalty was halved. If it occurred within the first three uses of either building, then no penalty had to be paid. Three séts had to be paid for burning a barn containing animals such as calves, sheep or pigs.

Finally, the third section focuses on the payments that had to be paid by the arsonist according to the victim’s status. The higher a person’s status, then the higher the compensation. In the commentary on arson, four different status levels are mentioned:

  • urrad – a man native to the territory;
  • deorad – a man from Ireland but not native to the territory;
  • murchuirthe – a man from overseas;
  • daer – an unfree member of society.

If an urrad was the victim of an arson attack, he was entitled to the full amount of the fine plus restitution; a deorad was entitled to half the fine plus restitution; a murchuirthe could expect one quarter of the fine and restitution; while a daer received restitution only.

Finally, if a person was killed in an arson attack, it was considered the equivalent of murder and a penalty of seven cumals (21 milch cows) had to be paid to the victim’s family; this was a standard penalty for murder.

Though the original law text on arson is no longer extant, we can still get a clear picture of how this crime was treated in the medieval period in Ireland. The effects of arson could have repercussions, not just for the victim, but for all members of a community, and as a result the fines were high. At the same time, the law acknowledged that accidents could happen and reduced the fines where appropriate showing fairness in its application of justice.

Riona Doolan

Suggested Reading:

Fergus Kelly, A Guide To Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1988), DIAS.

Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: A Study Based Mainly On The Law-texts Of The 7th And 8th Centuries AD (Dublin, 2000), DIAS.

A. T. Lucas, ‘The Plundering And Burning Of Churches In Ireland, 7th to 16th Century’, North Munster Studies: Essays In Commemoration Of Monsignor Michael Moloney (ed.) Etienne Rynne (Limerick, 1967), pp. 172-229.

Biography:

Riona Doolan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Early and Medieval Irish, University College Cork, Ireland. Her doctoral thesis entitled, ‘Arson in Medieval Ireland’ is being funded by a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship from the Irish Research Council.

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