If a person committed a crime, they were punished at the Manor Court by their lord or at the Shire Moot by the Sheriff. The Chief Forester could also punish them at a Forest Court such as Edwinstowe or a Forest Eyre such as Nottingham.
Many of those lacking the money and influence to ensure a fair trial hearing in the courts failed to appear before the judges, and became outlaws like Robin Hood.
There were still some Saxon customs in use after the Norman Conquest. If someone was accused of a crime, they might suffer Ordeal by Combat, Ordeal by Fire or Ordeal by Water.
Ordeal by Combat meant that a noble had to fight the person that accused them. Both were given special axes and shields and would fight until one of them shouted “Craven“. The one who lost was put to death.
Ordeal by Fire involved carrying a piece of red-hot iron for three paces. the person’s hand was then bound up and if when this was undone three days later there were no blisters, they were innocent. If they had blisters they were punished or killed.
Ordeal by Water meant that they were tied up and thrown in the river. If they stayed under the water for several minutes, they were innocent. If they floated, they were guilty of the crime.
When Henry II came to power, he made new laws and stopped these cruel ways of trial. He ordered Trial by Jury. This meant that twelve good people could swear that they knew about the person who was accused of a crime. People sometimes bribed others to say things that were not true.
Law in the Town
The Mayor and the Alderman kept Law and order in the towns. They paid 1/4d. a day to the Common Sergeant and the Watchman to do the work for them.
When the Normans conquered England they introduced ‘curfew’ (cover fire) to make the Saxon locals go to bed early. During curfew, no one was allowed out on to the streets, or the watchman would arrest them. Curfew was at eight o’clock in the winter and nine o’clock in the summer.
The Chief Forester enforced all of the Forest Laws and was responsible for each of the royal forests, including Sherwood Forest. He was represented by Foresters , who looked after the forest and Verderers (wardens) who made sure that Forest Law was not broken.
The Forest Laws were designed to protect both hunting animals and woodland from all but the king and his followers. Offences against ‘vert’ included cutting down saplings, branches and especially, of course, full-grown trees. Offences against “venison” included the hunting of red, fallow and roe deer, but also of wild boar. It was forbidden for anyone to carry bows and arrows in the royal forests and if a forest beast were found dead, an inquest was held.
There were many strange punishments at this time. If someone stole they would be put in the pillory (by standing on the platform with their head and hands through the holes) or in the stocks (with their feet locked through the holes).
A woman who nagged her husband was called a ‘scold’. She was tied to a chair and dipped in the pond. This chair was called the “ducking stool”. She might also have to wear a scold’s bridle, which had a piece of iron to go in the mouth to keep her tongue down. In Nottingham these punishments took place in the Market Square, where many people could laugh at those in the pillory and stocks. The dunking stool was kept in Cook Stool Row, which is now called Pillory.
A baker who made poor bread would be dragged on a sledge, with a loaf tied to his neck. If a fishmonger sold bad fish, he would be taken around the town with stinking fish hanging from his neck. A bad priest would have to ride through the streets sitting facing his horse’s tail and wearing a paper crown.
The courts also imposed some savage punishments meaning that the threat of prosecution acted as a powerful deterrent. People who cut firewood from the royal forests would be whipped or fined. Those who murdered or killed a royal deer may have their ears or hands cut off, or worse still, hanged in public for everyone to see. Nobles could choose to be beheaded instead of being hung.