Category Archives: Crime

Crime Women

The Scold’s Bridle

Today’s snippets follow on with the theme of female transgression in early modern England.

Over time, specifically female crimes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came to be divided into three principle categories; scolding, witchcraft, and whoring. Punishments meted out in response to these’crimes’ often involved painful humiliation. One punishment consisted of the ‘cucking stool’; a chair-like device into which the offending woman was strapped before being dunked in water over her head. The cucking stool went by several names and had originally been used for both men and women as a punishment for cheating weights and measures in the marketplace. The cucking of scolds was often something of a carnival event; the device  was used primarily to shame the woman, and the process of cucking usually involved the scold being paraded through the streets, often to the accompaniment of music, jeering and denigrating shouts.

According to a legal summation of 1675, ‘A Scold in a legal sense is a troublesome and angry women, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her Neighbours, doth break the publick Peace.’ The Scold’s Bridle, or Brank, shares an interesting, if horrific place in early modern history.

A device of containment designed to prevent a woman from speaking, it is today regarded as an instrument of torture. In its earliest form, the Bridle consisted of a hoop head-piece of iron, opening by hinges at the side so as to enclose the head, with a flat piece of iron projecting inwards so as to fit into the mouth and press the tongue down. Later it was made, by a multiplication of hoops, more like a cage, the front forming a mask of iron with holes for mouth, nose and eyes. Sometimes the mouth-plate was armed with a short spike. With this on her head the offending woman was marched through the streets by the beadle, or chained to the market-cross to be gibed at & pissed on by passers-by. It was solely dependent upon the gentleness of the man leading the woman in the bridle as to whether or not her teeth and jaws were permanently injured or even smashed. The Scold’s Bridle does not appear to have ever been a legalized form of punishment; but corporations and lords of manors in England, town councils, kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland assumed a right to inflict it.

A male account of the usefulness of the bridle from 1686:

I look upon it as much to be preferred to the Cucking Stoole, which not only endangers the health of the party, but also gives the tongue liberty ‘twixt every dipp; to neither of which is this at all lyable, but brings shame for the transgression, and humility thereupon, before ’tis taken off…which, being put upon the offender by order of the magistrate, and fastened with a padlock behind, she is lead round the towne by an officer to her shame, nor is it taken off, till after the party begins to show all external signes imaginable of humiliation and amendment.


Dorothy Waugh, who had been moved to ‘speake against all deceit & ungodly practises’, recounts her personal experience of being forced into a Scold’s Bridle in The Lamb’s Defence Against Lyes (1656):

The Mayor

was so violent & full of passion that he scarce asked me any more Questions, but called to one of his followers to bring the bridle as he called it to put upon me, and was to be on three houres, and that which they called so was like a steele cap and my hatt being violently pluckt off which was pinned to my head whereby they tare my Clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron, & three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a thing for that place as cannot be well related, which was locked to my head, and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking; And the Mayor said he would make me an Example… Afterwards it was taken off and they kept me in prison for a little season, and after a while the Mayor came up againe and caused it to be put on againe, and sent me out of the Citty with it on, and gave me very vile and unsavoury words, which were not fit to proceed out of any mans mouth, and charged the Officer to whip me out of the Towne.

I have drawn on several secondary sources for this post, especially Linda Boose’s Scolding Brides.
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Crime Execution Witchcraft

Swimming a Witch

‘Swimming’ a suspected witch was a common practise throughout many European countries, and can be traced back to ancient Babylonia.  It was most popular and widespread in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Usually performed by a large crowd of zealous people, if could often turn violent and in some cases was nothing more than a common lynching.  A pamphlet published in 1613, entitled Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, for notable villainies by them committed both by land and water.  With a strange and most true triall how to know whether a woman be a witch or not, provides details of the swimming of Mary Sutton and her mother, who were accused by a Master Enger of causing deaths among his horses and pigs.

Master Enger was advised to take Mary and her mother ‘to his mill dam (having first shut up the mill gates that the water might be at highest), and then, binding their arms cross, stripping them into their smocks and leaving their legs at liberty, throw them into the water. Yet lest they not be witches, and that their lives might not be in danger of drowning, let there be a rope tied about their middles, so long that it may reach from one side of your dam to the other, where on each side let one of your men stand, that if she chance to sink they may draw her up and preserve her.  If she swim, take her up and cause some women to search her, upon which, if they find any extraordinary marks about her [witches were believed to have marks of the Devil and extra nipples on their bodies so they could suckle demons and animals], let her the second time be bound, and have her right thumb bound to her left toe and her left thumb bound to her right toe, and be thrown into the water when, if she swim, you may build upon it that she is a witch.’

Following this advice, Master Enger subsequently tied Mary to his horse and dragged her to his mill pond: ‘When being thrown in the first time, she sunk some two foot into the water with a fall, but rose again and floated upon the water like a plank.  Then he commanded her to be taken out, and had women ready that searched her and found under her left thigh a kind of teat which her spirits in several shapes – as cats, moles etc – used to suck her. Then she was the second time bound cross her thumbs and toes, and then she sunk not at all but sat upon the water, turned about like a wheel, notwithstanding Master Enger’s men standing on each side of the dam with a rope tossing her up and down to make her sink.’

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Booze Crime Propaganda Sex Vice

Drinking, fiddling, prostitutes, hangings

Final snippets from Thomas Platter’s observations of London in 1599.

There are a great many inns, taverns, and beer-gardens scattered about the city, where much amusement may be had with eating, drinking, fiddling, and the rest, as for instance in our hostelry, which was visited by players almost daily. And what is particularly curious is that the women as well as the men, in fact more often than they, will frequent the taverns or ale-houses for enjoyment. They count it a great honour to be taken there and given wine with sugar to drink; and if one woman only is invited, then she will bring three or four other women along and they gaily toast each other; the husband afterwards thanks him who has given his wife such pleasure, for they deem it a real kindness.

In the ale-houses tobacco or a species of wound-wort are also obtainable for one’s money, and the powder is lit in a small pipe, the smoke sucked into the mouth, and the saliva is allowed to run freely, after which a good draught of Spanish wine follows. This they regard as a curious medicine for defluctions, and as a pleasure, and the habit is so common with them, that they always carry the instrument on them, and light up on all occasions, at the play, in the taverns or elsewhere, drinking as well as smoking together, as we sit over wine, and it makes them riotous and merry, and rather drowsy, just as if they were drunk, though the effect soon passes — and they use it so abundantly because of the pleasure it gives, that their preachers cry out on them for their self-destruction, and I am told the inside of one man’s veins after death was found to be covered in soot just like a chimney. The herb is imported from the Indies in great quantities, and some types are much stronger than others, which difference one can immediately taste; they perform queer antics when they take it.

This city of London is not only brimful of curiosities but so populous also that one simply cannot walk along the streets for the crowd.  Especially every quarter when the law courts sit in London and they throng from all parts of England for the terms to litigate in numerous matters which have occurred in the interim, for everything is saved up till that time; then there is a slaughtering and a hanging, and from all the prisons (of which there are several scattered about the town where they ask alms of the passers by, and sometimes they collect so much by their begging that they can purchase their freedom) people are taken and tried; when the trial is over, those condemned to the rope are placed on a cart, each one with a rope about his neck, and the hangman drives with them out of the town to the gallows, called Tyburn, almost an hour away from the city; there he fastens them up one after another by the rope and drives the cart off under the gallows, which is not very high off the ground; then the criminals’ friends come and draw them down by their feet, that they may die all the sooner. They are then taken down from the gallows and buried in the neighbouring cemetery, where stands a house haunted by such monsters that no one can live in it, and I myself saw it.  Rarely does a law day in London in all the four sessions pass without some twenty to thirty persons — both men and women — being gibbeted.

And since the city is very large, open, and populous, watch is kept every night in all the streets, so that misdemeanors shall be punished. Good order is also kept in the city in the matter of prostitution, for which special commissions are set up, and when they meet with a case, they punish the man with imprisonment and fine. The woman is taken to Bridewell, the King’s palace, situated near the river, where the executioner scourges her naked before the populace. And although close watch is kept on them, great swarms of these women haunt the town in the taverns and playhouses.

More from Thomas Platter on Bears and Cock Fighting here, and on attending the theatre here 

Crime Execution

Early Modern Waterboarding

I’ve had several requests for a blog post on early modern torture, and what follows is a gruesome snippet from an account of the torture of several Englishmen in the Netherlands, published in 1653. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, so those of a nervous disposition please look away.

Samuel Closon was examined, being brought before them, who was so appalled at the sight of Collins (whose eyes were blown out of his head with the torture of water) that he chose rather to confess than to be tortured, and so he was dismisssed, but went out weeping.

Next came John Clerk to be examined and put to the torture, so that he was heard without the hall to crye out in an extreme manner, for they tortured him with fire and water for the space of two hours. The manner of his torture was as followeth. First they twisted him up by the hands with a cord on a large door, where they made him fast to two staples of iron, fixt on both sides of the top of the door posts, stretching his hands asunder as wide as they could: and being thus made fast, his feet hung about two foot from the ground, which also they extended as far as they could, and so made them fast unto the bottom of the door.

Then they bound a cloth about his neck and face, so close, that little or no water could go by.  When they had done this, they poured the water softly upon his head, until the cloth was full-up to his mouth and nostrils, so that he could not draw his breath, but he must suck in the water; which being still continued to be poured softly, forced his intrails to come out at his eyes, ears, and nose, almost to strangling. They were so cruel to him that they tormented him till his breath was gone, so that he fainted, then they took him quickly down, and made him vomit up the water. Then they pull’d him up again, and poured him with water again. And this was exercised on this poor wretch three or four several times, till his body was swoln twice as big as ordinary, his cheeks puft up like a pair of bladders and his eyes starting and strutting out beyond his forehead.

Then they burnt him with lighted Candles in the bottom of his feet until the fat dropt out of the Candles.  They burnt him also under the elbows; likewise in the palms of his hands; they moreover burnt his arm-holes, till his entrails might be seen.

After what appears to be several days of this treatment John Clerk finally confessed to a crime he had not committed.

After they had thus mascerated his body, they sent him out to the Dungeon, and there laid him in heavy irons for five days without any Christian pity so much as to send a Surgeon to dress his putrifyied wounds, which were filled with great Maggots, which dropt and crept from him in a most loathsom manner.
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