Monday, April 27, 2009

Question from Stephanie - Why people turned to crime

I'm in year 13 doing a research assignment on crime and punishment in tudor stuart england and im having some trouble finding some interent resources on one of my questions
What made people turn to crime in tudor stuart england 1558-1667?

[Ed. note - I thought we had seen all the possible questions on crime and punishment but this is another aspect worth discussing]


  1. I am going to respond to your question with a question, Stephanie, since your assignment is designed to make you think about an issue.

    What makes people "turn to crime" today? What circumstances might arise in a person's life that might cause him or her to feel as though crime is their only way out of those circumstances? Then, ask yourself whether those same or very similar circumstances may have existed in the Tudor era. If so, try searching for discussions of those circumstances as they appeared in the sixteenth century, the Tudor era.

  2. It is interesting to look at the existing records and see what Tudor people had to say about why they themselves or others turned to crime, and then consider what modern people perceive as motivations for crime.

    In the 16th-century, people were certainly aware of socio-economic reasons for certain crimes: in 1514, a report by the Justices of the Peace for the Shires identified enclosures and the resulting unemployment as a source of crime:

    "By these means tenements fall to decay, poultry and victual are diminished, 'and an infinite number of the King's subjects, for lack of occupation, had fallen and daily do fall into idleness and consequently into theft and robberies; and finally, by the rigor of the laws of this realm, many of them have been put to the execution of death.'"

    In 1525, "The inhabitants of Lavenham and Brante Ely came in their shirts, and kneeled for mercy, saying they were the King's subjects, and had only committed this offence for lack of work."

    Wolsey was fingered in his 1529 indictment for, among other things, having "[discouraged] the hospitality kept in religious houses, by taking impositions of the heads of those houses for his favor in making abbots and priors and for visitation fees, 'which is a great cause that there be so many vagabonds, beggars, and thieves.'"

    Emotions running high and/or illicitly also played a role in crime. In 1535, Cromwell received a report about "a cruel murder committed in Budworth by John Werburton, son of Sir John Werburton, kt., and brother to Sir Peter, about this time twelvemonth. Werburton, though married, had lived in adultery with the wife of Ric. Kynderdale, and, after pretending to be reconciled to the husband, stabbed him one night when his wife had induced him to go out bare-legged with a sleeveless jacket to take a pot of ale to him."

    Thomas Lord Dacre was hanged like a common felon at Tyburn in the 1540s for getting a gang of other young noblemen to join him in hunting down a park keeper who had apparently annoyed him, and wound up killing someone else entirely. There are few details, but perhaps emotions getting out of control, class attitudes, and maybe a lot of drinkin' could have contributed to the crime.

    I couldn't find records of common people explaining their motivations for their crimes, although I'm sure they must exist. On a more exalted level, the accused's stated reasons form an interesting contrast with what people might say today, although there are some familiar excuses.

    Ignorance of the law is popular. Even Wolsey in 1529 pleaded "that he did not know the obtaining of the bulls to be in contempt and prejudice of the King, or against any statute of provisors, but threw himself upon the King's mercy." Claiming ignorance was probably the safest defense, but ignorance of the law is traditionally also considered no defense ("ignorantia juris non excusat," etc.)

    The Irish rebel O'Neill made his submission to the king in 1542, probably after some negotiation as to the wording of his submission, "confessing that he has offended through ignorance of his 'most bounden duty of allegiance;' and asking pardon and to have such title and lands as the King will grant him."

    Lack of wit comes up. Closely related to ignorance, this seems to signify what we would call stupidity. In 1524, Lord Darcy wrote to Wolsey, saying "If anything is proved against [his son George], shall be glad to see him duly punished. If he offend, or suffer his sons to do so, it is from lack of wit, not of good will ... Cunning, wit, experience, and specially humanity, with the most part of all other good virtues, surely he lacks; good will, to the best of his power and truth, I trust he shall show at all times..." Again, it's a safe sort of defence, but not one that will exculpate you.

    Lack of grace. This is an interesting concept that may not have a modern parallel. I don't think it's cited in a Calvinist sense (i.e., lacking God's grace means that one is damned) but it seems to have a meaning suggesting a lack of God's favor, forfeited through one's own wilfulness. Hence in 1521 we have the Duke of Buckingham on the scaffold "trusting to die the King's true man; whom, through his own negligence and lack of grace, he had offended."

    Wolsey cited "lack of grace" as a contributory factor to the spread of heresy in 1528, writing that "The troubles in Christendom, which give occasion to the spread of heresies, spring from lack of grace, by insolence, pertinacity, negligence a[nd] ..., rather than from any reasonable or lawful ground ..."

    In 1541, the Yorkshire insurrectionists confessed their errors due to "lack of grace and of sincere and pure knowledge of the verity of God's words ..."

    And then we come to Henry Nevell (Neville) in 1546, who got into quite a pickle with black magic and swindling and intent to commit murder; his defense covers a wide range of excuses:

    "Never consented to such an abominable and unnatural deed of himself but for lack of grace, and by naughty counsel and lack of wit and by the temptation of the devil and the frailness of youth, has offended the law and committed a detestable offence against his father and his wife [the intended murderees] ..."

    He did not blame the medication he was taking, but that is perhaps due to the fact he had never seen Law & Order.

  3. By the way, these examples are all drawn from criminal cases before 1547. The changing religious culture of Elizabethan and Stuart England may have produced other "motivations" for crime. I found the Devil cited as an active partner in crime fairly rarely in the Letters & Papers of Henry VIII's reign, but it's a common (perhaps mistaken?) stereotype that the rise of Puritan influence led to people seeing the "instigation of the Devil" everywhere.


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