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ENGLAND
Samuel Pepys
Elizabeth I
London's Underworld
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The Cries of London
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Elizabethan England: Watch and Ward
Posted on Oct 18, 2002 - 10:18 AM by Bill McCann

London did not get an effective police force until the late nineteenth century. Its illustrious predecessor was the joint system of "Watch and Ward" and the "Hue and Cry". Both had mediaeval origins and were institutionalised by the great Statute of Winchester issued by Edward I in 1285. This formed the basis of law enforcement throughout England until the 1860s. By the time of Elizabeth, the system had become formalised to some extent and the emphasis was on the apprehension of people who were out and about during the dark hours with no good purpose. John Stow wrote his Survey of London towards the end of the reign and has left us a picture of the system as it them was. However, he also gives us a sparkling picture of other "watches" of a more pleasant nature.



The Watch
The phrases "watch and ward" and "hue and cry" have a long lineage, dating from at least the 12th century. The first reference to the latter is in the Assize of Arms of 1181. This required that all men in a tithing (originally a group of ten householders) should have weapons enough to follow a hue and cry - i.e. the village call to pursue a criminal. One of the earliest written legal documents affirming the use of the night watch is the Writ for Enforcing Watch and Ward and the Assize of Arms which was issued on May 20th 1242. In 1283, Edward I issued a Proclamation that required all City of London wards to have a nightly watch proportional to the size of the ward. This is NOT the origin of the word "ward" in the expression watch and ward. They both derive from the so called Law French of the 13th century when the word garde was regularly used. It is sometimes supposed that "watch" refers to night-watches and "ward" to day-watches. This is not the case and seems to be a misconception derived from the etymology.

Prisoners brought to Justice.

Edward I, two years later produced a more sweeping document which became the main legal authority obliging all towns in England to keep the watch. This was the Statute of Winchester, issued in 1285. It laid the foundation for the Watch system in the towns, which lasted throughout most of England and Wales until 1856. Its main intent was to make the use of the night watch more widespread and obligatory. It applied to large cities, boroughs and small towns (vills. The number of watchmen which were required to man each gate varied according to the size of the settlement. The watch was to be kept from sunset to sunrise from Ascension Day (between April 30 and June 3) to St Michael's Day (September 29). All strangers were to be detained and delivered to the sheriff on the following day. If the watchmen needed help, the hue and cry was to be issued and all freemen in the settlement were obliged to arm themselves and band together in pursuit of a suspected criminal.

To ensure that all settlements adopted their collective responsibilities, the village, town or city could be fined if they failed to capture suspected criminals or if they, or their freemen, refused to answer the hue and cry. The statute required all freemen, between the ages of fifteen and sixty, to maintain arms according to their wealth and status. These could range from full armour to a simple bow and quiver of arrows. In addition, two constables from each hundred (originally ten tithings, but eventually the the next political unit below a county) were to inspect the arms twice a year and report any failures to keep the obligation to maintain arms. They were also responsible for presenting all arrested strangers for further legal action at the higher courts of Assize. Richard II re-iterated the Statute and send a copy all sheriffs in England, including the London sheriffs.

The Lord Mayor and an Alderman.
In addition to the Statute of Winchester, Edward I issued the Statutes for the City of London. These formally made the Mayor, alderman, and Sheriffs responsible for the policing the City. Aldermen were to "make diligent Enquiry" into crimes committed in their individual wards and the Mayor, aldermen and the Sheriffs, collectively and individually, were empowered to imprison and punish criminals. Suspicious people walking the streets at night were to be detained by specially appointed keepers of the peace and brought before the warden or mayor and alderman on the following morning.

By 1509, the City of London watchmen had discontinued the ancient practice of nightly "manning" the walls as a defence against attack. Instead they began to concentrate their efforts on watching the streets for criminal activity and disorder. Persons arrested during the watch were kept overnight in a number of temporary lock-ups.

The Tun on Cornhill

Of these, the Tun at Cornhill (on he right in the image) was the most famous. Its name came from the fact that it resembled a huge wine barrel standing on one end. It was built in 1282 by the Lord Mayor, Henry le Waleis, as a temporary prison for "prowling thieves, street-walkers and other disreputable people". In 1383, the Lord Mayor, John of Northampton, herded the prostitutes of the City to the Tun and had their heads shaved before parading them through the streets. It was also used to house bakers and millers who were discovered stealing flour and for priests who were found in illicit intercourse with women. The priests were normally paraded through the streets on their way to the Tun with minstrels playing before them. London was hit by a ferocious gale in 1439 during which the Tun was partly blown down. The timber baulks of which it was built blocked the roadway so "that nether horss ne cart myght passe throwe the strete." It was at once rebuilt and enlarged in 1475.

By the time of Elizabeth, the Watch had become relatively formalised, in London at least. Writing in his Survey of London of 1598, John Stow has left us a detailed description of the system then in force. However, there were other "Watches" of a more pleasant nature which were still practised in his time and the following is his lively description of the more important of these. The Notes explaining some of the more obscure terms are at the bottom of the page and can be reached by means of the internal hyperlinks. To return from any of these to the original place in the text click on the relevant "back" link.

OF WATCHES IN THIS CITY, AND OTHER MATTERS COMMANDED, AND THE CAUSE WHY

William Conqueror commanded that in every town and village, a bell should be nightly rung at eight o'clock, and that all people should then put out their fire and candle, and take their rest. which order was observed through this realm during his reign, and the reign of William Rufus. But Henry I, restoring to his subjects the use of fire and lights, as afore; it followeth, by reason of wars within the realm, that many men also gave themselves to robbery and murders in the night; for example whereof in this city Roger Hoveden writeth thus:-

" In the year 1175 [1174], a council was kept at Nottingham; in time of which council a brother of the Earl Ferrers being in the night privlly slain at London, and thrown out of his inn into the dirty street, when the king understood thereof, he swore that he would be avenged on the citizens. For it was then (saith mine author) a common practice in the city, that a hundred or more in a company, young and old, would make nightly invasions upon houses of the wealthy, to the intent to rob them; and it they found any man stirring in the city within the night that were not of their crew, they would presently murder him, insomuch that when night was come no man durst adventure to walk in the streets.
When this had continued long, it fortuned that as a crew of young and wealthy citizens, assembling together in the night, assaulted a stone house of a certain rich man, and breaking through the wall, the good man of that house, having prepared himself with others in a corner, when he perceived one of the thieves named Andrew Bucquint to lead the way, with a burning brand in the one hand, and a pot of coals in the other, which he essayed to kindle with the brand, he flew upon him, and smote off his right hand, and then with a loud voice cried "Thieves"! at the hearing whereof the thieves took their flight, all saving he that had lost his hand, whom the good man in the next morning delivered to Richard de Lucie, the king's justice. This thief, upon warrant of his life, appeached his confederates, of whom many were taken, and many were fled.

A London Merchant.
Among the rest that were apprehended, a certain citizen of great countenance, credit, and wealth, named John Senex, who forasmuch as he could not acquit himself by the water dome, [Note 1] as that law was then, he offered to the king five hundred pounds of silver for his life; but forasmuch as he was condemned by judgment of the water, the king would not take the offer, but commanded him to be hanged on the gallows, which was done, and then the city became more quiet for a long time after."
But for a full remedy of enormities in the night I read, that in the year 1253, Henry III commanded watches in the cities and borough towns to be kept, for the better observing of peace and quietness amongst his people. And further, by the advice of them of Savoy, he ordained, that if any man chanced to be robbed, or by any means damnified by any thief or robber, he to whom the charge of keeping that country, city, or borough, chiefly appertained, where the robbery was done, should competently restore the loss. And this was after the use of Savoy, but yet thought more hard to be observed here than in those parts; and, therefore, leaving those laborious watches, I will speak of our pleasures and pastimes in watching by night.

In the months of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evenings after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them; the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, [Note 2] furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers [passers-by] also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours that being before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air.

On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St Peter and Paul the apostles, every man's door being shadowed with orpin,[Note 3] white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street, etc.

The Lord Mayor in Procession.
Then had ye besides the standing watches all in bright harness, in every ward and street of this city and suburbs, a marching watch, that passed through the principal streets thereof, to wit, from the little conduit by Paul's gate to West Cheap, [Cheapside/font>] by the stocks through Cornhill, by Leaden hall to Aldgate, then back down Fenchurch street, by Grasse church, [Gracechurch] about Grasse church conduit, and up Grasse church street into Cornhill, and through it into West Cheape again. The whole way for this marching watch extendeth to three thousand two hundred tailor's yards of assize; [Note 4] for the furniture whereof with lights, there were appointed seven hundred cressets, five hundred of them being found by the companies, the other two hundred by the chamber of London. Besides the which lights every constable in London, in number more than two hundred and forty, [Note 5] had his cresset: the charge of every cresset was in light two shillings and four pence, and every cresset had two men, one to bear or hold it, another to bear a bag with light, and to serve it, so that the poor men pertaining to the cressets, taking wages, besides that every one had a straw hat, with a badge painted, and his breakfast in the morning, amounted in number to almost two thousand.

The marching watch contained in number about two thousand men, part of them being old soldiers of skill, to be captains, lieutenants, serjeants, corporals, etc., wiflers, [Note 6]drummers, and fifes, standard and ensign bearers, sword players, trumpeters on horseback, demilances on great horses, gunners with hand guns, or half hakes, archers in coats of white fustian, signed on the breast and back with the arms of the city, their bows bent in their hands, with sheaves of arrows by their sides, pikemen in bright corslets, burganets, etc., halberds, the like billmen in almaine rivets, and apernes of mail in great number.

There were also divers pageants, morris dancers, constables, the one-half, which was one hundred and twenty, on St. John's eve, the other half on St. Peter's eve, in bright harness, some overgilt, and every one a jornet [Note 7] of scarlet thereupon, and a chain of gold, his henchman following him, his minstrels before him, and his cresset light passing by him, the waits of the city, [Note 8] the mayor's officers for his guard before him, all in a livery of worsted, or say jackets party-coloured, [Note 9] the mayor himself well mounted on horseback, the swordbearer before him in fair armour well mounted also, the mayor's footmen, and the like torch bearers about him, henchmen twain upon great stirring horses, following him.

Lord Mayor's Wife


The sheriffs' watches came one after the other in like order, but not so large in number as the mayor's; for where the mayor had besides his giant three pageants, each of the sheriffs had besides their giants but two pageants, each their morris dance, and one henchman, their officers in jackets of worsted or say, party-coloured, differing from the mayor's, and each from other, but having harnessed men a great many, etc.

This midsummer watch was thus accustomed yearly, time out of mind, until the year 1539, the 31st of Henry VIII, in which year, on the 8th of May, a great muster was made by the citizens at the Mile's end, all in bright harness, with coats of white silk, or cloth and chains of gold, in three great battles, to the number of fifteen thousand, which passed through London to Westminster, and so through the Sanctuary, and round about the park of St. James, and returned home through Oldborne. King Henry, then considering the great charges of the citizens for the furniture of this unusual muster, forbad the marching watch provided for at Midsummer for that year, which being once laid down, was not raised again till the year 1548, the 2nd of Edward Vl, Slr john Gresham then being mayor, who caused the marching watch, both on the eve of St John the Baptist and of St. Peter the Apostle, to be revived and set forth in as comely order as it hath been accustomed, which watch was also beautified by the number of more than three hundred demilances and light horsemen, prepared by the citizens to be sent into Scotland for the rescue of the town of Hadington, and others kept by the Englishmen.

Since this mayor's time, the like marching watch in this city hath not been used, though some attempts have been made thereunto, as in the year 1585, a book was drawn by a grave citizen, [John Montegomery] and bv him dedicated to Sir Thomas Pullison, then lord mayor, and his brethren the aldermen, containing the manner and order of a marching watch in the city upon the evens accustomed; in commendation whereof, namely, in times of peace to be used, he hath words to this effect:

"The artificers of sundry sorts were thereby well set a-work, none but rich men charged, poor men helped, old soldiers, trumpeters, drummers, fifes, and ensign-bearers, with such like men, meet for princes' service, kept in ure, [Note 10] wherein the safety and defence of every common weal consisteth. Armour and weapon being yearly occupied in this wise, the citizens had of their own readily prepared for any need; whereas by intermission hereof, armourers are out of work, soldiers out of pay, weapons overgrown with foulness, few or none good being provided," etc.
In the month of August, about the feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, before the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs of London, placed in a large tent near unto Clarkenwell, of old time, were divers days spent in the pastime of wrestling, where the officers of the city, namely, the sheriffs, sergeants, and yeomen, the porters of the king's beam or weigh-house, now no such men, and other of the city, were challengers of all men in the suburbs, to wrestle for games appointed, and on other days, before the said mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs, in Fensburie field, to shoot the standard, broad arrow, and flight, for games; but now of late years the wrestling is only practised on Bartholomew's day in the afternoon, and the shooting some three or four days after, in one afternoon, and no more.

What should I speak of the ancient daily exercises in the long bow by citizens of this city, now almost clean left off and forsaken? I overpass it; for by the mean of closing in the common grounds, our archers, for want of room to shoot abroad, creep into bowling alleys, and ordinary dicing houses, nearer home, where they have room enough to hazard their money at unlawful games; and there I leave them to take their pleasures.


1 [The water Dome]: This is an archaic expression for the ordeal by water in which accused persons were required to plunge a hand into a vessel of boiling water. It presumably refers to the vessel in which the water was boiled. If the hand was undamaged it was taken as proof of innocence, the assumption being that the deity had intervened to protect the innocent. This was but one form of Trial by Ordeal , a system originally peculiar to the Teutonic peoples but retained in England after the Norman Conquest. It was condemned by Pope Innocent III in 1203. It is the origin of our present use of the word ordeal. Back

2 [The vigils]: This was the evening and night before a feast day. Many stayed awake during the night to "see the feast day in". Hence our modern use of the word. This was still practised in parts of Ireland up to the 1950s. Back

3 [Orpin]: Sedus Telephium also known as Orpine or stonecrop. Probably an introduced species but now grows in hedgerows and shady areas of fields and in woods. The leaves are flat, fleshy and bluish-green in colour. The flowers are in a compact mass at the top of the stem and form a brilliant mass of crimson. It was popularly believed to promote longevity and was therefore referred to as "Live Long" or "Life everlasting". Back

4 [Tailor's yard]: The yard by which cloth was measured. According to two statutes of Edward VI cloth was to be dealt in and measured by the yard "adding to every yard one inch of the rule." This has now become the statute yard of 36 inches. Back

5 Stow adds the note that there were "more than two hundred and forty constables in London, the one half of them each night went in the marching watch, the other half kept the standing watch in every street and lane". Back

6 [Wifler]:This passage contains a number of obscure terms which are best kept in a single note. A wifle was a dart or javelin, a spear or a battle-axe, in this context it would probably have referred to spearmen. [Demilance]: A spear with a short shaft that went out of use in this period. [Half Hake]:A half or small hackbut or portable firearm. The latter later became better known as the arquebus. [Burgonet]: A very light steel cap worn by Pikemen. [Almain rivets]:A type of light armour which originated in Germany (Almain). It achieved great flexibility by having overlapping plates sliding on rivets. [Apernes]:A form of apron used in armour, here made of chain mail. Back

7 [Jornet]: A large coat or cloak. The word is derived from the French journade. Back

8 [Waits of the city]:The town bands. Each town had its own wait which consisted of a small body of wind instrumentalists who were maintained at public charge. Back

9 [Say]: A finely textured cloth which resembled serge. At this time it was partly of silk but in later times it was entirely of wool. Back

10 [kept in ure]: Kept in use, practice. It is derived from the French ouevre. It was in common usage between 1510 and 1630. Back

Links to the other articles in the series.

Elizabethan England: The Social Classes
Elizabethan England: The Cities and Towns
Elizabethan England: The Gardens and Orchards
Elizabethan England: Markets and Fairs




 

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