The Pillory as Punishment

on Friday, 10 October 2014. Posted in Crime

During some research I’ve come across a wonderful woodcut engraving of the pillory at Marlborough in an article on obsolete punishments by Llewellyn Jewitt in “The Reliquary” Quarterly Journal, January 1861.

The pillory was used for a range of moral and political crimes, most notably for dishonest trading - the modern equivalent of implementing trading standards. Its use dates back to Anglo-Saxon times where it was known as “Healsfang” or “catch-neck”. In France it was called the pillorie. It was well established as a use of punishment after the Conquest. It was considered to be a degrading punishment with offenders standing in the pillory for several hours to be abused by fellow citizens, sometimes being pelted with all manner of organic material such as rotten eggs, mud and filth. If that was not enough, sometimes the offender was drawn to the pillory on a hurdle, accompanied by minstrels and a paper sign hung around his or her head displaying the offence committed.

For political offences, such as libel and sedition, further punishment could be inflicted as one’s ears could be nailed to the pillory instead of being locked in by the neck and arms. Afterward the ear was cut off leaving it on the pillory. The most notable case is probably William Prynne (1600-1669), who was born not too far from our county at Upper Swainswick near Bath and was a critic of Charles I and the Anglican Church prior to the English Civil War. He was sentenced to stand in the pillory for seditious libel, had is left ear cut off and branded “SL” on the cheek.

Most pillories stood in market squares or another prominent area of towns, sometimes raised on platforms. A map of Salisbury inset into the John Speed’s county map of 1610 clearly depicts this in the Market Square . The earliest reference for the Marlborough pillory I have found to date is for a new pillory made in 1572, which was remade again in 1581. It was last used, according to Jewitt, in 1807. The interesting fact about our illustration is that the pillory stood on a platform about 15 feet high and the pillory post could be rotated, which must have made it quite difficult to aim your rotten eggs! At the Quarter Sessions of October 1626 in Marlborough, “Thomas Edmonds was indicted for making and publisheing Libell which he confessed to be true, and thereupon convicted to goale there to remaine until Saterday next, and then to stand under the pillorie situate in Marlborough for the space of two howres together in the Markett tyme. And then alsoe to have a broad white pap [paper] upon his forehead subscribed with these words in great letters (vizt) for a libel and (then he is to return to prison until the next assizes &c).”

There is also evidence for its use in other Wiltshire towns. In Devizes in 1615 Nicholas Powell was convicted for deceiving John Smithe of thirty shillings with false letters. He was whipped in the open market “untille his backe doth bleede, and afterwards sett on the pillory.” Again paper was placed on his head displaying the crimes of cosonage (cheating) and obtaining money by counterfeit letters. In around 1661, James Summers was put in the pillory in Salisbury for knowingly selling faggotts of wood to profiteers, some poor people who used their poor relief tokens to purchase wood instead of the food for which they were intended. The wood was sold on by the purchasers at 3d profit for twelve faggots.

Clearly this form of punishment was used by popular demand. In July 1637 the Jury at the Warminster Quarter Sessions complained that “they have neither a cucking [ducking] stool nor pillory and that William Sloper must maintain them & put them up.” This was still a concern for both the citizens and the unfortunate Sloper family thirty two years later in 1669, when Simon Sloper junior was presented to the Quarter Sessions “for not setting up a Pillory and Cookinge stool.”

There were, of course, several other obsolete punishments for relatively minor crimes, including stocks, whipping, burning on the hand or thumb, branding, ear lobe- boring, the stocks, jougs and thumb-pillory to name a few. There were also harsher penalties for serious offences such as drowning, burning or boiling to death, pressing to death, beheading and various forms of hanging, all very gruesome but we may return to some more obsolete punishments in future blogs.

Terry Bracher
Archives & Local Studies Manager


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