Some History About Questionable Ancient Criminal Law

I felt like sending something different this time; less about statistics and crime, so today I have put together this short blog about quirky and ridiculous ancient laws which acted as crucial parts of ancient and medieval justice. Delving into ancient UK laws reveals a fascinating glimpse into the past, where justice was different from our modern legal system. Read on to find out more. I hope that you find it interesting.

  • The Curious Case of Cuckoo-Spittle: In medieval England, farmers faced a peculiar pest known as the cuckoo-spittle. To combat this tiny insect, laws were enacted that required landowners to destroy any cuckoo-spittle they encountered on their property. Failure to do so could result in fines or even imprisonment. While the reasoning behind this law may seem obscure to us today, it highlights the importance placed on agricultural practices in ancient times.
  • The Weight of a Witch: During the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, belief in witchcraft was widespread, and laws were enacted to deal with those accused of practicing dark magic. One such law mandated that suspected witches be subjected to a trial by water. If they floated, they were deemed guilty of witchcraft, if they sank, they were considered innocent. This archaic practice, based on superstition rather than evidence, led to countless unjust convictions and tragedies where suspected witches were ordered to be burnt at the stake.
  • The Quarter Sessions: In the Middle Ages, local courts known as Quarter Sessions were responsible for administering justice in England. These courts dealt with a wide range of offences from petty theft to more serious crimes. However, they also had jurisdiction over matters that might seem trivial to us today, such as regulating the quality of bread and ale sold in markets or punishing individuals for “unlawful games” or gambling.
  • The Toll of the Tolpuddle Martyrs: In the early 19th century, a group of agricultural labourers in the village of Tolpuddle, Dorset, formed a trade union to protest against low wages and harsh working conditions. In a controversial move, the government invoked an obscure law dating back to 1797, the Unlawful Oaths Act, to convict six of the union leaders and transport them to Australia. The harsh treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs sparked public outcry and eventually led to their pardon and return to England.
  • Bizarre Bridge Laws: Across the UK, various ancient laws pertaining to bridges offer a glimpse into bygone eras. For example, in Scotland, it was once illegal to fish from a bridge on a Sunday, while in London, a law dating back to 1835, prohibited driving cattle over London Bridge after dark. These laws, rooted in the practicalities and customs of the time, may seem quaint or arbitrary to us now but served specific purposes in the past.

Much of the ancient legislation has not been amended and is still primary legislation. Its enforcement would be largely impractical and would be subject of more modern interpretation. Here are some current ancient law quotes that are still technically in place.

  • “It is illegal to beat the ground or the pavement with your walking stick after sunset.” – An old bylaw from Bath, reflecting a concern for maintaining peace and quiet in the evening hours.
  • “It is an offence to handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances.” A Scottish law that seems to leave a lot open to interpretation and imagination.
  • “It is illegal to drive a cow while intoxicated.” A law from Scotland, presumably aimed at preventing accidents involving inebriated individuals and livestock.
  • “It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament.” While not strictly a criminal law, this rule is often cited humorously to highlight the absurdity of some legislative measures.

While many of these ancient laws may seem strange or even absurd to modern sensibilities, they provide valuable insight into the legal and cultural landscape of our past eras. By examining these historical laws, we gain a deeper understanding of our legal heritage and the societal norms that have shaped the UK’s legal system over the centuries and how the judicial system has adapted and changed to more modern and sophisticated practices.

So, if I catch you ‘driving a cow while intoxicated’ now you will have no excuse! I hope you enjoyed this and found it informative.

PC 4810 Reece Breslin
Neighbourhood Link press release February 2024