Watch & Ward

The intimate bond which linked together the Kingly Office and the general police organisa- tion invested the latter with a certain concrete dignity that was beneficial. The people were impressed by the fact that police was the special province of the highest personage in the land, at a time when they were incapable of appreciating the abstract importance of the subject. The responsibility for peace maintenance was in this way definitely fixed on the one individual, who besides being best able to enforce compliance with his commands, had also the greatest stake in the continued preservation of the public peace; a kingdom without order being a kingdom in name only. This was so well recognised that, overbearing or indifferent as too many of our English sovereigns proved themselves, not one of them ever repudiated this responsibility, or failed to lay claim to be considered as the champion of order. The benefits that resulted from this royal preeminence were, it must be confessed, often counter- balanced and sometimes outweighed by corresponding disadvantages – good kings were rare – the hand of a king who was inclined to oppress his people became the more grievous by reason of his police supremacy – whilst under a weak king the burden of oppression grew intolerable on account of the numberless oppressors who immediately arose to take advantage of his supineness. 

The reign of Henry III, externally brilliant, internally miserable, is a case in point; for fifty-six long years peace gave place to chaos – the king robbed, and the barons plundered, whenever and whomsoever they could – shoals of foreigners invaded England – the clergy swindled their congregations first on one pretext then on another, and remitted the bulk of their spoil to the pope’s nominees in far-off Italy – “crimes,” we are told, “escaped with impunity the ministers themselves were in confederacy with the robbers.” Men had cause to be dissatisfied and an excuse for taking the law into their own hands, with the result that violence from the above was answered by violence from below. The lawlessness which followed took several forms and infected all classes of the community – the half- starved peasantry, hitherto patient, now scoured the country, and regained by force a portion of the spoil amassed at their expense by foreigners and others who had traded on the ignorant superstitions of the native English. The outbreak which at first was directed against the Italian clergy soon degenerated into a general campaign of licence, until, as we learn, “men were never secure in their houses; and whole villages were often plundered by bands. of robbers.”

The king adopted a capricious policy of repression, but his action, never vigorous, came too late to be effective, and failed to pacify the disturbed districts. The obvious, if still unconfessed, inability of Henry III to cope with the disorders which infested the realm served as a pretext to the barons to usurp the royal functions of peace-maintenance, and keeping the king a virtual prisoner in their hands, they caused the so-called Mad Parliament holden at Oxford in 1258 to create a Committee of Reform armed with authority to formulate new regulations for the preservation of the peace. This committee appointed that four knights should be chosen by the freeholders of each county with power to inquire into and present to Parliament the police shortcomings of their respective shires, enacting as a further safeguard that the freeholders concerned should annually elect a new sheriff, and that the sheriff should be called upon to render to Parliament an account of his stewardship on relinquishing office. 

These regulations, which formed part of the “Provisions of Oxford,” were well conceived, and for the moment proved extremely popular. But they left little permanent impress on the future life of the nation because they were fraudulently put forth by the barons, who, as it soon appeared, were only scheming to win the populace over to their side in the struggle for power, and who were far more anxious for their own aggrandisement than they were for any object connected with the mitigation of the troubles that affected the people. The whole attitude of the nobles was so lawless, supporting, as they did, bands of adherents to prey on each other’s lands and on the chattels of the defenceless commonalty, that no lasting good could be expected to follow upon their most specious actions, their very gifts were presumptive evidence of premeditated guilt, and their evil disposition was a matter of common knowledge. “Knights and Esquires,” says the Dictum of Kenilworth, “who were robbers, if they have no land, shall pay the half of their goods, and find sufficient security to keep henceforth the peace of the kingdom.” Well might Hume exclaim, “Such were the manners of the times!”

The practical disappearance of the decennary societies, followed by the failure of the Provisions of Oxford to restore peace to the State, necessitated the creation of some more effective agency for the re-establishment of good order. Such a substitute was fortunately provided by the famous Statute of Winchester, which was passed in the thirteenth year of Edward I., of whom it has been said that he did more for the preservation of the peace in the first thirteen years of his reign than was collectively accomplished by the thirteen monarchs next succeeding. 

This Winchester statute is especially important to our inquiry, because it sums up and gives permanency to those expedients introduced in former reigns, which were considered worthy of retention for the protection of society ; and because it presents to us a complete picture of that police system of the middle ages which continued with but little alteration for more than five hundred years.

The Statute of Winchester is not presented here as a brand-new system of police extemporised in the year 1285, but rather as the definite product of a long series of experiments all tending in the same direction. Legislation hastily conceived seldom survives; and however the case may stand in other lands, or in other departments of government, every police measure which has won a permanent place in English history has had a gradual growth, now retarded, now accelerated- here something removed as old fallacies were exposed, there something added as new knowledge was acquired. A few well-known and representative examples of the process at this stage of its development may be enumerated. 

First in importance comes the “Assize of Clarendon,” issued in 1166, which describes how notorious and reputed felons are to be presented to the Courts of the Justices or to the sheriffs, which commands one sheriff to assist another in the pursuit and capture of fugitives, and which deals with the restrictions to be enforced against the entertainers of strangers and the harbourers of vagabonds. The Assize of Northampton, which was issued three years after the rebellion of 1173, prescribes severer punishments, provides for the registration of outlaws, and reduces the powers of sheriffs. A writ for the conservation of the peace issued in 1233 is referred to by Dr Stubbs in these words : “This is a valuable illustration of the permanence of the old English regulations for the security of peace in the country. The principle thus expanded is here developed into a separate system of Watch and Ward, which a few years later is brought into conjunction with the Assize of Arms, and completed by Edward I in the Statute of Winchester, and by the assignment of Justices of the Peace under Edward III.” Finally, Writs for enforcing Watch and Ward and the Assize of Arms, issued in 1252 and in 1253, may be instanced as the immediate precursors of the Statute of Winchester.

Few legislative measures have stood so long or so prominently as this Act of 1285. Its vitality has been remarkable ; we find it periodically referred to, and its provisions re-enforced whenever an increase of lawlessness afflicted the State, as the universal and proper remedy to apply to all distempers of the sort; we find it cited as the standard authority on Watch and Ward, even in the eighteenth century, when two Acts of Parliament quote it to prove that the protection of a district is a constitutional duty compulsorily incumbent on its inhabitants ; nor was it until I793, in which year a Committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of the nightly watch of the city of Westminster stated that “the Statute of Winchester being very obsolete is a very improper regulation,” that people began to talk of it as “old-fashioned”. 

After stating that, “robberies, murders, burnings and thefts, be more often used than heretofore;” the statute confirms the ancient responsibility of the hundred for offences committed within its boundaries,” so that the whole hundred, where the robbery shall be done, with the franchises being within the precinct of the same hundred, shall be answerable for the robberies,” and ordains that “cries shall be made in all counties, markets, hundreds, fairs and all other places, where great resort of people is, So that none shall excuse himself by ignorance.” 

Another paragraph defines the law with regard to “Watch and Ward”, – the gates of walled towns are to be shut between sunset and daybreak, men are forbidden to live in the suburbs, except under the guarantee of a responsible householder, and it is enacted that in every city “from the day of the Ascension until the day of St Michael,” a watch of six men is to be stationed at each gate: every borough has to provide a watch of twelve persons, whilst the number of watchmen insisted upon by law for the protection of the smaller towns, varies from four to six, according to the number of inhabitants in each. Strangers must not pass the gates during the hours of darkness, any attempting to do so are to be arrested by the Watch, and detained until morning, when, “if they find cause of suspicion, they shall forthwith deliver him to the sheriff,” but if no such cause is found, “he shall go quit.” The affiliated institutions “Hue and Cry ” and the “Assize of Arms ” are next considered. Both had previously existed in some form or other, but had been allowed to fall into disuse, so it is now laid down afresh that in case strangers do not obey the arrest of the Watch, “hue and cry shall be levied upon them, and such as keep the watch shall follow with hue and cry, with all the towns near.” Sheriffs are reminded that it is their duty to follow the cry with the country-side, in pursuit of law-breakers and that if they are neglectful, a report will be made by the constables to the judges, who will inform the king of the default.

The clauses relating to the Assize of Arms command every male between the ages of fifteen and sixty to have harness in his house, “for to keep the peace “; the nature of the arms to be provided depends upon the man’s rank, and on the value of his property, and varies from “an hauberke, an helme of iron, a sword, a knife and a horse ” for a knight, down to bows and arrows, which were the only weapons that the poorest class had to furnish. In each hundred two constables were appointed to make a half-yearly inspection of arms, and “such defaults as they may find” shall be notified through the judges to the king, and the king “shall find remedy therein.” 

The Assize of Arms was something more than a mere police regulation. Sheriffs and constables were royal officers, and the powers entrusted to them, which included the liberty to make domiciliary visits for the purpose of viewing the armour, together with the general supervision they exercised over an armed population, placed at the king’s disposal a force that could on occasion be employed for political ends unconnected with the professed motive of the Assize, that of peace maintenance. 

The only other part of the statute that need now be noticed deals with the regulating of highways: it is directed that roads leading from one market town to another “shall be enlarged so that there be neither dyke, tree nor bush whereby a man may lurk to do hurt, within two hundred foot on the one side and two hundred foot on the other side of the way “: this, however, is not to apply to oaks or great trees, but if a park march with the roadway, the lord must “minish his park the space of two hundred foot from the highways, as before is said, or that he make such a wall, dyke or hedge, that offenders may not pass, nor return to do evil.” 

The declared object of the Statute of Winchester, was, in the words of the preamble, “for to abate the power of felons,” and the highway clause is said to have been designed against the depredations of bands of robbers called Drawlatches and Roberdsmen, who, concealing themselves in the thick undergrowth by the roadside, had been a terror to travellers for the last hundred years or more. If the law could have been enforced in this particular, so as to leave a clear two hundred feet both sides of the road, the result would have been admirable, but the regulation was framed on too ambitious a scale, with the result that it was generally disregarded, or at the best only partially carried out, and it is extremely unlikely that many lords minished their parks as they were ordered. 

It was, of course, extremely difficult to give effect to the new police system throughout England ; conditions and customs varied in different districts ; before the introduction of newspapers ideas spread but slowly ; and people did not readily comprehend strange institutions, nor accept them, when understood, without protest. This was especially the case in the north-westerly provinces , the men of Cheshire, amongst others, were dissatisfied with the new arrangements, and petitioned the king to relieve them of the burden of maintaining so many peace officers ; but Edward was not to be influenced against his judgement, by these entreaties, and answered in an abrupt manner that he would not change the law, nor revoke his statutes. The men of Shropshire and Westmoreland also, who, as it appears, had successfully evaded their obligations under the decennary system, now took it upon themselves to ignore the provisions of the Statute of Winchester ; with the result that some fifteen years later, on it being brought to his notice that the regulations which he had laid down were not being properly carried out, the king ordained that “the same statute be sent again into every county to be read and proclaimed four times a year, and kept in every particular as strictly as the great charters, upon pain of incurring the penalties therein limited.” 

It is worthy of notice, that as early as the thirteenth century, the police of the capital city was placed on a different footing from that of the rest of the kingdom, a distinction which, to some extent, has been retained until the present day. The Statute of Winchester did not apply, to London, but in its stead a local Act was passed in the same year, having special reference to the government of the metropolis. From this and from other sources, a comprehensive reconstruction might be made of the police arrangements that controlled London at the time of Edward I., the principal features of which may here be briefly indicated. 

The city was divided into twenty-four wards, and in each ward there were six watchmen supervised by an alderman, who was expected to acquaint himself with the personal characters of the residents of his ward, and was ordered to secure any malefactors that he might find the aldermen, therefore, were executive as well as judicial officers, and might have to adjudicate in the morning upon the evidence they themselves had collected overnight. 

In addition to the ward-watchmen there was a separate force called the “marching watch”(the germ of the patrols of later days), whose duty it was to exercise a general vigilance for the maintenance of peace in the city, and to give their assistance to the stationary watchmen as occasion demanded. Foreigners, who were not freemen of the city, might not be innkeepers, and lepers were forbidden to leave their houses under the severest penalties; regulations were made against the rearing of oxen or swine within the city walls, and against the establishment of schools of arms where fencing with the buckler was taught. By day the gates were open, but even then care was taken to exclude undesirable visitors, for two sergeants “skilful men and fluent of speech ” were placed at each gate to scrutinise all those who passed in or out.

One hour after sunset, curfew was rung simultaneously from the Church of St Martin’s le Grand and in the other parishes, the gates were then shut, taverns were closed, and men might not go about the streets armed till the morning, “unless he be a great man, or other lawful person of good repute, or their certain messengers, having their warrants to go from one to another with lanthorn in hand.” 

The peace officers were authorised to arrest anyone who broke these regulations, and to bring him the following day before the Warden, Mayor, or  Aldermen of the city, for punishment ; officers were secured against all penalties for acts done in the execution of their office, and no complaints were permitted to be made against them with regard to the imprisonment or punishment of offenders, “unless it be that an officer should do so  of open malice, and for his own revenge, or for the revenge of another that maliciously procureth the same, and not for the keeping of the peace.” 

It will be observed that the intention both of the Statute of Winchester and of these regulations for the government of London is in the main a preventive one, that whilst every care is taken to place obstructions in the way of transgressors, and every caution exercised to render a criminal career difficult we hear but little of the penalties that follow upon detection. This tendency is in marked contrast to the custom of subsequent legislation, which increasingly insisted on the infliction of punishment as the only effective means of diminishing crime. The earliest English police known to us, relied almost entirely, as has already been pointed out, on efficacy of the preventive principle. The system inaugurated by the Statute of Winchester which took the place of the ancient institutions, may be con- sidered as the connecting link between the two extreme conceptions of police functions, between the policy of prevention and the policy of repression. Watch and Ward was the civil equivalent of the sentry who, in time of war is posted outside the camp, and whose functions are purely preventive, whilst Hue and Cry was partly preventive and partly repressive. Although the main object of the latter institution was the apprehension of offenders, quite half its value depended on the effect produced on the minds of intending criminals by the fear that any illegal act on their part might raise the whole county in arms against them, and by the knowledge that escape was well-nigh impossible. 

The law against vagrancy was conceived in the same spirit, the Statute in question requiring Bailiffs of towns to make enquiry every week of all persons lodging in the suburbs, in order that neither vagrants, nor “people against the peace ” might find shelter, a regulation designed on the lines of the universal police maxim “Allow the thief no rest.” The custom was to make the householder responsible for the deeds of those whom he harboured, and to punish the indiscriminate giver of alms. 

This method was not only more humane, but it also proved more effective than the everlasting imprisonment, whipping, and branding of vagrants, that Tudor legislation enjoined.

Neglect of the Hue and Cry, failure to make “fresh and quick pursuit,” and sometimes want of success when pursuit was duly made, were visited by the imposition of fines upon the neglectful or unfortunate inhabitants as the case might be: many examples of this are on record, e.g. (Exchequer Rolls, vol. i. sect. 14). 

“Item. The citizens of Lincoln fined fifty marks for suffering a robber to escape, etc. : and the men of Colchester for the like.

 Item. (Sussex 16 Edward I.) Homicide committed in a fray:  the offender who had stabbed his adversary, a butcher, takes refuge in the Church of Crawley and abjures the realm : townships of Crawley and Hurst amerced because they did not make suit. 

Item. A quarrel in an alehouse at Hodley, in which a man is struck on the head and dies four days afterwards. The offender escapes, and all the persons present in the alehouse amerced, because they did not secure him.” 

When Hue and Cry had been raised against a fugitive, every man had to lay aside his work and join in the pursuit to the best of his ability, anyone failing to do so, or withdrawing himself without permission, was considered to have taken the part of the person who was fleeing from justice, and the two might be hunted down together, and when apprehended, delivered to the Sheriffs, “not to be set at liberty, but by the King, or by his chief justice.”

Once levied, Hue and Cry recognised no boundaries, the pursuit spread from hundred to hundred, and from county to county, “till they come to the seaside,” or until the man surrendered himself. “The life of Hue and Cry,” says Coke,  “fresh suit,” and in order that valuable time should not be lost in preliminary enquiries, no liability for malfeasance attached to those who followed the chase; if therefore an innocent man was hunted down, he had no remedy against his pursuers, but, to obtain satisfaction, had first to discover the author of the false report. If the fugitive sought refuge in a house, and refused to open the door, the peace officer might break it open, and in the event of a man grievously wounding another, it was held that killing was no murder, provided that Hue and Cry had been duly levied, and provided also, that the offender could not otherwise be taken.

The best, and as a rule, the only practicable chance of escape open to the pursued, lay in the possibility of his reaching a sanctuary before the hunters came up with him. If a man took sanctuary, his life was safe, but he remained a close prisoner within the precincts of the asylum in which he had found refuge until he received the King’s pardon, or until he purchased his freedom by “abjuring the realm,” an undertaking which entailed upon him perpetual banishment, besides the forfeiture of a his belongings. These sacred asylums, within whose precincts the law was powerless, were often made use of in a manner never contemplated when the privilege of affording protection to fugitives was first extended to them. If an offender was unpopular his chance of reaching sanctuary was very remote, it was easy enough to head him off, or to surround the place in such a manner that approach meant certain capture; on the other hand, if the country folk were disposed to favour the escape of the hunted man, there was little difficulty in managing the pursuit in such a way that he should reach his goal in safety. Hue and Cry was therefore not as effectual as it ought to have been, especially against men who for one reason or another enjoyed the goodwill of their neighbours, and its efficacy was still further reduced by the freedom with which Charters of Pardon were granted by the King to powerful nobles and others, who were prepared to pay for the concession. 

In addition to the Statute of Winchester upon which his reputation as a police reformer mainly rests, Edward I. was the author of other valuable measures designed to produce and conserve a state of public tranquillity. Under former rulers Sheriffs had been allowed a dangerous amount of freedom, which they had abused for their own advantage, both by improperly admitting to bail offenders who ought not to have been permitted to remain at large, and by exacting bail from others on trivial or trumped-up charges. This practice Edward combated, and forbade sheriffs, under severe penalties, to hold to bail any who were not strictly bailable. Mindful also of the disturbances wrought by idle rumour, he set himself to put a stop to the dissemination of scandal by irresponsible talebearers, and decreed that henceforth those “who be so hardy as to tell or publish any false news or tales whereby discord may arise ” should be ” taken and kept in prison until he is brought into the Court which was the first author of the tale.” 

Of greater practical value, however, were enactments dealing with Coroners (so-called because they were principally concerned with pleas of the Crown). With the intention that these most important officers should stand high in the estimation of all men, Edward, in 1275, ordained that no one under the degree of knight should be chosen to the office, and in the year following he defined the powers of Coroners, setting forth what steps they were called upon to take for the better preservation of the peace, and in what manner their functions ought to be carried out. It was enacted that, in the event of any person meeting with an unnatural or violent death, the township concerned had to immediately give notice to the nearest Coroner, who was thereupon bound to issue a precept to the constables of the neighbouring vills, requiring them to cause to appear before him a competent number of good and lawful men in order that the matter might forthwith be investigated at the place where the corpse had been found. If, upon inquiry, and upon the oath of the jurymen, it should appear that foul play had been the cause of death, the Coroner was, by the same statute, further instructed to use his best endeavour to discover the guilty party, and if the murderer was known, the Coroner was authorised to deliver him to the Sheriff and to proceed to his house, and there to cause a valuation of all his belongings to be made, the amount thereof being notified and secured to the township or hundred, which was then answerable to the judges for any amercement that might subsequently be imposed. Nor was the business of holding inquisitions in cases of sudden death the only duty of the Coroner ; he was also expected to make enquiry, in like manner, of every reported case of housebreaking, and was required to keep a watchful eye on any of the King’s subjects who seemed to live riotously, haunting taverns and the like, and to attach them by four or more pledges on the not unreasonable suspicion that the funds which supported such extravagances proceeded either from some illegal practice, or from a secret store of treasure trove. Though answerable to the King, Coroners were chosen by the county, and sworn by the sheriff ; any holder of the office concealing felonies, or failing in his duty through favour to the misdoers, was liable to be fined at the King’s pleasure and to be imprisoned for a year. 

Much of the good work done for the internal peace of the kingdom by Edward I. was undone by his successor, whose predilection for evil counsellors led to much Baronial resistance, and threw the country back into that state of lawlessness from which it had been delivered by the wise police regulations of the Statute of Winchester. 

Organised bands of robbers harried the country, setting at defiance sheriffs, judges, and even the King himself, who was stopped near Norwich by a freebooting knight called Sir Gosseline Denville, and stripped of his money and other valuables. With such an example of reckless disregard of the King’s peace before them, it is not wonderful that the lower orders of the people ignored the restrictions that the law imposed ; the weak had no protectors, So the hand that was strong enough to take and to hold fast was seldom empty. These predatory rovers waxed so powerful, and grew so numerous as the result of the impunity they enjoyed, that nothing short of a regular military campaign sufficed to free the land from their ravages. The end of this same Denville illustrates the extensive nature of these operations. After years spent in successful plundering, and after an unprecedented reward had been put on his head, he was at length brought to bay by the sheriff of Yorkshire, who, with five hundred men surrounded the inn where the robber slept, and in the course of the desperate fight which followed between the posse comitatus of the peace officer and the banditti, it is said that two hundred men were killed before the knight and his brother were captured

Indolent and incapable as Edward II. proved, his police administration was not altogether without merit, and an important Statute passed in the eighteenth year of his reign is worthy of more than passing notice. In order that the value of this Act may be fully appreciated a few words of preliminary explanation are necessary. One of the principal functions of the Norman Sheriff at his annual visit of inspection or Tourn, was to inform himself (by making inquiry from the chief frankpledges) as to the nature and extent of the crime existing in his district, and to make a report thereof to the King, if, in his opinion, any particular offence or class of offences was unduly prevalent. The exercise of this function, which was known as “presentment,” to some extent secured the trial and punishment of criminals, by bringing their offences to the knowledge of the central authority, and the officer who made the report may, in a sense, be considered to have acted the part of a public prosecutor. When the Court Leet took the place of the Sheriff’s Tourn this function was partially lost, and the object of the Statute in question was to increase the value of the Court Leet as a preventive agency, by reaffirm-ng and clearly defining its responsibility with regard to the important duty of presentment, which it had inherited along with the other functions of the Sheriff’s Tourn. To this end Courts Leet were now (1325) ordered to certify that all the chief pledges were present at the sitting of the Court to which they were summoned, and that they duly brought to the notice of the same Court all offences committed within their knowledge. 

For their guidance a list of the matters which concerned them, arranged under thirty-four headings, was added, of which the most important were the following :

(a) Of damages done to walls, houses, ditches and hedges set up or beaten down to annoyance. 

(b) Of Bounds withdrawn or taken away. 

(c) Of breakers of houses. 

(d) Of petty larrons, and their receivers (i.e. harbourers).

(e) Of such as go messages for thieves. 

(f) Of cries levied and not pursued. 

(g) Of bloodshed and of frays made.

(h) Of escape of thieves and felons. 

(i) Of clippers and forgers of money.

(j) Of persons outlawed returned, not having the King’s warrant. 

(k) Of women ravished not presented before the Coroner. 

(l) Of false balances, measures, and weights.

(m) Of such as continually haunt taverns, and no man knoweth whereon they do live. 

(n) Of such as sleep by day, and watch by night, and eat and drink well, and have nothing. (0) Of persons imprisoned and let go without mainprize. 

(p) Of the Assize of Ale and Bread broken. 

A glance at the subjects enumerated in this schedule is sufficient to illustrate the comprehensive nature of the part assigned to Courts Leet in the general scheme of peace maintenance, and to show how in addition to their primary duty of bringing to light all breaches of the peace, these local police courts were furthermore charged with the supervision of everything that tends to promote good order and good citizenship, such as, for example, the regulating of weights and measures and the abatement of public nuisances. 

This Statute is entitled “A Statute for View of Frankpledge,” but it was not put forward with any intention of reverting to the old system of police by decennary societies, nor with any idea of superseding or even modifying the Statute of Winchester, but rather as an auxiliary measure to enlarge the sphere of usefulness of that Statute, and to render its administration more effectual, by ensuring that no violations of its provisions should go undetected and unpunished.

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