One Law for the Rich and another for the Poor


The Elizabethan gentry, often holding high office in local government, had little compunction in using and, if necessary, abusing the law in their own interests. In the Herbert Chapel at St. John's Church, lie the marble effigies of two brothers. One of them is Sir John Herbert who, as an MP for Glamorgan, a Privy Counsellor and a close friend of Sir Robert Cecil, was employed on several missions by Queen Elizabeth. There is no evidence that he ever took advantage of his eminent status, but alongside his tomb lies that of his brother, William Herbert of The Friars, who flagrantly used his social position to disregard the law. He was a knight, a JP, five times Sheriff of the county, and from 1579 Deputy Lieutenant of Glamorgan. The effigy shows William with his feet pointing to the east, hands clasped in prayer, a picture of piety as he awaits the Day of Judgement. It is unlikely that many of his contemporaries in Cardiff saw him in this light.

The townsfolk may have been Herbert's conspirators, willingly or unwillingly, in his dubious activities with John Callice, but they were certainly innocent parties when they became trapped in the mayhem of a private war. On one side were the Herberts and their allies, the Lewises of the Van, while on the other was the Mathew clan of Llandaff. The violent feud between these two factions, at the end of the sixteenth century, is indicative of the underlying turbulence of Elizabethan Society in Cardiff. The Star Chamber existed to curb their worst excesses but its restraining influence was far away in London. In the absence of an independent police force, humble citizens had little protection against these over-mighty subjects with their private armies of retainers.

On 31 January 1596 the Lewis faction paraded through Llandaff, howling defiance at Mathew's retainers. The escapade ended in a rout and George Lewis fled for his life across Llandaff Bridge, pursued by an armed mob. During the clash it was alleged that one man was left for dead, and another, who had tried to keep the peace, was assaulted with such savagery that "his very shin bone was beaten and broken into shivers'.

Whenever the Star Chamber investigated complaints, the issues were clouded in a fog of conflicting evidence. Two months later in March, Edmund Mathew testified that he had been ambushed by a hired gang while returning from London to Cardiff. With difficulty he escaped to his home and, in the siege that followed, a variety of weapons, including pistols, inflicted "grievous hurts on divers persons'. In their version, the Lewis fraternity claimed that Edmund Mathew marched on Cardiff with a hundred men and attacked Lewis's servants in Shoemaker Street. Whichever side began the affray, it was difficult for innocent bystanders to avoid the violence. Nor was it easy for the bailiffs to impose order when a powerful family was prepared to take the law into its own hands.

Three of Sir William Herbert's servants were gaoled by the Town Bailiff in February 1595 on charges of assault and contempt. Sir Nicholas Herbert, apart from being William's brother, was also a former Sheriff and MP. He demanded that the prisoners should be released on bail and, when this request was denied, he stormed the gaol with 18 armed men, shouting "You were offered bail for the said prisoners but it would not be accepted and, therefore, now we will bail them ourselves'. In the scuffle which ensued, one of Herbert's lackeys, Llewellyn David, was mortally wounded, but not until he "did with his sword very cruelly cut and slit the nose of a woman in such sort as the same did hang down over her lips'.

Afterwards, Sir William Herbert persuaded another of his relatives, Edward Kemys, who also happened to be the Sheriff, to summon a packed coroner's jury which falsely accused Nicholas Hawkins, the Bailiff, of David's death. The counter-claim, that the Herberts had caused the riot, was rejected at the Petty Sessions by Sir William himself, in his capacity as a magistrate. This was one of the ten occasions between 1594 and 1599 when the Star Chamber investigated riots at Cardiff, which were accompanied by perjury, bribery, packed juries, misuse of office and outright gangsterism, as the leaders of local society sought to intimidate their opponents. In this instance, the offenders did not escape unscathed. Sir William was fined 1000 marks (£666), while Nicholas Herbert and Edward Kemys were each fined £500 and removed as Commissioners of the Peace. They were additionally ordered to pay damages to the Town Bailiffs.


Inequality before the law was apparent in several ways. It was not only the influential gentry who invariably avoided retribution for their misdeeds. Any educated person could plead "benefit of clergy' at his trial and, if he was able to read, even the death penalty for murder might be commuted to a less severe sentence. In 1594 William Lewis of Llandaff, after first being accused of murder, eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. When he claimed "benefit of clergy', even that charge was dropped though both of his accomplices were punished. Such leniency makes a sharp contrast with the fate of John Phillips a few years later. He was convicted for stealing a cow but tried to win a reprieve by pleading "benefit of clergy'. Unfortunately for him, the poor man could not read the book he was given and he was duly hanged. Before the end of the seventeenth century this loophole in the law was curtailed, but it was not finally abolished until 1827.

For those in the lower reaches of society, the revised Criminal Code of Henry VIII was probably the most severe in Christendom. Some aspects of its savagery were mitigated over a period of time but for centuries the death penalty was imposed for all kinds of offences. Rigorous punishment was intended to deter brutal crimes which nonetheless continued to occur all too frequently in this violent age. In July 1555 a vicious killing took place in St. John's Square in broad daylight, when Thomas Avane was stabbed to death by two men.  The assassins were aided by two accomplices but it is not clear why Avane should have attracted such a murderous attack.

Hanging was not necessarily the worst fate to befall a criminal. Men who committed treason were hanged, drawn and quartered but an equally gruesome punishment awaited women. In 1564 Gwenllian Morgan and Jane Thomas, after being found  guilty of murder and treason, were condemned to be burnt at the stake.

What made the death sentence particularly harsh was its regular application for offences which would now be considered as petty crime. Capital punishment could be imposed on a felon who stole property worth more than 5/-. Thus, two Cardiff labourers were hanged in 1596 for stealing ten loaves of bread. This cruel retribution makes a sharp contrast with the pardon granted in 1576 to a gentleman, Rice Herbert of St. Andrews,  after he had feloniously slain another member of the gentry. Occasionally, proceedings have an air of black farce. There seems to have been little point in prosecuting Morgan Samuel, a horse thief from Llandaff, in 1703 for escaping from prison "before sentence of death could be executed upon him'.

Executions were carried out either at the County Gaol in High Street, where the Central Market is now situated, or at the Gallows Field where Crwys Road meets Albany Road. The approach to the Gallows Field was made along Plwcca Lane, now City Road. The placenames, "Plwcca Halog' and "Plwcca Pool', suggesting an unhallowed plot or pool, are grim reminders of this site. Sometimes the Stallingdown, near Cowbridge, became the place of execution. Imagine the hideous nightmare of a prisoner, setting forth on this twelve-mile journey from Cardiff to keep an appointment with the hangman, aware that after the public ritual of execution, his body might be left to hang in chains as a warning to other potential offenders.

Imprisonment, or even remand in custody, could become a death sentence as the foul conditions were liable to cause gaol fever. In 1597-98, as a result of "the visitation of God', 47 inmates died in the County Gaol, and it was not unknown for the dreadful disease to be passed from the accused in the dock to the judge himself. The fear of infection gave prisoners an additional incentive to escape, and in 1592 the gaoler was imprisoned after allowing a felon to abscond. The punishment of minor offences resulted in similar examples of injustice. Gentlemen were never flogged or put in the stocks but in 1617 Elizabeth Gunter was whipped for stealing 10d. The stocks and the pillory were regularly used, as Jane Thomas was to discover in 1576, when she was put in the stocks at Cardiff Market for two hours after being convicted of petty larceny.

Nowhere is the contrast between rich and poor more stark than in the treatment meted out to the destitute of society. Many people experienced considerable poverty in the latter years of the sixteenth century, especially when the harvest failed, as it frequently did in the 1590's. At times of famine, hungry peasants migrated to the towns and it was not unknown for perhaps 10,000 "sturdy beggars' to descend on a community, striking fear into the hearts of the inhabitants.

As the charitable functions of the monasteries and friaries no longer existed, the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 was designed to cope with the distress caused by poverty. Many of its measures were positive, but the punishment inflicted on vagrants could be ferocious. In 1576 Jane Powell of Cardiff, unable to prove that she had any means of livelihood, was judged to be a vagrant at the Great Sessions. As prescribed by the Poor Law, she was "whipped until bloody' and branded on the hand. At the same Assizes, Joan Raffe, five other women and two men were similarly punished. In these circumstances, it is understandable that the Welsh poets lamented, "conscience went to the hedge; a penniless, needy and starving pauper got no welcome but was sent away bare-backed'.