One Law for the Rich and another for the Poor
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
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.
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
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'.