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Punishment of the Pillory

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

It is very easy to mix up pillories and stocks. Both involved public humiliation by being immobilised in a wooden contraption and being subjected to insults and anything else that could be thrown. If a person was condemned to some time in the stocks, this meant that their legs were locked into a wooden frame on the floor and they had to stay there for the time given by the judge. Although embarrassing, at least the miscreant got to sit down.

The pillory, however, was of a slightly different design: instead of it being on the floor, it was raised up so that the prisoner had to stand up to place their wrists and neck into the holes - sometimes they were also bent over at an uncomfortable angle. The fact that a person had to stand instead of sit made it a harder punishment and therefore the sentence tended to be for a shorter time than in the stocks, with the longest given being a day. Interestingly, it was considered a far worse punishment even than imprisonment, not just because of the physical torment but also because the public aspect meant that the convict was shamed in front of those of his community to whom he may have done wrong.

Pillories, like stocks, were situated in public thoroughfares – in fact they usually both occupied the same space. They also often held more than one prisoner. The main crime punished at the pillory was that of deception, as this entry from the Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume 1, 1323-1364 attests:

Pleas held before the Mayor and Aldermen on Wednesday after the Feast of St Mark [25 April 1355] John Godard was attached by members of the household (gentes de familia) of Edward, Prince of Wales, in Fleet Street, and carried to the house of the Sheriff, Richard Smelt, for pretending to be Purveyor to the Prince, and for having set his seal on certain casks of beer in Fleet Street, without any warrant from the Prince. On news of this, the Prince ordered the Sheriff to bring the man before him at his Manor of Poplar (del Popeler), where the said John confessed his offence. The Prince then sent him back to the Sheriff with a letter from Edmund de Wauncy, requesting that he might be put on the pillory. After being examined by the Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriffs, the said John was ordered to stand for three hours on the pillory, the reason of his punishment being there proclaimed as a warning to other evildoers. ((Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume 1, 1323-1364, Roll A7:1354-55, pps. 241-257))

Also: 9 July 1355

John de Sharryngworth called "Eberton," a "faytour (fn. 19)," was sent to the pillory by order of the Mayor and Sheriffs, for being an able-bodied vagabond, who would not work and pretended to be an invalid. Wednesday after the Feast of St James the Apostle [25 July]. ((Ibid.))

The pillory was the main type of punishment for bakers who broke the assize, and butchers that sold bad meat as well. Sometimes they could get away with a fine, but if they were repeat offenders then they would find themselves pilloried with their dodgy wares displayed around them so that everyone would know what they’d been up to.

Interestingly, women were not condemned to the pillory as it was considered that it would make them stand in an indecent manner (with legs apart). Instead they had their own type of pillory known as the thewe.

The Thewe

Whipping Post (thewe) and stocks in Bottesford - Richard Croft, Wikicommons

Not many descriptions exist for a thewe and those that do often confuse it with a cucking stool. This may be because thewe means ‘bound’ in old English and the original cucking stools were devices where a woman was tied to a chair and carried around the town . The thewe, though, was a stationary punishment and usually consisted of a post with perhaps a neck iron or some other means of restraint where a woman had to stand straight, legs together, in public view. Because these posts seem to be elusive, it could be surmised that these were the same posts used for the punishment of flogging. Many examples still exist in England (as well as many other countries) and they are usually situated next to stocks. Sometimes, if a pillory was not available, a man might also be fettered to a thewe/whipping post, sometimes with a whetstone around his neck.

Women were sent to the thewe for the same offences as men were sent to the pillory, such as selling bad or underweight goods or for giving false testimony. Of course, false testimony could also mean that she had failed in having someone she’d accused of a crime convicted by jury – not necessarily a guarantee that she had lied! Women were also condemned to the punishment of the thewe for being a scold or for defamation, although fines were the more usual means of correction.

One particular case was that of Alice Seether who, on 4th September 1375 found herself in front of the mayor of London, the charge being as follows:

… for being a common scold; and for that all the neighbours, dwelling in that vicinity, by her malicious words and abuse were so greatly molested and annoyed; she sowing envy among them, discord, and ill-will, and repeatedly defaming, molesting, and backbiting many of them, sparing neither rich nor poor; to the great damage of the persons and neighbours there dwelling, and against the ordinance of the City. ((49 Edward III. A.D. 1375. Letter-Book H. fol. xxi.))

Despite denying the accusations made against her, she was found guilty and sentenced to punishment of the thewe for one hour.

Although the sentences may seem short to us today, it must be remembered that the public disgrace must have been mortifying, not to mention the damage it would have caused to the person's business. In addition, those found guilty may have had to pay a fine or be banished from the town or city. There were no state safety nets or benefits to catch those who became destitute and so their lives would have changed, most definitely for the worse.

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