Enforcing law and order before the 16th century

Policing before 1500

No proper police force existed before the 16th century. It was the responsibility of the victim and local community to find the criminal themselves. It was expected that communities would be responsible for policing and combatting crime.

They did this by:

  • Raising the hue and cry - basically, calling on fellow villagers to chase the criminal. If villagers failed to join then the village could be fined.
  • Tithings - adult men were put into groups of ten. If one member of the ten broke the law, it was the responsibility of the others to catch the culprit and take him to court.

During the medieval period, there had been some developments in this system.

County Sheriffs were appointed to oversee law and order in a county. They were appointed by the King and were the chief legal officer in the Middle Ages. If villagers failed to catch a criminal, the Sheriff would form a posse comitatus to continue to chase the criminal. All men over 15 could be forced to join a posse by the Sheriff.

A posse would also deal with any local rioting. A Sheriff also investigated major crimes, again with the help of a jury of local people who would swear an oath to say who they believed had committed the crime. The Sheriff would also hold a criminal after capture in the local gaol.

County Coroners were appointed after 1190. They enquired into violent or suspicious deaths, with the support of a jury of local people.

After 1250, villages started to appoint constables in each village to monitor law and order. These would be leading villagers who would take the role for one year. The role was unpaid and the Constable would lead the hue and cry as well as have other responsibilities.

Trials before 1500

Royal judges travelled around the country dealing with serious cases. County courts were set up with Justices of the Peace (JPs), also known as Magistrates, hearing cases. JPs were usually the main local landowners. The role was unpaid. Each village or manor still had a manor court, held by the local lord or landowner for minor cases.

The Laws of Hywel Dda

Hywel Dda was a Welsh ruler in the 10th century. He unified most of Wales under his leadership. He also wrote Wales’ first uniform legal system. After the Norman Conquest, the Laws of Hywel Dda continued as the basis of the Welsh legal system.

In 1284 the Statute of Rhuddlan enforced the use of English law for all criminal cases in Wales. However, the Laws of Hywel Dda continued to be used for civil cases until 1540.

The laws set out a system of compensation for victims of various crimes. The families of murder victims, for example, would be compensated financially.

The Laws of Hywel Dda put responsibility for enforcing law collectively. It was the responsibility of Kindreds (Cenedl) for the conduct of the members.