LYDFORD LAW

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MADAM: I read with in­ter­est the ar­ti­cle re­gard­ing Lydford (“Ru­ral Rides”, Win­ter 2016). Wil­liam Browne’s 1644 poem about Lydford Law was quoted, how­ever, the au­thor of the ar­ti­cle was mis­taken in say­ing that the poem “sum­marised the tough jus­tice meted out by the in­fa­mous Judge Jef­fries”. It has noth­ing what­ever to do with the so- called “Bloody As­sizes” of Judge Jef­fries, which fol­lowed the Mon­mouth Re­bel­lion in the West Coun­try. I would not for a moment wish to de­fend Jef­fries and his reign of ter­ror. In the name of com­mon jus­tice, how­ever, surely we should not al­low even the egre­gious Jef­fries to be blamed for some­thing that wasn’t his fault!

The Bloody As­sizes did not be­gin un­til 25th Au­gust 1685 — a full 41 years af­ter Browne wrote his poem. Judge Jef­fries was not even born un­til 1645.

Sum­mary jus­tice in Lydford Cas­tle goes right back to the years fol­low­ing the Nor­man Con­quest in the 11th cen­tury. The Nor­man Kings soon re­alised the im­por­tance of tin min­ing in the West Coun­try. To en­sure their control of the in­dus­try, the old cus­tom­ary laws were in­cor­po­rated within a new set of laws spe­cific to the area and known as the As­size of Mines. In ad­di­tion, the whole of Devon was de­clared a Royal For­est and sub­ject to the se­vere For­est Laws. The strict en­force­ment of both For­est and Stan­nary ( Tin) Law is men­tioned in King John’s Char­ter to Wil­liam de Wrotham on his ap­point­ment as War­den of the Stan­nar­ies in 1201.

The Char­ter gave Wil­liam au­thor­ity over both Forestry and Stan­nary Law. The Forestry Laws were more dra­co­nian than Stan­nary, hav­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing num­ber of cap­i­tal of­fences — a man could be hanged for poach­ing a sin­gle rab­bit, or even be­ing caught set­ting snares in a Royal Park!

Any­one ar­rested un­der Forestry Law was brought first be­fore the Court of At­tach­ments, which ad­min­is­tered For­est Law and sat ev­ery 40 days. Those deemed guilty were re­manded for a hear­ing be­fore the Court of Swain­mote which met quar­terly. If found guilty by the Swain­mote, an of­fender would be sen­tenced to death, though the death penalty it­self had to be en­dorsed by the Court of Jus­tice Seat, which sat only once ev­ery three years. This meant that there were many on Death Row in Lydford Cas­tle.

It of­ten be­came nec­es­sary dur­ing the three- year gap be­tween Jus­tice Seats to make room in the cas­tle dun­geon for still more con­demned men, and this was ef­fected by hang­ing some of the men al­ready there, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the Jus­tice Seat’s for­mal judge­ment. It was thus true that many un­for­tu­nate souls were not con­demned to death by a Royal Judge un­til af­ter the ac­tual ex­e­cu­tion had taken place. This state of af­fairs lasted for cen­turies. Dur­ing the reign of Henry VIII, Lydford Cas­tle was de­scribed as “One of the most heinous, con­ta­gious and de­testable places in the realm.”

So Browne’s Lydford Law was due, not to Judge Jef­fries, but to the far older and tyran­ni­cal laws of Stan­nary and Forestry which, over the cen­turies, were re­spon­si­ble for far, far more ju­di­cial mur­ders than the “Hang­ing Judge”. — REV. JONATHAN E. MOORE, GLOS­SOP, DER­BYSHIRE.

( con­tin­ued)

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