Posted in Crime and Punishment

Being made a laughing stock was deadly…

The earliest recorded mention of the stocks being used as a form of punishment was 4700 years ago. ‘He puts my feet in the stocks.’ Job 33:11

The book of Acts is almost two thousand years old. It describes how the disciples of Jesus, were arrested and their jailer, put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. Acts: 16:24

The stocks were a large hinged wooden frame where the victim’s feet were locked into place and sometimes their hands were put into chains. The stocks were often on the village square, a market place and always in open view of passers-by. Many still exist, in full working order all over Britain.

In 1351 the Statute of Labourers made it law that every town and village must provide a set of stocks. The Black Death had halved the population and there were less agricultural labourers to go around. For the first time workers had the power to ask for higher wages. The Statute law was the nobility’s way of stopping this trend in its tracks. Anyone demanding or even offering higher wages to workers were to be set in the stocks for up to 3 days.

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The stocks were also used to control vagabonds and Beggars after a law was passed in 1494 that made vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town.

Beggars had to have a licence and without one the poor and destitute were whipped or put in the stocks for three days and nights with bread and water only and then returned to their birthplace and made to work.

By 1605, drunks were given six hours in the stocks. Those who could not or who refused to pay the twelve pence fine for swearing in public would be put in the stocks for an hour.

According to the renaissance English history podcast petty crime could be very petty indeed: a law was passed in 1571 that every man over the age of six had to wear a woollen hat on Sundays of course the noble classes were exempt. This was to support the English wool trade.


If we imagine the stocks today, we probably imagine a mild form of public humiliation involving soft rotten vegetables being thrown at the victim for an hour or so. This is where the saying to be made a ‘laughing stock’ comes from and humiliation was a large part of the punishment.

Sadly this was not always the case, people often died in the stocks from exposure by being left overnight during the cold winter months or during hot summer days. Passers-by would think nothing of spitting, kicking and insulting a person in the stocks as they felt fit. The medieval castles website describes how crowds would sometimes cut of pieces of the victim’s hair and mutilated parts of their bodies.

In London stones were sometimes thrown at victims and eyes were lost as a result. In addition to being mocked, those in a pillory might be pelted with dead animals, offal, rotten eggs and even excrement.

Most European countries abolished stocks by the middle of the 19th century but the stocks have never formally abolished in Britain.

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Pillories were put in marketplaces, crossroads, village squares. The victim’s neck and hands were locked into a hinged wooden plank which was part of a permanent wooden structure. The pillory forced its victim’s bodies into in a vulnerable and uncomfortable position and was for more serious crimes.

A criminal could be whipped while in a pillory. Some might have their ears clipped deforming them for life to warn others of their past crimes and showing the world not to trust them. Others had their ears nailed to the pillory after the punishment their ears were cut off . This was used as a way of stopping others who, on seeing the left over ears would think twice about committing a similar crime later. This punishment was called cropping and if you have ever heard the old English expression, ‘I will give you a clip or a crop about your ears’ this is where the saying originates from.


In the short reign of Lady Jane Grey a Londoner named Gilbert Potter had his ears cropped for saying that Mary Tudor was the true queen of England. Potter was maimed for life and was not even rewarded for his loyalty with a thank you when  QueenMary came to the throne shortly after.

After 1816, use of the pillory in England was only used as a punishment for perjury or subornation. It was formally abolished as a form of punishment in England and Wales in 1837.

250px-Tudor_Rose.svg  accessed 08/07/2017 accessed 08/07/2017

Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives by Susan Doran, Thomas Freeman

The NIV Holy Bible: Job 33:11: Acts: 16:24


I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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