Stocked up at Brinkworth, Douglas Crowley


Records of the courts held in respect of Brinkworth and Charlton manors in the later 16th century and earlier 17th are extant in the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office. The lord of the manors in the earlier of those periods was the soldier and MP Sir Henry Knyvett, who held them in the right of his wife, Elizabeth, the daughter and heir of Sir James Stumpe; and in the later period it was the Knyvetts’ grandson, the royalist politician, Thomas Howard, Earl of Berkshire. The courts were held in Knyvett’s name by his steward, Griffin Curtis, and in Howard’s by his steward, John Platt. The stewards held a view of frankpledge, in which leet jurisdiction was exercised and the assize of bread and ale was enforced, combined with a court of the manor, in which minor pleas between tenants were entered, admittances to land held by copy of court roll were witnessed by the homage and thus validated, and the tenurial and agrarian customs of the manor were recorded, varied and enforced.

Under those headings the courts dealt with a wide range of local affairs. In addition, they sometimes punished statutory offences and, by ordering the repair of highways and trying to prevent undertenants or lodgers from becoming a charge on the parish, involved themselves in parochial business. The courts were evidently well attended, were sometimes held in more than one session, and were not to be treated with contempt. Men were punished for disturbing them with their chatter and verbosity, their bragging and vain-speaking. On one occasion the whole homage disturbed a court with its various pleadings and would not observe silence; and in 1573 a penalty of 20s. was imposed on Richard Shearer who, when charged by the steward to present on his oath, uttered the contumelious and dishonourable words, ‘I defy the mace’. The proceedings of the court were to be treated seriously.

A probable example of the vigour of the courts, although just possibly of no more than unusually detailed record keeping, is the frequency with which it was ordered that the stocks at Brinkworth should be used for punishment in the 1570s. The image of offenders restrained in the stocks (cippi), seated with their ankles and possibly wrists held in place in front of them by means of a wooden framework, is familiar. Those standing, with wrist and neck restrained, were held in a pillory and, although the making of a new pillory (collistrignum) was ordered at Charlton, neither the court at Brinkworth nor that at Charlton ordered offenders to be pilloried.

Between 1571 and 1582 orders were made for 18 offenders to be punished by means of the stocks at Brinkworth. The offenders, and the offences which they had committed, were usually presented to the courts by the jurors. Some offences were minor crimes, such as assault, and the theft of wood, duck and apples. Others involved what might now be called anti-social behaviour and included hedge breaking, the harbouring of ‘unknown and extremely suspicious persons’, being a chatterer and a scold, and wandering about at night. One Humphrey Jones, described as a disturber and a quarreller, assaulted both the bailiff and the tithingman and, when the tithingman summoned him to the muster, called him ‘rascal and scab’. The court seems to have inflicted punishment by means of the stocks slightly more readily on women than on men. Of the 18 offenders thus punished, eight were women and in 1581, when the spoiling of wood by three men and three women were presented, each of the men was punished by a penalty of 2s. and each of the women by means of the stocks.

It was apparently the duty of the local constable to enforce ‘the penalty of the stocks’ and the object of the court in imposing such a penalty was presumably to expose the offender to public contempt. In four instances the time at which the penalty was to be inflicted was specified in the court record. In one it was to be at the time of morning prayer on St. Luke’s day, exactly a fortnight after the court met, in two it was to be on the Sunday following the meeting of the court, and in one at the time of morning prayer on the following Sunday. The times at which the penalty was enforced were presumably chosen to expose the offenders to maximum public contempt, and punishment by public humiliation was presumably intended to deter the existing offenders and others from future misdeeds. Possibly on each occasion on which an offender was restrained in the stocks something was exhibited to remind the guilty and inform the innocent of the reasons for the restraint. At Charlton in 1564 a woman who had stolen two geese was to be restrained in the stocks for three hours on each of two days, and for all that time one of the geese was to be tied up in front of her, a punishment which seems rather hard on the goose. In the case of three men restrained in the stocks for three hours at Brinkworth in 1572, the court left no room for doubt: it ordered that the constable should place in front of them a notice made up in very large letters to form the words ‘thus are we punished for filching, bribery and as common brawlers and disturbers of the people and neighbours’. The notice presumably carried more weight with the literate than the illiterate.

The earlier 17th century records of the Brinkworth courts contain no reference to the stocks and the contrast between the 1570s, when the court regularly ordered the stocks to be used for punishment, and the 1620s and 1630s, when it made no such order, begs many questions. Were the stocks used in response to unrecorded orders or summarily by the tithingman or constable? Were they used in response to orders by higher courts or officials? Did they go out of use? Or what? It may be supposed that historians envisage all village life in the 1570s to have been like that recorded at Brinkworth, but, at least in Wiltshire, it is rare to find so much direct evidence as there is for Brinkworth: and it is faintly reassuring to know that our mental picture of miscreants in the stocks is not entirely fantasy.