Regency Law

cover of Bones in the OrchardMy third Regency romantic mystery, The Bones in the Orchard,  (sample on that page) finally released yesterday! Now that I have the late earl’s family settling into the crumbling, and possibly haunted, Wycliffe Manor, I decided to bring in outsiders. A Regency village really ought to have a curate, shouldn’t it? I told you back in May about my difficulty setting up the chapel and the parsonage occupants.

What I didn’t tell you about was the difficulty in deciding who is actually the law in this imaginary district I’ve created. I’m enjoying writing mysteries without modern police procedures or the cliché of irritating detectives peering over the shoulders of my characters. I like having the romance and characters as the true meat of the book. But after one catches a killer, what Bow Street officehappens to him? And how far can my characters go in their search for the guilty party?

To my shock, I learned the Wild, Wild West wasn’t far different from Regency England when it came to law. The sprawling, teeming city of London was just establishing the Bow Street Runners to go out and catch lawbreakers. The rural areas. . . had next to nothing. The poorer rural areas. . . even less.

In populated towns with enough gentry to establish a judiciary, they might have unpaid justices of the peace, usually three to form the court. The judges volunteered, usually to establish their old sketch of English villagestanding in the community, not necessarily because they knew the law. If a town had so much crime that they had difficulty finding volunteers, they might petition the Crown to hire a paid magistrate. These justices would also sit in on a family court involving disputes over children.

Apparently, justices of the peace received some training, and the paid magistrates had more. Both could decide on cases that carried up to twelve months in prison or unlimited fines. Since the law was harsh back then, these were generally simple misdemeanors and violations of local ordinances—not murders.

In the case of more serious crime, the justices had to arraign the prisoner to a larger court—the assize court. This is all a bit of a sticky wicket for my Gravesyde Priory inhabitants, who are legally in one district, surrounded by another, and bordering a third with much closer courts. And, of course, my small village has no gentry to appoint as justices, other than the manor inhabitants, who are mostly women and not considered judicial material. (I’m including the images from Goldsmith’s Deserted Village because I love them and can’t find images of an actual court!)old village court
So who do they call on if they need to bring a criminal to trial? And how do they even catch the criminal, since there is no police force?

Well, they have to do it themselves. Yes, really, it’s do-itself-your-law out there in the sticks, just like in Wyatt Earp’s days. If property is stolen or someone is killed, the family might hire a thief taker to hunt down the criminal. Not that there were many detectives outside London, but I suppose there are always snoopy people around willing to be paid to throw someone behind bars—hence all our fun mysteries. Whether or not the people they catch are guilty. . . that’s another matter entirely.cowboys shooting

So now I am entertaining myself with all the many ways our manor occupants can circumvent the law while applying it as needed. And the monks’ crypt makes a very handy prison—or dungeon, depending on your point of view.
Really, I’m having too much fun for this to be a paying gig! Well, the research is fun, anyway. The actual writing. . . Yeah, that can be a headache. Have you ever wanted to be a writer? Have you ever read a Regency and wondered what happened to the criminals? Do you now understand now why sometimes, they just get put on a ship and sent away?



15 thoughts on “Regency Law”

  1. I have no knowledge of the law in Regency England, except for what I’ve read in novels which may not have been accurate. My strong impression is that people with money and power could influence the process in the sense of getting charges dropped, say to cover up things they would prefer not to become public knowledge, or get convicted people pardoned. And maybe make informal agreements that people would leave the country rather than be prosecuted, again to cover up inconvenient facts. Or, if people wouldn’t cooperate, get them transported. My understanding is that transportation was a punishment for all kinds of crimes, including ones we now consider to be trivial.

    • that’s a pretty strong understanding. Most writers get it right. With no police and no real court on the lower level, a person of standing could do almost anything he liked. And yes, punishment could be quite harsh if a criminal was actually brought to court.

  2. Interesting, Pat! Researching historical law can be fascinating, and you’re using it to such great effect in your excellent Regency mysteries. I’ve done some research in the legal system in Scotland for my books – Regency and medieval too. There are key differences and lots of points where they intersect. History of law is a real research rabbit hole, lol. Great post!

  3. My imagination is running wild…..Wild Bill Hickock walking around London. OK, I think it has been a fact that those with money, power and connections were not treated quite like the average man in the street. (that of course is if the man in the street is a criminal) I wonder how much influence literacy had on changing the way things were done. I mean, think about it, most people learned to read, newspapers began to tell stories (sometimes the stories were even true). It would not have been so easy to hide the fact that the privileged few might be getting away with murder. And the idea of sending criminals to Australia was sort of a genius idea. It would figure that those people were tough. And it would take toughness to start over in a new place with such a different climate and situation. I think the same premise made the people who came to North America more able to cope. I mean except for Sir Walter Raleigh, most of the really spiffily dressed did not do exploring. Tough will generally manage well in difficult circumstances.

    • I like the way you think! (and I’m pretty sure I’ve read a series where American outlaws came to Victorian London…) I fear money and power have always given the privileged classes advantages the average man didn’t have and that didn’t change a whole lot even when the laws changed. But what was needed was a complete change of mentality–someone had to pay for a police force and justice system. That sets off a whole new line of social adjustment.

      • … people with money and power could influence the process in the sense of getting charges dropped…
        Unfortunately, still true. And if they are charged, they can afford the best lawyers.

  4. I suppose the thief takers were a Regency version of Palladin, Have Gun, Will Travel. What to do with the criminals? Probably transport was the best thing that could happen, assuming they survived the voyage. Certainly better than prison or a living death aboard a permanently anchored ship on the Thames.

  5. It was always handy to have a friend in the shipping industry. That way you can have the villain who has been causing you problems tied up and tossed on a ship to be deposited in Borneo, and you don’t have to feel guilty about actually killing him yourself. 🙂

  6. Your late colleague Jo Beverley wrote three judges into the plot of The Secret Duke. The heroine’s evil brother is one of them. All three are brought down by the hero with help from the local vicar, the fed-up townspeople, and (ahem) some “ladies of the evening.”
    I’m looking forward to reading your new book.

  7. Fastinating, Pat, it does sound very “Wild West”, doesn’t it! Amazing that they didn’t have a better system for catching criminals. I do think the poorer people definitely got the worst deal – while doing genealogy I’ve come across some harsh punishments. A 17-year old ancestor was hanged for stealing one measly gold watch and two silver spoons, seems a tad excessive! But a good deterrent for others I guess.

    • I’m fairly certain that capital punishment has never proved a deterrent in any age. 😉 Feeding people and seeing they have a roof over their heads might help, but I’m not sure a 17 year old is capable of thinking beyond “I need money and he’s got some.” But if a magistrate is handling this type of crime all day long, I can see where it might be tempting to just say “hang them all!”


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