The nature of man, despite so many centuries of religion and government, still resented civilization, and it voiced its protest through a profusion of sins and crimes. Laws and myths and punishments barely stemmed the flood. In the heart of London were four law schools, the Middle Temple, the Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Gray’s Inn, collectively known as the Inns of Court. Law students resided there as other students dwelt in the halls or colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Only “gentlemen” of blood were admitted; all graduates were sworn to the service of the Crown; their leading or easily led lights became judges in the Queen’s courts. Judges and lawyers, in action, wore impressive robes; the majesty of the law was half sartorial.
The courts were by common consent corrupt. One member of Parliament defined a justice of the peace as “an animal who, for half-a-dozen chickens, would dispense with a dozen laws”;32 Francis Bacon required higher inducements. “Plate sin with gold,” said Shakespeare’s saddened Lear, “and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.”33 As judges were removed at the Queen’s pleasure, they weighed it in their judgments, and royal favorites accepted bribes to induce her interference with decisions of the courts.34Jury trial was maintained except for treason, but the juries were often intimidated by the judges or other officers of the Crown.35 Treason was loosely defined to include all actions endangering the life or majesty of the sovereign; such cases could be summoned before the Star Chamber—the Privy Council in its judicial capacity; there the defendant was denied jury trial, counsel, and habeas corpus, he was subject to exhausting interrogation or torture, and he was usually condemned to imprisonment or death.
Criminal law relied on deterrents rather than surveillance or detection; laws being weak, punishments were severe. Death was the statutory penalty for any of two hundred offenses, including blackmail, cutting down young trees, and stealing more than a shilling; in an average Elizabethan year eight hundred persons were hanged in Merrie England for crime.36 Minor crimes were punished by the pillory, the stool, whipping at the cart’s tail, burning a hole in the ears or the tongue, cutting out the tongue, or cutting off an ear or a hand.37 When John Stubbs, a Puritan lawyer, wrote a pamphlet condemning Elizabeth’s proposed marriage to Alençon as a surrender to Catholicism, his right hand was cut off by order of a magistrate. Holding up the bleeding stump, and raising his hat with his left hand, Stubbs cried, “Long live the Queen!”38 Philip Sidney sent Elizabeth a protest against the barbarity, and Cecil, ashamed, gave Stubbs a government sinecure. Torture was illegal, but the Star Chamber used it. We perceive that despite the profound and powerful literature of the age, its general level of civilization had not yet reached that of Petrarch’s Italy or Avignon, much less that of Augustus’ Rome.