CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London law order police curfew peace preservation night-watch inns assault arrest
Subject: Ordinances for preserving law and order
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, ff. 223-224
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 387-90.
Original language: French
Location: London
Date: ca. 1363


Concerning keeping the peace

For the purpose of protecting and preserving the king's peace in the city of London and its suburbs, the king and his council have, with the assent of the mayor, aldermen and community of the city of London, made ordinances as follows. That no-one be so bold as to wander about the city or suburbs after the hour of curfew has been rung at the church of St. Mary-le-Bow, unless he is a man of known and good reputation, or his servant, [going about] for a good cause, and then with a light. The which curfew is to be rung at the church when day turns into night. If anyone is found wandering contrary to this ordinance, he is to be captured and sent to Newgate prison, remaining there until he has paid a fine to the city for his defiance and can find reliable guarantors for his [future] good behaviour.

No-one is to go about armed

Also, that no-one, regardless of status, is to go about armed in the city or its suburbs, nor bear arms by day or night, except for: the squires of the great lords of the land, who carry the swords of their masters when accompanying them; the sergeants-at-arms of the king, queen, prince, and the other children of the king; the city officials and persons who, at their command, go about in their company to assist them in preserving and upholding the peace. Upon penalty as mentioned [i.e. imprisonment?] and the confiscation of their weapons and armour.

Concerning innkeepers

Also, that every keeper of an inn or a lodging-house is to have his guests warned to leave their weapons in the houses where they are lodging. If they fail to do so, and someone is found bearing arms contrary to the proclamation, due to lack of warning from his host, that host is to be punished by imprisonment and a fine to be determined by the mayor and aldermen.

Concerning the power to arrest felons and wrongdoers

Also, that every man of good standing and reputation within the city, whether alderman or commoner, has the authority in the absence of [city] officials to arrest felons and wrongdoers and to take them to the houses of the sheriffs, so that those wrongdoers can receive the punishment due them.

No-one is to draw sword or knife

Also, in order to keep the peace better and to help discourage people from breaking the peace, it is ordained that no-one is to draw a sword, or knife, or other weapon, [upon penalty of] paying 6s.8d or being imprisoned at Newgate for 15 days – so long as he does not use it. But if he draws blood from someone, he is to pay 20s. to the city or be imprisoned for 40 days.

If he strikes someone with his fist without drawing blood, he is to pay 3s. to the city or be imprisoned for 8 days. If he draws blood with his fist, he is to pay 3s.4d to the city or be imprisoned for 12 days. Such offenders are to find reliable guarantors for their good behaviour before they can be released. Notwithstanding these [punishments], those against whom the offences were committed may recover [damages] through the legal process. Offences involving the shedding of blood, in breach of the king's peace, are to be tried from day to day before the sheriffs, without any essoins or other delays.

[ .... ]

Concerning proper watches for [preserving] the peace

Also, that each alderman arrange within his ward for proper and suitable night-watches, so that the peace can be better preserved. So that if some evil occurs through default of the night-watch, the alderman and the whole community of that ward remedy the situation, at their peril [should they fail]. Each alderman is to have the names of all those who are inhabitants, or who lodge with residents, in his ward, as well as of those who are put in private places to work with the others.


The reference to the Prince of Wales dates these ordinances to the third quarter of the fourteenth century; Riley proposed a date of 1364, but the previous year is indicated by a royal writ of June 1363. ordering the ordinances to be publicly proclaimed.

Eighty years after Edward I had tried to impose on London controls to combat lawlessness (see "Ordinances for policing the city"), much the same concerns were still being addressed, as the above ordinances illustrate. The role of the night-watch remained an important one, for much of the crime and violence occurred after dark, and was thanks to men of no fixed abode – inns and lodging-houses perceived as usual as dens for criminals. Hue-and-cry has disappeared (although it remained on the law books elsewhere in England up to the 19th century), but the citizen's arrest remains an important adjunct to formal policing and the community continues to have a role in suppressing disorder. The wards were at least as important, and probably more so, as the focus for police activities; the ward aldermen by now had staffs that included beadles and sergeants, whose duties included police activities. The attentive efforts at prohibiting the kinds of behaviour likely to lead to crime, together with the range of institutions for social control, from city officials with policing and judicial powers to craft gilds, have been cited as some of the reasons for a relatively low homicide rate in London, compared to other parts of the country.



"St. Mary-le-Bow"
The "great bells of Bow" were fairly centrally located in medieval London, and could be heard across a wide area (hence the modern notion that anyone born within the sound of Bow bells was a Cockney). Different churches were used to sound the curfew at different periods.

The largest of the city prisons.

The term here rendered as "squires" is vadletes, which might be better translated as valets or grooms, were not those terms today restricted to menservants with fairly specialized duties.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: September 29, 2010 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2010