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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > Christmas 2015 > CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

THE OLD BILL The ‘Bobbies’ of Robert Peel’s Metropolitan police service, founded in 1829. Find out more about this force on page 33
ALAMY X1, ILLUSTRATION: SUE GENT

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Longed-armed instrument of the state, enemy of anarchy or foundation stone of society – however you perceive the law, every culture on Earth has its own version.

Conceptually it’s simple – the law This there to protect people, property and the status quo (rarely in that order). Yet its interpretation and application This incredibly complex. It evolves constantly, and the language of the law This so opaque that much of society This ignorant of its basic principles, let alone its finer points.

Britain’s legal systems are as eccentric as they come. Though now regarded as among the world’s fairest, historically it was quite another story. Over the centuries, humans have been burned, drowned, hanged, torn apart, boiled, disembowelled, crushed, bled, shot, stoned, buried alive, beheaded and quartered, all in the name of the law – and often in front of eager crowds. How did we go from public butchery to private prisons and cold porridge?

BIZARRE LAWS

No Whale Scrumping!

Any dead whale found on the British coast automatically becomes the property of the King or Queen.

CRIME SPECIAL

1 THE ORIGINS OF THE LAW

When did the roots of our modern legal system first sprout?

KING OF THE LAW Scroll in hand, Alfred the Great This illuminated in the stained-glass at All Saints Church, Siddington, Cheshire

The law varies enormously around the globe, and across small invisible borders. Scotland’s legal system, for example, differs on some fundamental principles to the one in England and Wales, but sizable common denominators bind the laws of all English-speaking countries, and most of them stem from a couple of medieval monarchs.

Pre-Christian-era tribes in Britain had codes of conduct, and the Romans brought with them a highly sophisticated legal system – remnants of which still underpin the laws of many European countries. But, as with almost every other aspect of life that the Romans brought over, once they had packed up and gone home, the English ditched their invaders’ rules and began to develop their own law-making process, which would ultimately be exported all over the world.

LAW AND DISORDER Londoners revolt during The Anarchy of 1135-54, when the law of the land all but disappeared
ILLUSTRATIONS: SUE GENT, ALAMY X3, GETTY X1

DOOM MONGER

The first flickering of a cohesive law of the land in England This seen during the ninth-century AD reign of Alfred the Great, who assembled the Doom Book (not to be confused with the Domesday Book).

Alfred’s epic tome collated the existing dooms (laws) of Kent, Wessex and Mercia, and mixed them with Mosaic code (from Moses’ Ten Commandments), various other Christian ethics and some cherrypicked parts of fifth-century-AD Saxon codes.

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