war and criminals -- 8/18/17
Today's selection -- from Edward I by Andy King. In the aftermath of war, some subset of returning soldiers, struggling to fit back into society and trained in the art of war, find it easier to turn to a life of crime. Even the pirates of the early 1700s, who so colorfully inhabit our national memory, were said to have been disproportionately composed of veterans of Queen Anne's War. To bring it full circle, armies themselves have often been composed of criminals. Both trends were present in the war-dominated reign of King Edward I of England:
"In the Parliament of 1300, Edward conceded that 'many more evildoers are in the land than ever there were, and innumerable robberies, arsons and homicides are committed, and the peace is less well kept'. And in a memorandum to his justices of 1306, he referred to 'the riots and outrages ... which were like the beginning of war'. ...
The Court of King's Bench at work.
"In 1304, Edward appointed special commissions to inquire into crime and disorder, known as commissions of trailbaston, from the clubs, or 'bastons', used by highway robbers. The following year, more such commissions were appointed, this time with the authority to hear and determine cases. This was the first time any King of England had mounted such a deliberate and concerted campaign to tackle crime on a nationwide scale. And, in keeping with Edward's policy of making royal government more responsive, the crown had also begun to issue ad hoc commissions of oyer et terminer. These provided for the appointment of nominated local justices and knights to 'hear and determine' specific cases in the localities in response to individual complaints or petitions. This was a major step in the process which would, over the fourteenth century, see much of the crown's routine legal jurisdiction devolved to the great and good of county society as justices of the peace.
"However, for all the sound and fury surrounding law and order, it is hard to gauge the true extent of the problem; as with all crime statistics, there are difficulties of interpretation. There does appear to have been some increase in crime, much of it stemming from Edward's own wars. The taking of 'prises' (supplies commandeered for the king's wars) caused disputes which often turned violent; and the purveyors who seized them were often accused of theft. Soldiers frequently turned to brigandage, forced to steal in order to feed themselves because of the difficulties and delays in organising prises. And campaigns ended with the discharge of large numbers of men who had got into the habit of living by plunder and ransom. Indeed, many were already felons, for it was Edward who first initiated the grand tradition of filling the ranks of English armies with criminals. In June 1294, pardons were offered to outlaws, fugitives and prisoners who were prepared to serve in [the wars in] Gascony. Typically, Edward justified this as a public good, sparing criminals from punishment
because we are moved to pity for that so many and divers men of our kingdom so often incur the loss of life or limb ... with the hope of the betterment of such malefactors and for the quiet of the people of our realm.
"In fact, he was putting a good face on an expedient forced on him by difficulties in recruiting for an unpopular campaign. Nevertheless, the measure proved so successful that it was repeated on a regular basis for future campaigns."