Given the huge corpus of material available this article only represents a snapshot of various crimes committed from the 16th to the 18th centuries; we have tried to include a wide variety of misdemeanours as well as the places and names of those involved and in some cases the resultant outcomes; all were gleaned by going through individual examples from old court rolls from sessions at Cardiff. The majority concern the citizens of Cardiff but we have tried to use examples from throughout rural Glamorganshire. In a day and age quite different from ours, one could be tried and punished for things we would nowadays deem absurd or to be an infringement of one’s personal civil liberties. What we would now consider trivial was once considered serious and the sentences passed reflect this. Some may seem asinine and laughable, some more serious but all are of interest from a historical point of view.
What is interesting but not unexpected is the variety of persons that are included in the rolls. They include people of all classes; indeed the persons mentioned here all seem to be defined by their profession or social standing; they range from labourers, perrywig makes (a redundant profession), Yeoman and Gentlemen (once considered the apotheosis of respectability) et al. Despite being a common platitude history is obscured by the mists of time and these documents allow us to penetrate that mist, albeit fleetingly and elucidate the unfortunate and omnipresent human propensity towards deviancy, which it seems remains unabated today.
One of the most heinous of all crimes and common throughout recorded history is murder, and old Glamorgan certainly had its share, which in a day and age where there was no cctv or forensics, murder would have been a lot easier to get away with. During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1562 Philip Robyn was murdered by Edward Vaughan of llandowe, gentleman, and William Vaughan of Roth, gentleman. The reason is unknown. In the same year Gwenllian Morgan, of Cowbridge, spinster, and Jane Thomas, of Eglwysbrues, spinster, were sentenced to be burnt for murder and treason (possibly anti-royal sentiments). Interestingly in 1594 William Lewis, of Llandaff, yeoman, was with others charged with murder but claimed benefit of clergy (usually restricted for members of the clergy to be tried in an ecclesiastical court and more often than not receive a more lenient sentence although, at one point it was extended to more or less anyone who was literate). This appears to have worked as William got off whilst the others were punished. Fortunately for William this anachronism of the days of monastic Britain survived the reformation of the early 16th century. Maurice David, of Cardiff, saddler, pleaded guilty to a charge of murdering Lewis Edmond, of Cardiff, by stabbing him with a rapier (a sword), at ‘the green betwene the two briges’. It would be interesting to ascertain where these two bridges were but like most of the historic architecture belonging to old Cardiff they were probably mercilessly torn down in the name of ‘progress’.
Moving on to 1713, an interesting account comes from St Athan where Mary, the wife of James Jones attempted to poison her said husband with a pancake mixed with ratsbane (arsenic) but accidently poisoned here father-in-law instead. No punishment is recorded although dispatching an affluent relation via arsenic was a common form of murder in days gone by. Even closer to home was a murder at Penmark where Josiah Hugh confessed to the murder of Mary Rees where he ‘battered her with a stick’ when she was returning from milking sheep and then strangled her, it seems in the name of passion. He was sentenced to be hanged and then hung in chains; gibbeting executed criminals was common as it served as a rather grizzly reminder of the ultimate fate of would-be lawbreakers.
(The noose and gibbet would have been the fate of many criminals in old Glamorgan and would have been a familiar sight)
Robbery and Burglary were also common crimes and a quick and easy way of obtaining money or goods. In 1591 Richard Longmeade of Cardiff stole a horse and was hanged for his pains. In 1693 William Thomas, labourer stole a large sum of coinage from Grace Lewis, widow of Llanishen, namely 38 gold ‘broad’ pieces (an unusual and rare coin issued under the Commonwealth called a ‘broad’ worth 23 shillings and 6d), 2 guineas, a half-guinea and an unusual Spanish gold coin worth 100 shillings. Easy money you might think but a surprising amount of people who stole money from houses, especially domestic servants, were often caught as the court rolls bear testimony to. Military service or transportation to the colonies i.e, North America to work on the plantations were also common punishments for criminals such as Thomas Harry of Cardiff; he was convicted of burglary but got off lightly as the original sentence was death. An example of a type of robbery which is synonymous with the 18th century, namely highway robbery, occurred in 1756 where one Cristopher Turberville, a labourer (the contemporary court roll expressed shock at the name of Turberville being associated with a labourer) of Aberavon robbed James Carson saying (in Welch) “stand, God damn you, I want your money”.
(Highway robbery, often synonymous with the 18th century and dubious characters like Dick Turpin were common - travelling between towns could be a dangerous business in old Glamorganshire)
A type of ‘crime’ which is no longer recognized in enlightened western civilizations are those of one’s choice of religion. Essentially when England split with Rome during the reign of Henry VIII and established her own church i.e., Church of England with the English monarch as supreme head, being a Catholic became a risky business. Associated with foreign powers, plots, such as the Gunpowder plot of 1605, and suspect allegiances they suffered much persecution and this is reflected in the old court rolls for Glamorgan. The year of their persecution within the court rolls begins in 1576 although these recusants, as they were known, cropped up frequently hereafter, often for the peccadillo offence of ‘not turning up to church’ such as John David of Whitchurch, yeoman (a prosperous landowner, usually a farmer) in 1591. There is mention of 19 persons indicted for non-attendance at church in 1605 including a Turberville (who happened to be from a staunch Catholic family). As late as 1679 one Phillip Evans Gentleman, was brought before the courts being suspected of being a Jesuit priest. This is interesting as this is the exact year that Samuel Pepys was accused of being a Papist and also of treason. Writing in 1657 John Everlyn articulates in his diary his disdain for the church during the reign of Cromwell's Protectorate saying "now indeede that I went at all to church whilst these usurpers posses'd the pulpit was that I might not be suspected for a Papist" – anti-Catholic sentiment is seems was common during the 17th c. Religion was a serious concern of many in old Glamorganshire, so much so that one’s absence from a local parish church would not go unnoticed. It was not just recusants who felt the long arm of religious zealously – in 1703 Evan William of Pentrich was brought to account for having the audacity to play his harp on a Sunday amongst many others mentioned for such petty religious misdemeanours.
Treason is another anachronistic crime consigned to the history books but, for a very long time this was a capital offence. Treason could reasonably be defined as betraying ones country (something most modern British politicians are thoroughly guilty of) but the definition stretched beyond physical deeds or international espionage to simply speaking one’s mind. In 1562 Thoman Ffankelyn of Penarth (where the Tudor era housing was in Penarth is a source of curiosity) was ‘indicted, with many other persons, for treason felony’. The act is not recorded but it could well have been for speaking against ‘good Queen Bess’. On parallel to this supposition are the words of Mark Jenkin, yeoman of ‘Llantrissent’ in 1690 when he was accused of uttering the words “it was ffitter for one of King James’ men to ride a stone horse then such a rouge, declaring he was one of King James’ men, and that it might happen ere Long that he should ride the said stone horse”. No doubt a reference to the exiled and deposed Catholic James II. Also in 1695 Edward Carne of Cowbridge and his friend Edward Powell, both gentlemen, were accused of ‘speaking contemptuous words against his majesty and his government to Miles Thomas of Llancarfen’ – freedom of speech was not quite what it is today in late Stuart Glamorganshire.
A firm belief in the supernatural pervaded all levels of society until fairly recently; in fact, it still lingers. In 1588 John Robert ap Leuand and Robert Adams, both bailiffs of Cardiff were ‘presented for permitting sorcerers’, witches perhaps? During the 16th century William Sackeford, of Cardiff was ‘presented for trespass in his own house by evil conversation’ – we are not quite sure what ‘evil conversation’ is, especially in one’s own house. In 1577 before a special commission six people were tried for piracy, all of these people were not from Cardiff. One of the pirates, a London man called Henry Moore was sentenced to hang. Piracy was once common along the Welsh coasts in days gone by.