Lydford Law not only became a Dartmoor tradition, its fame spread nationwide and became synonymous for meaning ‘unfair justice’. Probably one of the best descriptions of what Lydford Law was comes in prosaic form from the Tavistock poet – William Browne:
“I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after:
At first I wondered at it much;
But since, I find the reason such,
As it deserves no laughter.
They have a castle on a hill;
I took it for an old wind-mill,
The vanes blown off by weather.
To lie therein one night, ’tis guessed
‘Twere better to be stoned and pressed,
Or hanged, now chose you whether.
Ten men less room within this cave,
Than five mice in a lantern have,
The keepers they are sly ones.
If any could devise by art
To get it up into a cart,
‘Twere fit to carry lions.
When I beheld it, Lord! thought I,
What justice and what clemency
Rath Lydford when I saw all!
I know none gladly there would stay,
But rather hang out of the way,
Than tarry for a trial!
William Browne – 1644.
It is to the tinners and their stannary courts that responsibility for this harsh justice lies. As Browne notes in his poem if anyone was unfortunate enough to be thrown in Lydford Gaol then they could expect to be hung before they had been judged. This was deemed preferable to languishing in the foul, cramped prison where even drinking water came from rainwater which ran off the roof.
By the twelfth century the Norman kings soon identified the need to control the tin industry and the old customary laws were embodied in a new set of regulations called the Assize of Mines. In addition the entire county of Devon was classed as a royal forest and was subject to laws, which acted to preserve game. Various officials and courts enforced these laws together with the mining codes, some of which could involve imprisonment. It became William de Wrotham’s responsibility to in effect replace both the sheriff and the forest courts in the financial and legal affairs of the Stannaries. King John’s charter of 1201 clearly states:
“We have granted also that the chief warden of the stannaries and his bailiffs have plenary power over the miners to do justice to them and to hold them to the law. And if it should happen that any of the miners ought to be seized and imprisoned for breach of the law they should be received in our prisons (The Medieval Sourcebook, 2004 – on-line source).”
The first court was held at Exeter in 1198 and later moved to Lydford (Hambling 1995 p.27). The prison or Lydford Castle, soon became renown for its sometimes-harsh treatment of prisoners and its quick summary of justice became known as ‘Lydford Law’. As William Crossing notes (1990 pp24-5) this reputation was more attributable to the forest laws than the Stannary ones. Basically it became common knowledge that at Lydford you were hung first and tried afterwards. As seen above this was a fact later recorded in 1664 by William Browne in a poem from his Britannia’s Pastorals. The fame of Lydford Law has also reached the literary world as in Charles Kingsley’s novel ‘Westward Ho!’ the following can be found;
“Let Lydfor’ men mind Lydfor’ roogs, and by Lydfor’ law if they will, hang first and try after“, Westward Ho! (On-line source).
One possible reason for ‘Lydford Law’ was that any transgressor would first be presented to the lowest Forest Court, namely the Court of Attachments that sat every forty days. They would then make presentments to the Court of Swainmote that met every four months. If this court found the presentment true the offender was deemed guilty. However, sentence could only be pronounced by the Court of Justice Seat, which sat every three years. As there was usually little doubt that the sentence would be hanging the offender would be hung in anticipation of the formal judgement. St. Ledger Gordon (1973 p.113) notes that during Henry VIII’s reign the castle was described as “one of the most heinous, contagious and detestable places in the realm”.
What would the actual gaol have looked like? Saunders (1980: pp162 – 164) states that Lyford’s archaeological significance is as a medieval prison as opposed to a castle. There are distinct differences in the amenities within the building and obvious grades of prison accommodation. Room VII on the second floor is the only room to possess a fireplace; there is also a garderobe, leading to the conclusion that this was the courtroom. Room VIII on the same floor also has a garderobe and the evidence for the partition wall could indicate that this served as the keeper’s quarters. The first floor was the prison and demonstrates three clear regression stages in physical comfort. Room IV was well lit with an associated garderobe; possibly serving as a common room. Room VI was well lit but had no garderobe. Room V was poorly lit and had trap-door access to an unlit ‘pit’ below. Brown, 1998, p.4, relates how Richard Strode, an MP for Plympton was incarcerated in the prison in 1510 and is noted as recording that he was thrown into “a depe pit under the grounde.” In the opinion of Saunders, Lydford castle is the earliest example of a purpose-built gaol in this country.
During archaeological excavations possible proof was found for the story that the prisoners had to drink water collected from the roof. Saunders, 1980, 154-64, describes how, “a well was located in the western corner and excavations further revealed a waterspout, which was carved from local Hurdwick stone. This was located 5 ft above floor level in the south-western wall. The head contains a circular hole leading into a half round channel, which was built within the thickness of the wall. He suggests that it could have connected a supply of water, possibly from the roof. The spout could easily have been stopped thus allowing a regulated water supply.”
Brown, M. 1999 Dartmoor Field Guides Volume 30, Dartmoor Press, Plymouth
Crossing, W. 1990 Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot.
Hambling, P. 1995 The Dartmoor Stannaries, Orchard Publications, Newton Abbot.
St. Ledger-Gordon, R. 1972 The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, EP Publishing, Wakefield.
Saunders, A.D. 1980 Lydford Castle , Devon , Medieval Archaeology, No.24.