A seargent at arms. Reproduced in Social England, ed. H.D.Traill. University of Victoria Library.

In Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff* and his cronies act as highwaymen, robbing two gentlemen travellers approaching London. After the victims escape, it can be imagined they would have gone directly to the city sheriff, who would then have raised a general hue and cry* to search out the culprits.

Different procedures would have applied in the time of Henry IV, but Shakespeare's plays tend to be more Elizabethan than historical in their details.

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Sheriff: A hue and cry
Hath followed certain men unto this house.
(Henry IV, Part One, 2.4.512-13)

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Most of the sheriff's law enforcement duties, such as serving writs and making arrests, were carried out by his undersheriff and a team of bailiffs*; however, had it been a bailiff who tracked down Falstaff, the scene would have been very different. After a routine forced entry, the bailiff might have proceeded by rudely insulting the tavern's Hostess and trying to extort some of Jack's booty.

Bailiffs, like gaolers, were not hired for their charm and gentle manners; sheriff's officers were notorious for being corrupt and disorderly, often appearing in the archdeacon's court on charges of drunkenness.

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After the arrest . . .

Falstaff's reputation doubtless helped the sheriff locate him speedily; and being a persistent offender increased the odds against him. Had there been no Prince of Wales to lie on his behalf, plump Jack would have been hauled off to the local gaol--probably Newgate prison, adjacent to the "Old Bailey" Justice Hall.

Within three days of his arrest, Falstaff and his accuser would appear before a justice of the peace for "examination"; if there seemed to be sufficient evidence against the accused, he would either be released on bail* or returned to the gaol* until his trial at the next quarter session.

Bail for felons could not be granted unless two justices were present (a single justice might more easily be tempted by a bribe) and the guilt of the accused was uncertain; no bail was allowed in cases of treason, murder or arson.

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Here a lesser man than Jack probably would have lost some of his girth, poorly fed and in danger of fatal dysentry or "gaol fever"; if the country were suffering from a bad harvest, he might well starve. Because of such conditions only the worst offenders were kept in the gaols; others, and anyone of moderate wealth, were released on recognizance--that is, bound over to appear for trial on penalty of forfeiting property if they failed to show up.

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Footnotes

  1. Anachronism

    Different procedures would have applied in the time of Henry IV, but Shakespeare's plays tend to be more Elizabethan than historical in their details.

  2. A hue and cry

    Sheriff: A hue and cry
    Hath followed certain men unto this house.
    (Henry IV, Part One, 2.4.512-13)

  3. Internal affairs

    Bailiffs, like gaolers, were not hired for their charm and gentle manners; sheriff's officers were notorious for being corrupt and disorderly, often appearing in the archdeacon's court on charges of drunkenness.

  4. Granting bail . . . or not

    Bail for felons could not be granted unless two justices were present (a single justice might more easily be tempted by a bribe) and the guilt of the accused was uncertain; no bail was allowed in cases of treason, murder or arson.

  5. Hard time

    Here a lesser man than Jack probably would have lost some of his girth, poorly fed and in danger of fatal dysentry or "gaol fever"; if the country were suffering from a bad harvest, he might well starve. Because of such conditions only the worst offenders were kept in the gaols; others, and anyone of moderate wealth, were released on recognizance--that is, bound over to appear for trial on penalty of forfeiting property if they failed to show up.