The Gibbet Law

As the demand and value of Halifax cloth grew in the 16th century, there was a corresponding increase in theft.

The Gibbet Law – also known as infangthief and utfangthief – was first mentioned in 1280 and required that any thief who was caught in the district with stolen cloth or goods or animals – or who confessed to having stolen goods – to the value of 13½d (the value assessed by four constables) - would be arrested.

In the 17th century, the poet Taylor wrote:

At Halifax, the law so sharp doth deal,
That who so more than 13 pence doth steal,
They have a gin [engine], that wondrous quick and well, Sends thieves all headless into heaven or hell

and Camden writes that:

Halifax is becoming famous among the multitude by the reason of a law whereby they behead straightways whosoever are taken stealing

It was the duty of anyone who had his goods stolen, to pursue and apprehend the thief, and the goods could not be returned to their owner until he had prosecuted the felon; failure to do this would result in forfeiting the goods to the lord of the manor and the owner's liability to prosecution for theft and for conniving with the thief.

The felon must be caught with the stolen goods in their possession – hand-habend, back-berand, or confessand – and within the town boundaries, defined as the Forest of Hardwick.

The trial took place at the Moot Hall before a jury of 16 men, and after conviction, the sequence of events depended on the day on which the trial took place. If it took place on a Saturday, he was immediately led to the market place and beheaded. If it was a Monday, he would be kept for three market-days and then beheaded at the next Saturday market. During the intervening days, the prisoner was held in gaol. Each day he was placed in the stocks as a public display of justice being served and as a deterrent to others, often with the stolen goods placed around him; stolen cloth would be draped around his shoulders, while stolen animals would be tethered about him.

If the victim was able to withdraw his head as the blade fell and escape across Hebble Brook, he could be freed.

During the Commonwealth, the Puritans revived the Gibbet Law, although Oliver Cromwell did not completely approve.

In 1360, the graveship at Sowerby is recorded as having the privilege of gibbetting thieves caught within its boundaries. As at Halifax, they were free if they could escape across Halifax beck – a rather longer flight from Sowerby!

See Clark Bridge and Running Man

© Malcolm Bull 2021
Revised 15:13 / 15th May 2021 / 4702

Page Ref: MMG36

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