The Prince and The Pauper, The Disclosure of Unjust laws in 16th century England

One of the major themes in the novel the Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain is the Unjust nature of low practiced during the period of 16th century in England. Though seemingly fictious, Twain actually have brought forward the actual laws that were practiced during that period of time. By doing so, he does a heavenly task of a writer that is purifying the society by pointing out its flaws. 

You can read the synopsis of the novel here:

One of Mark Twain’s ideas is that people of high standing ought to endure the harsh laws they create. If they were to experience these harsh laws, they would soften them. Of course, in this novel, a prince and a pauper exchange clothes and places, and the prince experiences life as a pauper. In doing so, he experiences his father’s harsh laws, and when his rightful place as king is given to him (his father has died), he softens those laws. Mark Twain himself summarized his purpose in writing this novel in these words:

“My idea is to afford a realizing sense of the exceeding severity of the laws of the day by inflicting some of their penalties upon the king himself & allowing him a chance to see the rest of them applied to others — all of which is to account for certain mildnesses which distinguished Edward VIs reign from those that preceded & followed it.” (xvi)

Let’s explore the unjust practices of law illustrated in the novel according to their appearance.

You can watch the video post on the same content here:


Unjust Execution of Anne Askew.

Anne Askew, who was only 25 years old, was unjustly executed on July 16, 1546. She was a Protestant, and she rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation. In the society of this time, denying the doctrine of transubstantiation made her a heretic, and she was burned at the stake. Burned at the stake with her were three other people accused and convicted of heresy: John Lacelle, Nicholas Otterden, and John   Adlam.


Trial of Norfolk and Surrey

Norfolk and Surrey are people both of whom King Henry VIII wishes were dead. At the time this novel is set, one is in fact dead: Surrey. In December 1546 the Duke of Norfolk and his son the Earl of Surrey were thrown into the Tower of London, an event that the pauper Tom Canty witnessed. Both were accused of high treason, but neither was guilty. On January 19, 1547, the Duke of Surrey was beheaded. (King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547.) The Duke of Norfolk was supposed to be executed the day that the king died, but his execution was stayed, and eventually he was released from the Tower of London. The Earl of Surrey is the Duke of Norfolk’s son.


Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

At the end of this chapter, the prince wants to have the pauper “hanged, drawn, and quartered” (75).


The prisoner is drawn to the place of execution on a cart drawn by a horse.


The prisoner is hung, but is taken down from the gibbet while still alive. He is disembowelled, and his entrails are set on fire and burned while he is still alive.


After the prisoner was beheaded, the prisoner’s body is cut up or torn into four pieces. Sometimes, the executioner would use a sword to start the cuts, then the prisoner would be tied to animals such as horses. The horses would be driven away from the prisoner, tearing the prisoner’s body into four pieces.


The Whipping Boy

Whipping boy means the use of a boy to take a royal personage’s punishment on behalf of him. James I and Charles II had whipping-boys, when they were little fellows, to take their punishment for them when they fell short in their lessons.


Boiling to death

In this novel, the man accused of murdering another person with poison asks for a boon: to be hung instead of being boiled slowly to death. In history, some people have actually been punished by being boiled alive — slowly lowered into boiling oil or water.


Being Hung Because of Witchcraft

In the novel, as in history, a woman and her nine-year-old were sentenced to be hung because they were convicted of “selling their souls to the devil, and raising a storm by pulling off their stockings!” (293).


Execution of Black Bess’s mother

The thieves and beggars respect Black Bess’ mother, who was burned as a witch (she read palms and foretold fortunes) and died cursing the people who burned her and the crowd who watched her burn.


England’s laws against begging

The punishments for begging are:

1) If you are caught begging a first time: you are whipped.

2) If you are caught begging a second time: your ear is cut off.

3) If you are caught begging a third time: you are branded on the cheek and sold into slavery.

4) If you are a run-away slave and you are caught, you are hanged.


The note on p. 304 states:

“Laws passed under Henry VIII licensed begging by the needy aged and infirm, but severely punished anyone, whether incapacitated or able-bodied, who begged without a license. Punishments included confinement in the stocks, public whipping, the cutting off of ears, and, for repeat offenders, even death.”

 Yokel’s story

Yokel’s story is powerful. He undergoes all of the punishments given to people who are found to be beggars; indeed, both of his ears were cut off. What is more, Yokel had to watch his wife die after being whipped in public, and he had to watch his children starve to death.


Laws against run-away slaves

Yokel continues his story on p. 151: “I have run from my master, and when I am found — the heavy curse of heaven falls on the law of the land that hath commanded it! — I shall hang!”


The conditions of prison life at this time in England

  • The conditions of prison life are poor.
  • The food is bad. If not for the loyal servant Blake Andrews, the king would go hungry.
  • The jailer can be bribed. In fact, each night he is bribed to bring in alcohol for those who pay the bribe.
  • Each night, the prison is loud. Some of the prisoners get drunk and carouse and fight.
  • The sexes are not segregated. One night, a man beats a woman, and then the jailer beats the man.
  • That night, the two beaten people fill the air with groans.
  • The prisoners are chained.
  • Prison life is monotonous.


The two female Baptists

These women are burned at the stake because of their beliefs. Mark Twain makes their death more horrible by having the two young daughters of one of the women try to die with her.


Other punishments at the prison

1) Petty Larceny

The people accused of petty larceny are punished way too severely for their offense — or supposed offence.

On p. 237, we read:

That same day several prisoners were brought in to remain overnight, who were being conveyed, under guard, to various places in the kingdom, to undergo punishment for crimes committed. […] One of them was a poor half-witted woman who had stolen a yard or two of cloth from a weaver — she was to be hanged for it.

On p. 237, we read:

Another was a man who had been accused of stealing a horse; he said the proof had failed, and he had imagined that he was safe from the halter; but no — he was hardly free before he was arraigned for killing a deer in the king’s park; this was proved against him, and now he was on his way to the gallows.

On p. 237, we read:

There was a tradesman’s apprentice whose case particularly distressed the king; this youth said he found a hawk, one evening, that had escaped from its owner, and he took it home with him, imagining himself entitled to it; but the court convicted him of stealing it, and sentenced him to death.


2) Exercising Free Speech: The old lawyer with “honorable scars” (238)

The old lawyer is punished way too severely for his supposed offence.

On p. 238, we read:

Among these prisoners was an old lawyer — a man with a strong face and a dauntless mien [appearance or manner]. Three years past, he had written a pamphlet against the Lord Chancellor, accusing him of injustice, and had been punished for it by the loss of his ears in the pillory, and degradation from the bar, and in addition had been fined £3,000 and sentenced to imprisonment for life. Lately he had repeated his offence; and in consequence was now under sentence to lose what remained of his ears, pay a fine of £5,000, be branded on both cheeks, and remain in prison for life.

“These be honorable scars,” he said, and turned back his grey hair and showed the mutilated stubs of what had once been his ears.

In Mark Twain’s note on p. 294, we read:

William Prynne, a learned barrister, was sentenced — [long after Edward the Sixth’s time] to lose both his ears in the pillory; to degradation from the bar, a fine of £3,000, and imprisonment for life. Three years afterwards, he gave new offence to Laud, by publishing a pamphlet against the hierarchy. He was again prosecuted, and was sentenced to lose what remained of his ears; to pay a fine of £5,000, and to be branded on both his cheeks with the letters S. L. (for Seditious Libeler,) and to remain in prison for life. The severity of this sentence was equalled by the savage rigor of its execution.

Well, I have not added any comments to the unjust practices of law in the post. Had it been, the post would have been too much lengthy. I would like you to add your comment about the punishments given and the practice of law in 16th century England. Of course, these laws have been modified and changed with the cause of time and we hardly hear these kind of in the law system in England. So, I think the mission of Mark Twain is successful!

Kind thanks to David Bruce of his discussion guide. You can visit his web to show curtesy to his works.

Source: Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper: A Discussion Guide  by David Bruce













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