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Peculiar Laws & Customs

by Bernadette Weyde

Bishop Wilson tells us in his ‘History of the Isle of Man’ that “there are a great many laws and Customs which are peculiar to this place and singular” in his time (1697-1755):

– The eldest daughter (if there be no son) inherits, though there be more children.

– A widow has one half of her husband’s real estate, if she be his first wife, and one-quarter if she be the second or third; but if any widow marries, or miscarries, she loses her widow-right in her husband’s estate.

– The wives, through the whole Island, have a power to make their Wills (though their husbands be living) of one-half of all the goods movable or immovable; except in the six northern parishes, where the wife, if she has had children, can only dispose of a third part of the living goods; and this favour, tradition saith, the south-side women obtained above those of the north for their assisting their husbands in a day of battle.” (this is said to be the battle of 1098 between the north and south Manx.)

– A child got before marriage shall inherit, provided the marriage follows within a year or two, and the woman was never defamed before with regard to any other man.

– They still retain a usage (observed by the Saxons before the Conquest) that the Bishop, or some priest appointed by him, do always sit in the Great Court along with the Governor, till sentence of death (if any) be pronounced: the Deemster asking the jury (instead of ‘Guilty or Not Guilty?’) “Vod fir-charree soie” – which literally translated, is “May the man of the chancel, or he that ministers at the altar, continue to sit?” If the foreman answers in the negative, the Bishop, or his substitute withdraws, and the sentence is then pronounced on the criminal.

– If a single woman prosecutes a single man for a rape, the ecclesiastical judges impannel a jury; and if this jury find him guilty, he is so returned to the temporal court, where, if he be found guilty, the Deemster (judge) delivers to the woman a rope, a sword, and a ring, and she has it in her choice to have him hanged or beheaded, or to marry him.

– One of the duties of the Sumner (one who Summons) was to stand at the chancel door of his Parish Church at the time of service, to whip and beat all the doggs.

– That the stealing and cutting of bee-hives** in gardens shall be Fellony in like manner to death, without valuing the same.

– That whensoever any theef shall be found to steal** either mutton, sheep, lambe, goate, kidd, swine, or pig, the same shall be found to be Fellony in like manner to death, without valuing the same.

– All goats belonged to the Queen of Mann.

** The Manx customary criminal code was a very severe one. Thus, thefts of the value of sixpence or more were accounted felony, and were punished by death. The result of this was that juries were wont to find that the value of the goods stolen did not amount to that sum.

With a view to putting a stop to this practice, it was enacted, in 1629, that all sheep-stealing and stealing and cutting of bee hives in gardens, whatever the value of the goods stolen, was felony, and that various other thefts of the same kind, but apparently considered as being of a less serious nature, were also felony, if above the value of sixpence, while for thefts below that value the offenders were to be whipped “or set upon a wooden horse.”

To ensure convictions on such charges “the most sufficient men in the Parishes,” i.e. the men of most substance, were to be chosen as jurors. Such sanguinary legislation would naturally become almost a dead letter, and that it was so is shown by the paucity of the death sentences recorded.

(Note: between 1714 and the last execution in 1872, only 19 were recorded).

(source: Folklore of the Isle of Man by AW Moore, 1891 and A Manx Notebook)

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