The Elizabethan Era was a period of unruly society, where even the slightest crime- if suspected- was punished with considerable pain by way of torture, and sometimes death. In those desperate times no laws, treaties, or blackmail could defend a person convicted of a crime from the torture and misery that was the consequence of their “actions” whether or not the accusation was legitimate. Queen Elizabeth I would not stand for anything that interfered with her verdict even if the ruling was cruel or unfair to the highest degree. The brutality and animosity of the “justice” of this age are revealed completely and explicitly in a speech given by William Harrison in 1577:
"The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose." 1
Crimes of Society
Punishments of the people of the Elizabethan Era differed based on crime and status in the community, obviously. Status mattered because people of lower status (commoners, as they were called2) were raised differently and needed- or wanted- certain things that people of nobility or wealth already had. Commoners were often convicted of petty thievery (e.g. pick pocketing, pilferage, etc.) as well as begging, adultery, continuously being in dept, fraud, and forgery.3 Alternately, nobility was frequently accused of crimes such as treason, sedition, irreligion, spying, active rebellion, murder, and witchcraft.4
Though commoners and nobility committed different crimes, their punishments were much the same. Punishments included hanging, burning, time in the pillory, whipping, branding, use of ducking and cucking stools, death by the wheel, being boiled in water...