“Sentence first — verdict afterwards,” says the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland; and the trial of the Knave of Hearts has justly remained the literary standard for injustice, since the book’s publication in 1869.

Being an idiot, I thought the expression originated with Lewis Carroll, until last night. I was reading Macaulay’s 1830 essay on Lord Byron, and ran across the following passage, on Byron’s failed marriage: “True Jedwood justice was dealt out to him. First came the execution, then the investigation, and last of all, or rather not at all, the accusation.” The term “Jedwood justice,” also new to me, implied that the concept is proverbial, and led to a slightly earlier citation, in 1828, from Walter Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth: “Jedwood justice — hang in haste and try at leisure.”

Jedwood (or Jedburgh) justice, it turns out, goes under various aliases: Cupar (or Cowper) justice, Halifax law, Abingdon law, and Lydford law. Cupar and Halifax are dead-ends. A Major-General Brown, of Abingdon, is supposed to have hanged his prisoners and then tried them, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable appears to be the sole authority for the Major-General’s existence.

Lydford proves more fertile. Chambers’ Book of Days cites an “old English proverb”: “First hang and draw, then leave the cause to Lydford Law.” He also quotes a poem, by the early 17th century poet William Browne, in Lydford’s defense:

I oft have heard of Lydford Law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after:
At first I wondered at it much;
But since, I find the reason such,
As it deserves no laughter.

They have a castle on a hill;
I took it for an old wind-mill,
The vanes blown off by weather.
To lie therein one night, ’tis guessed
‘Twere better to be stoned and pressed,
Or hanged, now chose you whether.

Ten men less room within this cave,
Than five mice in a lantern have,
The keepers they are sly ones.
If any could devise by art
To get it up into a cart,
‘Twere fit to carry lions.

When I beheld it, Lord! thought I,
What justice and what clemency
Rath Lydford when I saw all!
I know none gladly there would stay,
But rather hang out of the way,
Than tarry for a trial!

Browne lived in Tavistock, a neighboring town in West Devon, and he knew what he was talking about: Lydford prison was described in 1512 as “one of the most heinous, contagious, and detestable places in the realm” (here’s a rather bucolic picture of the ruins). Depending on how long one had to tarry for a trial, Browne’s reasoning may have been sound as well. It is amusing at the very least.

My patchy scholarship, abetted by some desultory Googling, can take me no further. Can my readers supply earlier citations, in English or another language?

Update: You can tell me or you can tell Language Hat.

Aaron Haspel | Posted December 30, 2006 @ 1:13 PM | Language

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