[Magistrates should prosecute] common whoremongers, and common whores; for (by good opinion) adultery and bawdry is an offence temporal, as well as spiritual, and is against the peace of the land. . . a constable [may seek out and arrest] a man and a woman [committing] adultery or fornication together. Michael Dalton, The Countrey Justice (1618), 160

For the suppressing of the abominable and crying sins of incest, adultery and fornication, wherewith this land is much defiled, and Almighty God highly displeased; be it enacted. . . That in case any married woman shall. . . be carnally known by any man (other than her husband) . . . as well the man as the woman. . . shall suffer death.

An Act for Suppressing the Detestable Sins of Incest,
Adultery and Fornication (1650)

The apprehension of. . . prostitutes, cannot be justified by any
existing law.

Second Report from the Committee on the State of the Police
of the Metropolis, Parliamentary Papers (1817), vii. 463

The sexual revolution began with the collapse of public discipline. This was partly the result of increasing social pressures. Before the seventeenth century, 90 per cent of the population lived in the coun­tryside, and, except for London, there were no large cities in England. The traditional methods of moral policing had evolved in small

The Decline and Fall of Public. Punishment

2. This huge bird’s eye view, by the great printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar,

The Decline and Fall of Public. Punishment

shows the tremendous expansion of London’s West End by the early 1660s.

communities where everybody knew, and kept a close watch on, one another. In the countryside this was slow to change: even towards the end of the eighteenth century there were still rural parishes where the church courts continued to punish unchastity in the old-fashioned way. Things were different in towns, especially in London. At the end of the middle ages only about 40,000 people lived there, but by 1660 there were already 400,000; by 1800 there would be over a million. This extraordinary explosion created new kinds of social pressures and new ways of living, and placed the conventional machinery of sexual discipline under impossible strain.

The deeper cause, however, was not primarily social or legal, but theological. Religious conflict, which arose from the slow, incomplete English Reformation, was the most potent intellectual and political force in seventeenth-century England. By 1700 it had brought about changes that would have seemed unthinkable a century earlier: civil war, regicide, the abolition of the monarchy and the Church of Eng­land, freedom of religion. It was also to destroy the system of public sexual discipline.