Home » Columns

Lincoln Lawyer: Ancient laws that still exist

Tony Freitas is the Head of the Criminal Law Department at McKinnells Solicitors in Lincoln. He says this is an interesting article to read, as long as it doesn’t interfere with longbow practice.


A good April Fool’s Day trick has to have a certain sense of believability in order to be truly successful. For that very reason, the following article was never going to work on the 1st of April, as no one would have believed it, despite the fact that it is all completely true.

What we are doing here is looking at some old laws that now seem rather bizarre in their nature. Parliament has been making laws for over 700 years, so it is not too surprising that some old laws, passed for good reason at the time but overlooked for repeal, now look rather odd.

A prime example of how things can be overlooked is the fact that, legally, Berwick-upon-Tweed has been technically at war with Russia since 1853. The background to this is that the Treaty of Everlasting Peace of 1502 between England and Scotland recognised that Berwick was part of England, but that it was not actually in England. From then on, all laws were passed referring to Berwick as a specific entity.

The same applied to declarations of war, so when the Crimean War was declared against Russia in 1853 Berwick was specifically mentioned as a separate entity in the declaration. However, after the war, the peace treaty (The Treaty of Paris 1856) failed to make any mention of Berwick, so technically it is still engaged in a war with Russia.

In the same way that Berwick was overlooked, there are still laws on the statute book that have no modern-day application. For example:

  • All English males over the age of 14 are to carry out two hours of longbow practice every week, supervised by the local clergy. This law dates from the middle ages when there was no army and is still in place today.
  • London Hackney carriages (taxis/cabs) must carry a bale of hay and a sack of oats. The vehicle must be tethered and the local authority must provide a water trough at the rank.
  • It is illegal to impersonate a Chelsea pensioner
  • A Member of Parliament may not enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a full suit of armour.
  • Mince pies may not be eaten on Christmas day! Oliver Cromwell, whose puritan instincts objected to the pagan origin of the practice, passed this law but on the restoration of Charles 2nd the law was not repealed, just ignored.
  • Destroying or defacing money is illegal.
  • It is illegal to be drunk in a pub, or in charge of a pushbike.

These are all national laws, but there are some local byelaws that are equally as bizarre:

  • In Chester, a citizen may shoot a Welsh person with a bow and arrow inside the City walls during the hours of darkness. On the other hand, you may not shoot a Welsh person with a longbow in the Cathedral Close on a Sunday in Hereford
  • In Liverpool, it is illegal for a woman to go topless in public, unless she is a clerk in a tropical fish store.
  • In York, it is legal to shoot a Scotsman with a bow and arrow, except on a Sunday.

Of course, most of these laws have been superseded, so there is no way you could actually get away with shooting a Welsh person in Chester with a bow and arrow, even if you wanted to. We have homicide laws to cover that now!

There was a move, some time ago, to tidy up all these outdated laws. It never really happened and, in many ways, perhaps it is rather nice to have such quirky laws still in place.

However, I may think rather differently if I was forced to take my longbow out onto the common for practice two hours each week.