Irish Legal Heritage: Scold’s Bridle

Irish Legal Heritage: Scold’s Bridle

A Scottish version of the branks
from the 16th century
Photo: Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Scold’s Bridle or Branks was a form of punishment usually reserved for women who resisted subordination and didn’t conform to being a quiet and virtuous wife.

Women who were perceived as being troublesome – who gossiped, “nagged” their husbands, or who were accused of witchcraft – were publicly humiliated by being forced to wear the scold’s bridle to stop them from talking, drinking, or eating.

The crime of being a “common scold” (communis rixatrix) was an indictable offence under the common law of England and Wales until the offence was abolished by section 13(1)(a) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. The most frequent punishment for a scold was to be strapped into a “cucking stool” or a “ducking stool”, paraded through the streets, and ‘duckt over the head and ears into the water’. However, the use of the scold’s bridle by magistrates and husbands alike has been recorded throughout England, Scotland and Ireland.

While it is often recorded that the ‘bridle-bit’ which inserted into the mouth of the wearer simply stopped the scold from talking, it is evident that the bit was sometimes sharpened to cut the tongue of the wearer: in 1655 it was recorded that a ‘chiding’ or ‘scoulding’ woman in Newcastle was driven through the streets by an officer of the Magistrates Court “holding a rope in his hand, the other end fastned to an Engine called the Branks, which is like a Crown, it being of Iron, which was musled over the head and face, with a great gap or tongue of Iron forced into her mouth, which forced the blood out”.

In Armagh, the scold’s bridle was part of the equipment of the Sessions House in Market Street (replaced by the Armagh Court House in 1809). It’s clear from this picture of a woman wearing a scold’s bridle in Armagh Gaol that the practice of restraining women in bridles survived long after the seventeenth century.

Seosamh Gráinséir

Share icon
Share this article: