This Side of the Pond – Aug. 16

By Sarah Pridgeon

I’ve always enjoyed stumbling across examples of the weird and wonderful laws that seem to have no place in the modern world. You probably know the ones I mean – the fact that it’s illegal for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub in Arizona, for example, or that one is prohibited from whistling underwater in West Virginia (though I’m fascinated to watch someone try).
The way I see it, for there to be a law, there must have been a problem. It provides me endless entertainment to ponder, for instance, exactly what issue cropped up to inspire Vermont to decree that a woman may only wear false teeth if she first obtains written permission from her husband – or why the same state has a law against storing a dove in a freezer.
Everyone needs hobbies, I suppose, and attempting to figure out the foibles of the past is one of mine. I mention this because I came across one from my homeland this week that tickles me greatly.
There has apparently been a law in place in the UK since back in the mists of time; from 1322, to be precise. According to this law, all beached whales and sturgeons must be offered to the reigning monarch.
Considering the distinct lack of motor vehicles at that time and the distance between the royal palace and some of our coastal settlements, I imagine was a stinky restriction to adhere to.
It is said to have been put in place to help King Edward II in his attempts to control levels of “overly conspicuous consumption”. The mind boggles at how exactly an excess of fish was once used to display one’s family wealth.
This law remains in place, 700 years later, and a fisherman fell prey to it in 2004 when he caught a 9 lb sturgeon off the coast of Wales. Like the upstanding citizen he clearly aspired to be, he offered it to the Queen. Her tactful response was that the fisherman was free to “dispose of the fish as he saw fit”.
As you might imagine, with so many centuries of politics under our belts, there are a few bizarre pieces of legislation still hanging around, buried under dusty scrolls and tomes. Such as the law that states our politicians are not allowed to don armor in the Houses of Parliament.
When that law was written in 1313, I can imagine it was inspired by at least one round of fisticuffs (or, alternatively, the irritation of trying to share a bench with a man encased in cold metal). These days, it’s less of a problem, if only because it’s difficult to get through the doors of a Tube train with weighty pauldrons sticking out on each side.
Wyomingites might find it difficult to live in London and continue the local tradition of fixing up one’s own home, because it’s still illegal to carry a plank of wood along the street. Also, you may not clean your carpet by beating it in the street (except doormats, but only before 8 a.m.)
One fabled old law is that it is perfectly legal in the City of York to shoot a Scotsman with a bow and arrow, except on Sundays. As this does seem ludicrous, an enterprising gentleman by the name of Henry Shrimp submitted a Freedom of Information request to York City Council to find out the truth.
The council responded in fine British form with a letter confirming it had performed an extensive search of its records and had not found any of a Scotsman being legally shot with a bow and arrow in the last ten years.
“There is however a vague recollection of an alleged occurrence several centuries ago which involved a group of men from the Nottingham area, dressed in green, who were enjoying a stag night in York,” the letter concluded. I didn’t know Robin Hood ever married, so this was news to me.
You’re also allegedly allowed to shoot a Welsh person with a longbow after midnight in Chester or in Cathedral Close in Hereford (but only on Sundays). Both of these are said to have come from a city ordinance of 1403, after the Glynd?r Rising, when both cities were frequently attacked by the Welsh.
Fortunately, if you have Welsh or Scottish ancestry and are now concerned about an upcoming vacation to Europe, you will be pleased to know that the Human Rights Act and various other laws about universal right to life now trump whatever ancient code may still be in place.
I would advise caution with seafood, however, because the Salmon Act 1986 makes it illegal to handle salmon in suspicious circumstances. Some might argue that the law should have made at least a cursory attempt to define when and where said handling would be considered suspect but, as it did not, it’s best to be careful at the fish counter.
You may still, however, trespass on someone else’s land if you are a huer and baulker: an ancient custom from Cornwall in which people stood on cliffs and directed boats towards schools of fish.
In 1965, the government began the Herculean effort of updating its laws and has discarded an estimated 2000 of them since that time. However, it’s still an executable offense to allow your pet to mate with a pet of the royal family, apparently, and you still may not die in the Houses of Parliament (although how one would prosecute that offense I’m not sure).
Many of the best have disappeared forever, which seems a shame. But the good news is that there are plenty of obscure laws remaining and most of us don’t know they exist, so, in the UK at least, you can still be a rebel against the system without ever even knowing it.