DR Tom Greeves delighted a record audience of 141 people at a Wharf Lunchtime Lecture recently, with his talk on Lydford Castle and the Dartmoor Tinners.

King Edward I’s Stannary Charter of 1305 confirmed Tavistock, Ashburton and Chagford as Devon’s first three stannary towns — Plympton became the fourth in 1307 — with a monopoly on tin mining in Devon. The tinners had rights to representation in the Stannary Parliament and to the jurisdiction of the Stannary Courts.

Lydford Castle was built as a royal prison in 1195 and became renowned as the stannary prison for Devon. The windowless cells were housed ‘underground’ in the original Norman structure and consequently in darkness.

Tom Greeves explored Lydford Castle’s history, setting it in the context of medieval tinworking and the tinners’ own laws. He drew on eyewitness accounts of some of those who fell foul of these laws, usually for manufacturing corrupt tin or for not paying taxes on their tin.

The Great Courts, held at Crockern Tor, were not judicial but were equivalents of Parliaments, as legislative assemblies governing the tin industry of Devon. In 1510 they had set out 37 statutes which were approved by the court at Crockern Tor. The penalties for non-compliance ranged from forfeiture of tin to imprisonment at Lydford Gaol.

The tinners were responsible for a rather rough justice and it was said that those destined for Lydford Gaol might actually be hanged before being imprisoned. Some however said that this might be preferable to enduring the imprisonment. Tom described the conditions in the prison at Lydford as bleak; with prisoners kept in the darkness of the dungeon.

Lydford Law became a notorious Dartmoor custom and its fame spread nation-wide. Its meaning became synonymous with ‘unfair justice’ or ‘rough justice’.

A famous summary of Lydford Law came from the Tavistock poet William Browne, who has a memorial at St Eustachius’ Church.

The most famous prisoner at Lydford Gaol was Richard Strode MP, from Newnham near Plymouth. The result of his imprisonment is thought to have led to the concept of parliamentary privilege. In 1512 he introduced a bill to Westminster Parliament to curtail the activities of two tinners William Rede and Elys Elford. Strode’s bill was intended to prevent the harbours of South Devon from silting up with waste from the tin mining activities. However, his actions were in direct conflict with the third Corckern Tor statute of 1510, which allowed the tinners the freedom to dig for tin and to use water for their works, anywhere they chose.

The tinners fined Strode £40 in each of the four tin courts and when he refused to pay the resulting fine he was arrested. He was taken to Lydford Castle and confined to the dungeon. He described the ‘dongeon and deep pitte under the ground’ as ‘one of the most annoious, contagious and detestable places wythin this realme’.

After three weeks, having paid the gaoler to have his irons removed, he was released on account of his status as a royal tax collector. Back at Westminster he introduced what became known as the Privilege of Parliament Act of 1512. This protected him and other members of parliament from any adverse reactions when discussing any controversial matters in the parliament at Westminster. This concept became known as parliamentary privilege and in 1667 was extended to become a general law. It is the right to free speech within the Parliament at Westminster and members are granted protection against civil or criminal liability for actions done or statements made in the course of their legislative duties.

• In another lecture, Barbie Thompson from Plymouth, who has participated in a U3A-shared learning project in association with Plymouth Museum, gave an illustrated lecture on ‘The History of Horses in Art’ recently, to a delighted audience of 75 people.

She started with cave paintings and included many beautiful illustrations of horses throughout history. She finished the talk in WWI with a real live warhorse named Warrior, who so impressed the Canadians that he served with as he was always in the thick of the fighting but always came home. He was awarded the Dickin Medal for animal bravery, originated by Maria Dickin, founder of the PDSA.