chapter  6
24 Pages

Swearing and Feeling

The Secularisation of Truth-Seeking in the Victorian English Court
BySimon Devereaux

This chapter briefly surveys two dimensions of the ‘lawyerisation’ of criminal trial in Victorian England, which occasionally generated controversy in both the legal profession and the respectable public press. The first was the desire to sustain the plausibility of the ‘revelatory’ model of trial—the conviction that ‘the truth will out’—by upholding the literal power of the testamentary oath. And the second was the insistence that, when barristers made their cases in court, reason and argumentation should prevail over an appeal to the jury’s feelings. These concerns were most intensely rehearsed during the years between the passage of the Prisoners’ Counsel Act (1836), which at last formally permitted accused felons to receive the benefit of a full defence by a barrister, and that of the Criminal Evidence Act (1898), which finally permitted defendants to testify on oath in their own defence. The apparent resolution of these dilemmas was to be found in the acknowledgement, at long last, by the end of the Victorian era, that society had become substantially secularised.