The Bloody Code

Crimes punishable by harsh punishments, such as corporal punishment and public executions, not only continued but increased from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. As fear of crime grew, so did the amount of punishable offences and capital crimes. The name The Bloody Code wasn’t used at the time, but developed later on to describe this increase.

Key Question 1 – What punishments were being used between 1500-1750? Capital Punishment
The death penalty was being used in the period 1500-1750 as it had been in the Middle Ages. However, the number of capital crimes, executions held in public, increased greatly between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. There was widespread fear that crime was rising and the idea was to punish offenders harshly and prevent other people from committing similar crimes. The main form of execution continued to be hanging for crimes such as murder, arson, counterfeiting and, in some cases even theft and damaging property. Serious religious offenders could be burnt at the stake, whilst beheading was a rarer execution used mainly for treason and crimes against the monarchy.

Other Forms of Punishment
For less serious crimes, the death penalty wasn’t often used. Other common types of punishment used in the Middle Ages and 1500-1750 included corporal punishment, the paying of fines and imprisonment. Corporal punishment was widely used for crimes such as swearing and trouble-making, drunkenness, sexual crimes and vagrancy. Whereas being pelted in the pillory, the ducking stool and whipping resulted in inflicting physical pain to the body, other types of corporal punishments were intended to merely humiliate the offender. Being locked in the stocks and carting were examples of these. Payment of fines was also used for similar crimes, whilst prisons were largely used for debtors. New forms of punishments included Bridewells – an early type of prison set up in the late sixteenth century, and transportation to the American colonies from the mid seventeenth century.

Key Question 2 – Why did punishments become known

as The Bloody Code? What and When was the Bloody Code?
The Bloody Code is the name now given to the increase in capital crimes from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Crimes that carried the death penalty rose substantially in this period from approximately fifty in the 1660s to almost three hundred by the early nineteenth century. Many of these crimes involved theft of goods and damaging property belonging to manufacturers, landowners or controlled by the authorities. Stealing livestock, deliberately breaking machinery and in some cases even cutting down trees and stealing bricks from bridges were just a few crimes that could result in execution.

Why was the Bloody Code Used?
Although England remained a primarily agricultural country in this period, the many Enclosure Acts resulted in less people controlling more of the land. These landowners and manufacturers increased their wealth through property ownership and trade, therefore increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, who had no political rights. They became very influential in demanding the introduction of laws that protected their interests. With fear of crime growing and no police force to effectively prevent crime against landowners and manufacturers property, The Bloody Code became a threat to law-breakers. Holding corporal punishments and executions in public therefore sent out the message that crimes of these types – alongside earlier established crimes – would be dealt with seriously and harshly.

How Effective was the Bloody Code?
In practice, The Bloody Code was used far less than often thought. Although courts were seeing far more cases that would necessitate imposing the death penalty, judges would often let criminals off whilst juries were reluctant to find criminals accused of theft and damage to property guilty. A public increasingly interested in crime and punishment led to petitions of mercy being signed. These often declared the punishment too harsh for the crime committed. Charges were sometimes reduced to transportation to the colonies or enlistment in the armed forces. In some areas, hangings actually reduced between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whilst highlighting the differing attitudes that effected the ideas behind, and practice of, The Bloody Code, the power of life and death of offenders remained firmly rooted in a system that could allow mercy if found appropriate or demanded.