Branding in Britain
The punishment was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, and the ancient law of England authorized the penalty. By the Statute of Vagabonds (1547) under King Edward VI, vagabonds and Gypsies were ordered to be branded with a large V on the breast, and brawlers with F for “fraymaker”; slaves who ran away were branded with S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in 1550. From the time of Henry VII, branding was inflicted for all offences which received Benefit of clergy (branding of the thumbs was used around 1600 at Old Bailey to ensure that the accused who had successfully used the Benefit of Clergy defence, by reading a passage from the Bible, could not use it more than once), but it was abolished for such in 1822. In 1698 it was enacted that those convicted of petty theft or larceny, who were entitled to benefit of clergy, should be “burnt in the most visible part of the left cheek, nearest the nose.” This special ordinance was repealed in 1707. James Nayler, a Quaker who in the year 1655 was accused of claiming to be the Messiah, convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicized trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament and had his tongue bored through and his forehead branded B for “blasphemer”.
In the Lancaster criminal court a branding iron is still preserved in the dock. It is a long bolt with a wooden handle at one end and an M (malefactor) at the other; close by are two iron loops for firmly securing the hands during the operation. The brander would, after examination, turn to the judge exclaiming “A fair mark, my lord.” Criminals were formerly ordered to hold up their hands before sentence to show if they had been previously convicted.
In the 18th century, cold branding or branding with cold irons became the mode of nominally inflicting the punishment on prisoners of higher rank. “When Charles Moritz, a young German, visited England in 1782 he was much surprised at this custom, and in his diary mentioned the case of a clergyman who had fought a duel and killed his man in Hyde Park. Found guilty of manslaughter he was burnt in the hand, if that could be called burning which was done with a cold iron” (Markham’s Ancient Punishments of Northants, 1886).
Such cases led to branding becoming obsolete, and it was abolished in 1829 except in the case of deserters from the army, who were marked with the letter D, not with hot irons but by tattooing with ink or gunpowder. Notoriously bad soldiers were also branded with BC (bad character). The British Mutiny Act of 1858 provided that the court-martial might, in addition to any other penalty, order deserters to be marked on the left side, 2 inches (5 cm) below the armpit, with the letter D, such letter to be not less than an inch long. In 1879 this was abolished.