Exactly how blood thirsty were the Brits, way back when?

Just browsing thru SD archive, and thought of something that occasionally pops into my head when reading anything dealing with England, and the middle (and not so middle) ages.

Namely, they sure seemed to kill off a bunch of folks at the drop of a hat. Saw something relating to Sir Walter Raleigh. A favorite of the Queen. Who was whacked. This brought to mind episodes of “Black Adder”, when the Queen would threaten to kill Edmund, Lord Blackadder, pretty much every episode, several times. And then thought of how often I would read of some King or Queen killing off pretty much anyone who torqued them off. And how buggery was a hanging offense, and more folks were executed for buggery than for murder (according to Cecil). And how it seemed like pretty much ANYTHING was a hanging offense.

So, exactly how violent was it back in Merry Old England? When did the Kings and Queens lose the ability to execute folks just for the sheer joy of it? Was there some specific incident or date when some king (or Queen) wanted to just execute some poor Duke or whatever, and it was so aggregious that the King (or Queen) was just told at that point 'no more random slaying."?

Seems to me that they put all the things going on nowadays to shame, what with all the hangings and drawings and quarterings and being covered in pitch and hung at the city gates…

Without knowing the answer, I’ll still ask whether you mean ENGLAND, or anywhere in Europe during Medieval/Renaissance times? I suspect that there’s little difference in how bloody the royals of England, France, Spain, etc. were from one another during that period. How bloody that was, I don’t know.

I would guess that the British king lost all ability to dictate that people be executed by fiat after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament became supreme. It was probably limited some time before that, when Charles I was overthrown (and executed), again showing that Parliament called the shots.

The UK had some strict laws on the books; you could be hanged if you stole something of a value of 40 shillings or more and hangings for what would now be called trivial offenses were common into the early 19th century.

Um, Ralegh was condemned in a court of law, with Sir Francis Bacon for the prosecution. Whilst this didn’t displease the King at whose instance the trial was brought, had Ralegh been found innocent he wouldn’t have touched Ralegh nor anyone else involved. Henry VIII was the greatest butcher of the nobility, and aristocracy, and wives, and anyone who had other opinions, but even he worked through law rather than simply decreeing anyone dead, like a sultan.

The Early & High Middle Ages could be brutish and often illiterate, but there was far less violence than assumed, and little torture compared to the Later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Even in the Later you were more likely to die of boredom than by the sword or be executed. Or you could be killed by the wars and feuds of private individuals either for brigandry or treason.

Sexual perversions were a capital offence until the 19th century but very few people were executed. You also have to remember there were no prisons until the 18th century ( although there were dungeons, mainly for political prisoners, state and privately owned ); so justice everywhere was a lot more ferocious, including say, maiming ( not that often: a laborer without a hand was not going to cut the harvest ).

However it was not until the Whig triumph of introducing aristocractic parliamentary dominion during the late 17th and 18th century that you could get executed for over a hundred things. And that was to overawe the working class and secure the rule of the gentry.

Before that you could be executed for treason, no matter how broadly interpreted, or murder. Or heresy if the church felt like it. Not much else.

They never had that power ( maybe some Saxon Kings could have, before christianity, but it’s unlikely. ) Nobles could get away with murder sometimes, and in local judiciary systems ( such as local magnates in parts of England until there was uniform Common Law; or the rights of Clan Chieftains in Scotland to administer their own justice, unrelated to the King’s Law ) a peasant could be beheaded or hanged.

Hanging, drawing and quartering was the penalty for high treason, and carried on by the courts until the beginning of the 19th century. It was pretty rare. The pitch business when applied not for chopping into joints for treason, but for piracy or highway robbery or murder even, was almost entirely an 18th century business. ‘Hanging in chains’.
Which is especially vile, but worse stuff was happening all over Europe in sentencing and torture, particularly places like Italy or Spain, from the Waning of the Middle Ages to the middle of the 18th century, when most Enlightenment absolutist monarchs started abolishing torture to the horror of the lawyers. Legal Torture had never been popular in England, although the Tudors did it on occasion.
Oddly it was legal in Scotland.
It was no better in other civilisations co-existing, such as Turkey or China; and all these judicial horrors fade compared to the outcome of times when the King’s Law was not paramount and your neighbours could kill, maim or torture you simply because there was no penalty for doing so, such as civil wars, expecially in the time of Stephen or the Wars of the Roses, or peasant rebellions wherever in Europe or China when both sides killed first and cared later.

Isn’t there some kind of ‘execution bog’ somewhere in England that still has detectable levels of decomposed blood chemicals in the soil after so many centuries?

Can’t recall if this was on TV or some random Wiki thing . . .

It sounds like the OP is asking about the so-called “Bloody Code” which lasted from ~1400 to about 1850 in English law. By the early 1800s, there were several hundred capital offenses, including for simple theft.

I recently read an article in the news about a Thames River mudlarker (amateur archaeologist) who discovered the skull of a child thought to have been executed.

From the article:

Magna Carta (Forced upon king John) restricted the ability of English Kings to do as they pleased, and also brought in things like trial by jury etc.

Henry II established Courts of Justice and circuit judges and bound himself and his successors to abide by their verdicts, and that promise, though sometimes broken, was never rescinded.
The concept of imprisonment as a punishment in itself still lay centuries ahead. Prison was a place where the accused was kept until the trial, and conditions there were often so poor that many people died while awaiting trial. Most offences were punished by a fine, or if serious enough by branding and/or mutilations. Death, though in theory prescribed for many offences, was in practise only suffered for serious ones - juries repeatedly refused to convict in such cases, or found the prisoner guilty of a lesser non-capital offence.

A while ago I was reading the history of Italy; for an example of serious frolic, read about the attempt on the life of the Medicis, inside a church. IIRC, this was the episode referenced in passing in the movie “Hannibal”, where the Italian policeman is reminded that his ancestor was one of the conspirators executed by being hung, tossed out the window. In he original hanging I think the conspirators argued up to and after the hanging; one bit the ear off the other as they hung together and choked to death.

Another episode I read about was how one fellow in some minor central Italian town decided being 10th or so in line to duke of the city-state was not good enough. When the rest of the ruling family was in a hall for some feast, his henchmen locked the doors and then they massacred them from the balcony, including chldren.

Mary Queen of Scots found that some of her lords disapproved of her choice of playthings. One night some of them wearing masked grabbed her boyfriend, dragged him out of the room and mrdered him in front of her. If you tour the castle in Edinburgh, they will show you where that happened.

Richard III is still reviled for allegedly disposing of two child princes that were inconveniently ahead of him in the inheritance line. Edward II died when his wife and other conspirators diapproved of his boyfriends; they disposed of him with a red hot poker up the rear, using a funnel allegedly to ensure there were no exterior burn marks. The MacBeth technique for political advancement was alive and well in all countries in Europe well into the middle ages. (Heck, it’s still there in some dictatorships).

IIRC it was Watt Tyler who led a rebellion up to the gates of London. When the King came out for a parley about demands, he grabbed Tyler and had him executed for treason - because the King only meant his word about safe passage when he gave it to nobles; peasants counted for nothing.

Guys like Henry VIII may have reached the point where they used law rather than just assasination, but the operative rule was to not leave rivals alive or free. Henry VII, his father, was a nobody who married the king’s widow. Both Henrys were well aware their claim to rule was tenuous, and went after anyone who seemed ambitious enough to attract any support against them.

However, for unhappy souls like Sir Walter, the Kings generally found an excuse to condemn them and follow the rule of law, rather than simply kill them on a whim. Remember, a king was only as good as his armies. Especially early in the middle ages, the king relied on the barons to prvide those men and the finances. If important people with armies thought you could turn on them capriciously, they would soon be muttering together in the corner about who would be a better, safer king. After all, it was such behaviour that brought about the Magna Carta way back in 1215, where the lords insisted they were entitled to a fair trial.

Along with the bloodthirsty bits of history, there are stories of lords who rebelled and after a while in the dungeons or the Tower were released on their word - sometimes reliable, sometimes not.

In Georgian England, the death penalty was widespread, but often commuted in favor of Transportation. First, to America. Then, after the revolution, to Australia. The courts liked having the threat of death available especially since it allowed them to seem to be merciful in its’ abeyance.

Wow, I wouldn’t often mention my other internet stuff, but 4 years ago [ Whilst Bush II was still in power ] I presented a a narrative of this event written in the 1850s with just the names updated, The Anger of Heaven… Carefully typing 3/4 pages from an old history book is not fun — updating it was.

There was a deep pause. The sound of a small bell announced the Host, the golden chalice was elevated, and like a corn-field struck by the summer breeze the whole congregation bent before their God ! four tall dark figures alone remaining upright in this universal bow. One moment more and the knives of three were in the throats of their victims. Jeb was struck by Al Gore to the heart and staggering fell forward amongst the crowd, while Patrick J.’s steel, more envenomed by jealousy for a faithless woman, followed up the blow and blinded by rage gashed his own thigh in mangling with repeated stabs the lifeless body of his victim. George W. was but slightly hurt: Wesley Clark in placing his hand on the Bush’s shoulder for a sure blow, gave him time to start up, and twisting his cloak round the left arm he stood boldly on his defence. The two priests fled; but Howard Dean still reeking with Jeb’s blood rushed madly on George W. stabbing Dick Cheney, who had thrown himself between, to the very heart in his way. Cheney’s devotion saved the Bush who with the few friends that gathered round him took shelter in the sacristy: the poet Limbaugh closed the doors while Newt Gringrich sucked the wound for fear of poison.
Howard Dean and Patrick J. seeing that George W. was safe and one of themselves badly wounded became disheartened and the former at once resolved to fly: the latter on returning home, endeavoured in vain to start his car, so threw himself undrest and bleeding upon his bed entreating old Teddy to sally out and excite the people to rise. Unfitted both by age and disposition for such a task the latter nevertheless issued forth at the head of a hundred followers to strike the last blow for his house and country: pushing on to Times Square he was received with showers of stones and other missiles from the palace windows, with sullen silence by the people, and sarcastic reproofs by one of his own kinsmen who met him on the way. Still he called on the citizens in the name of their country’s freedom to rise and assist him. Alas ! the former were charmed by Bushy gold, and the latter had been long a stranger to America ! Seeing all lost, even to hope; Teddy called Heaven to witness that he had done his utmost for his country, and bidding farewell to New York passed through the nearest gate and shaped his course towards Massachusetts.
George W. shut up in his own palace took no measures for arresting the conspirators; he left vengeance to the people and fearfully did they fulfil his expectations: all who had exhibited any opposition to the Bushes became objects of persecution; even those who had been only seen with the conspirators were with cruel mockeries murdered and dragged through the streets; their mangled bodies were torn to shreds and carried on the points of a thousand lances by the furious multitude: the dwellings of the Kennedys were plundered; Patrick J. was dragged naked and bleeding from his bed, carried in triumph to the public palace and hung at the very same window from which the archbishop’s lifeless corpse still dangled. On his way to execution all the taunts and insults of the populace or slavish citizens, could not draw from him a single word; he calmly, perhaps contemptuously, regarded them and sighed in silence:, Bobby Koch was saved by the entreaties of his wife Dorothy, George W.’s sister; Joe Biden who was only guilty of knowing the secret endeavoured to escape from his villa but was taken and hung at New York; Teddy was arrested by the car-dealers of Connecticut and reconducted to the city notwithstanding all his entreaties to be put to death by the peasantry who escorted him.
Being desperate at the moment of death he is said to have uttered blasphemous execrations which were shocking to the by-standers, and the violent rains that fell soon after were attributed to the anger of Heaven because his body was interred in consecrated ground. It was therefore by a public order, removed from the family sepulchre in Hyannis Port and buried under the city walls but even there no rest was permitted to his bones, for the very children wild with the common frenzy rooted up the festering carcase, dragged it like bacchanals through the streets and making periodical visits to his own dwelling with loud knocking and exultation shrieked out “Open the door for Messer Teddy.” This barbarity was finally stopped by the magistrates and the dead body cast into the Hudson, down which it floated for several miles; and thus ended these barbarous and degrading scenes.

I just wrote an appellate brief with a big section on this. What is most interesting is the number of cases (and it really was a very high percentage) where the amount stolen was found by the jury to be 39 shillings and 6 pence. We used it as an example of how juries historically had the power not to nullify, but to reject excessive sentencing.

OOOOHHHH, now you did it!:eek::rolleyes::smack:

The sh^tstorm begins in 5…4…3…2…

I am getting the impression that the death penalty was pretty much used lots and lots was because…

  1. No jails. Or very simple small affairs. Not a lot of space to house all the inmates, so it was simpler to just execute them. I don’t agree with this. I personally think that the folks back then just liked to kill folks, and did not have any moral issues with this as a form of justice. Plus, wasn’t it kind of a carnival atmosphere? You know, corn dogs and cotton candy?

  2. It was used to keep the rabble in their place. You know, can’t take away the death penalty, because it is such a great deterrent.

Did they have a version of the ACLU back then? I would guess if they did, it’s members would have very short life spans, as wouldn’t that be treasonous, since it would be against the law to say the law was broken? Shouldn’t be killing all these people for stealing a loaf of bread? (A. France) Well, expensive bread. And who is to say that they did not trump up things back then to get a larger conviction rate.

After reading the responses to my question… My theory is…

lots’o’executions for the same reason they had the games in Rome, and they hung people publicly in the American “old West”. Big fun! Lots’o’laffs!

“A great leap in the dark” Hobbes (well known tiger)


a/ During the period described, eg: not in the times of the Romans who liked their killing, Europe ( which includes Britain ) executed or killed lots, but not that often. And not at whim. I don’t know where you got the idea that there was more killing or executions then. I would respectfully hazard a guess you believe the Tsars executed tens of thousands during the 18th to 20th centuries ?
One of my favorite facts is that Frederick the Great only authorised around 10 executions a year in Prussia, fairly reluctantly: when mass-rule and democracy arrived in the 20th century the nazis authorised 40,000 executions from 1933 - 45, *not *related to either war or camps.
b/ Yes, public executions were fun-filled days out for the whole family, but that was more in the 18th and 19th centuries. Earlier generations just watched as oxen would at a slaughter-house.
There was no ALCU; but protesting either the law or the executions would not have got you into trouble unless you created a disturbance.

Generally, thieves of bread were not executed in France: whipped perhaps. Generally, as in Islam, being accused of heresy was a lot more dangerous than being a thief. Even Jean Valjean’s stealing of silver candlesticks involved him being sent to the galleys by the Republic, not being swung.
c/ I don’t have any moral issues with this as a form of justice. Bad stuff happens, but more particularly if you do bad stuff first. Dying of disease is pretty much worse than being topped.

It was Buckingham, dammit!

My only cites are a Bill Bryson audiobook saying that there was a huge disparity between hanging sentences and actual sentences, which doesn’t count, because I can’t reproduce it here.

Please can someone come in here and stop this being like Yahoo answers?

It’s history like this that makes me think that prisons are such suboptimal institutions as they’re the leftovers of the only thing we can find acceptable about the practices of our ancestors, and leftovers of something that was extremely minor and secondary at the time at that. Not saying that the death penalty should be brought back for minor offenses, but I wonder if, say, caning for petty theft and drug abuse would be so much worse than protracted removal of offenders from society and making them unable to support their families through gainful employment thereafter.

Just how did that justice system work? My understanding was that a judge at the regular court could sentence someone to death. Unlike today, where it seems every death penalty heads for the Supreme Court.

Another triviata I heard was that manslaughter was created as a separate crime because medieval juries were very reluctant to convict someone for murder if they felt the defendant did not intend to kill the victim - this suggesting that in those days, for most capital crimes, a jury trial was normal.

In Britain, and most of Europe ( Britain had the death penalty until the 1960s ) in a state legal system in peacetime, a high court judge could sentence someone to death ( generally for murder, but for whatever offence ) but the sentence usually had to be signed by the sovereign. [ Which includes a president or council or dictator for non-monarchical states. )

A slight drawback being that this delayed execution, but in Britain from the 19th century a condemned prisoner would not have to wait more than a couple of weeks, during which time he was placed on prison watch. Mainly to stop him committing suicide.
Monarchs found this a depressing duty, both reviewing horrible murders and signing away subjects’ lives, which is why Catherine the Great eliminated the death penalty entirely and Victoria ( who under constitutional law of limited monarchy was told she could not exercise the sovereign rights of pardon if her ministers advised against ) was so reluctant that the authorisation was taken away from her and transferred to the Home Secretary ( Minister of the Interior — back then used to administer the legal system in England ) for signatures until abolition.

He does not know that sickening thirst
That sands one’s throat, before
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.