History of Capital Punishment

Hanging. The most popular method for the death penalty throughout English Legal History.

The legal history of capital punishment in the United Kingdom is an interesting one and ranges across many centuries from the extreme of having no crimes strictly punishable by death to a multitude and back to none. In early Norman times, the principles of the common law in relation to the punishment of crimes were very simple. If the crime was a misdemeanor (minor or petty offences) then the punishment was at the discretion of the justices of the court.

For felonies (serious offences) the criminal was put on the king’s mercy which usually involved the ordering of mutilation in the form of castration or blinding. This was seen as a mercy rather than imposing the ultimate punishment of death.

By the early 13th Century, a fixed penalty of death was imposed for almost all felonies. For treason, this was death by being hung, drawn and quartered and for other felonies, simply death by hanging. This fixed penalty was grossly inflexible and various methods were used to mitigate the sentence of death, until later reforms abolished it. These methods included Sanctuary (my post on which can be found here), Benefit of Clergy, Pardons and Jury Mitigation. Later blog posts will deal with the latter three topics.

This state of affairs continued for some time. The expertise of the legal profession was directed towards thinking of incredible ways to avoid the death penalty, rather than reform it. Still by 1688 there were 50 offences within statute law that carried a death sentence, this rose to 220 by the the late 18th Century. These offences were wide-ranging and even included ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’. It is a testament to the above mentioned methods of avoidance that, between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were given but only 7,000 people were executed.

The legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly KC, also responsible for calling for the abolition of slavery, succeeded in having the death penalty abolished from a mere two offences, namely pick-pocketing and stealing from bleaching grounds.

A year after Sir Romilly’s death in 1818, a Parliamentary select committee looking at the issue of the death penalty led to several statutes that slowly, and in a piecemeal fashion, abolished the death penalty from many offences.

By the 1860s, there were only several offences that still attracted the death penalty. These were murder, treason, piracy, and arson in naval dockyards. This remained the same until 1957 when difficult cases arose as regards capital punishment for murder. It led to the introduction of the Homicide Act 1957 which suspended the practice and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 which abolished it entirely. Death as a punishment for Arson in naval dockyards was repealed by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

Although beheading was removed as a potential punishment for treason in 1973, hanging remained until 1998 when the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished some of the last remnants of capital punishment in the UK, with the abolition of the punishment for treason and piracy.

The last remnant of the death penalty in the UK (the punishment existed within military jurisdiction during wartime) was abolished by the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since 2004, the UK has been signed up to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the death penalty in any circumstances. It would be impossible for the UK to bring in laws to reinstate the death penalty unless they were to formally withdraw from the Convention.


Filed under English Legal History

7 responses to “History of Capital Punishment

  1. Pingback: History of Treason | English Legal History

  2. Do you happen to know when the death penalty for “ordinary” arson (i.e. not in Naval dockyards) was repealed? I am researching a book, and need to know whether someone found guilty of arson in 1831 would have been sentenced to death – what a cheery subject to research! Thank you for any guidance you can offer.
    Best wishes from Susan


    • Hi Susan,

      Thanks for your question, it is an interesting one! The death penalty for ordinary arson was repealed by the Malicious Damage Act 1861, which was part of a group of 7 statutes known as the criminal law consolidation acts of 1861. They were all aimed at simplifying the criminal law.

      It is definitely possible that someone committing arson in 1831 would be sentenced to death. See this case of Arson in 1829 where the sentence was death. (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18290611-318-off1676&div=t18290611-318#highlight)

      However, the death penalty at the time was losing favour so whether such a sentence would actually be carried out is another matter. The judge often had to record a sentence of death but it could be mitigated to imprisonment through a number of methods (some are mentioned in the Capital Punishment blog post). In general, I would say it is perfectly plausible that an Arsonist would be sentenced to death in 1831 and actually executed.

      There are a number of later cases before the 1861 Act where imprisonment rather than death was imposed, such as this 1856 case. (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18560616-631-offence-1&div=t18560616-631#highlight)

      Hope this helps! If you need any further information or clarification, don’t hesitate to ask.


      • This is terrifically helpful – thank you so much. And you may well come to regret advising me not to hesitate to ask for help again… I have just published a novel about an early financial investigator, a policeman in the brand-new Met Police, and am now working on a second novel about his adventures.

        I don’t mean this as a plug at all (and will not be at all offended if you do not post this reply if you think it is) but just for your interest, and because it is receiving favourable reviews, the link to my first novel is here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fatal-Forgery-Susan-Grossey/dp/1489587403/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1377243728&sr=8-1&keywords=susan+grossey It deals with that very interesting period in legal/policing history when the Bloody Code was being dismantled, defendants were finally being given some sort of voice (albeit limited) in court, and the Met Police was standardising the approach to law enforcement across the capital.

        Thank you again for your prompt help – I was going a bit mad because I could find lots of references to arson in Royal dockyards, and to the 1861 Act, but nothing clarifying the position re ordinary arson in the 1830s. I think I might have my man condemned to death and then his sentence mitigated – he’s more use to the plot alive than dead!

        Best wishes from Susan


  3. Not a problem! I’m very happy to help. I would definitely welcome any further queries you may end up having, it is nice to be able to apply my interest in such a direct way.

    Congratulations on the publication, your novel sounds fascinating and right up my alley, I may well have to purchase it! Good luck with the second novel, I hope the process goes smoothly.

    Also, you’re right, the available information seems to brush past ordinary arson and focus on dockyards arson. Makes it quite difficult to confirm certain things as we know!

    Sounds promising to me. You can have the drama of a death sentence, the plot twist of mitigation, keep your character available for the plot and avoid any Deus Ex Machina!


  4. taskin

    Hi what methods developed to mitigate the imposition of the death penalty?


  5. Pingback: Guest post by Ryan Dowding: A Little Help From My Friends – Why Sajid Javid’s letter may have broken the law | The Secret Barrister

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