Crime and Punishment in Britain

It's no secret that people have long been coming up with gruesome ways to punish each other. To our modern eyes these harsh punishments seem shocking. Why did past cultures use such extreme forms of punishment? What do they say about those societies and people? How and why has punishment changed over time? Let's find out. 

Crime and Punishment in Britain Crime and Punishment in Britain

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Table of contents

    Crime and punishment timeline: 1000 - present

    DateTime period
    1000 - 1500Medieval era
    1500 - 1700Early modern era
    1700 - 1900Industrial revolution
    1900 - 200020th century
    2000 -Present

    Crime and punishment in medieval England

    Punishment in medieval England was extremely harsh. It could range from being hung or beheaded to getting your hand or tongue chopped off.

    Why were punishments in medieval England much harsher than they are today? This was because criminals were extremely hard to catch in the past. Rural communities were hard to police and evidence for crimes was hard to come by. Harsh punishments were used to make an example out of people and deter others from crime.

    Crime and punishment role of the community

    Before 1066, England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. England was made of peasants who lived in small rural communities. This meant that the whole community was expected to play a part in delivering justice.

    Crime and Punishment in Britain Anglo Saxon Men StudySmarterFig. 1 Seven men on a boat depicted on a medieval tapestry

    All men over the age of 12 were divided into groups of 10 or tithes. They were responsible for the behaviour of everyone else in the tithe and the area they were assigned to. If someone saw a crime they would raise a 'hue and cry' or shout for help. All the men in the tithe were responsible for capturing the criminal.

    If someone committed murder they had to pay a fine to the victim's family, called weregild.

    Did you know?

    Punishments were hierarchical and depended on the victim's social status. The fine for murdering a prince was 1500 shillings compared to just 40 for a peasant.

    Some crimes were dealt with more harshly than others. Arson was punished more harshly than murder - usually by hanging. This was because medieval England put huge value on the land and property of the nobility. High mortality rates meant that deaths were more accepted than they are today.

    Crime and punishment role of the King

    After the battle of 1066, William the Conqueror won the English throne. He was from Normandy so this was called the Norman Conquest. He imposed harsher punishments for crime as a way to keep control over this new land.

    Here are 2 examples of laws that strengthened the King's power:

    LawDescription
    Forest LawsThis made hunting in royal forests illegal without a permit. This gave additional protection and power to the King.
    MurdrumThe Normans replaced the weregild with the murdrum. This made murder fines payable to the King rather than the victim's family and strengthened the King's position.

    Medieval kings tried to limit the power of the Church, which threatened their own control over the country. The huge influence of the Church meant they were unsuccessful.

    Crime and punishment role of the Church

    This was a time of deep religious faith. Medieval people believed that God was the ultimate judge. Because of this, the Church held huge influence over what was considered right or wrong. The Church mainly oversaw the punishment of moral crimes like failure to attend church, adultery, drunkenness, and working on a Sunday.

    The Church had unique features that gave it an important role in crime and punishment:

    Feature of the ChurchDescription
    Benefit of ClergyAny clergyman who committed a crime was protected by the Church. They could only be tried in church courts which handed out lighter punishments than regular courts.
    SanctuaryIf a criminal escaped to the church before he was caught, even a sheriff could not arrest him. The criminal was allowed 40 days to either turn themselves in or flee the country.
    Trial by ordeal This was used when there was not enough evidence to convict someone. One example was holding a hot iron bar. If the person's burns were healed after three days, it meant they was innocent. This was abolished in 1215 by the Pope who wanted to reform the church. Crucially, it was the Pope and not the King who had control over this type of punishment.

    Crime and punishment in early modern Britain

    Early modern Britain was a time of total religious upheaval. Religious crimes such as heresy and witchcraft became prominent issues and were harshly prosecuted. Widening class divisions meant that crimes of poverty grew. Punishments were often public affairs that families would travel miles to watch.

    Heresy

    Religious beliefs that went against the official teachings of the Church.

    Crime and punishment religious crime

    Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church and became Protestant. He named himself the head of the Church of England. This increased the monarch's power at the expense of the church. Legal privileges like the Benefit of the Clergy were watered down.

    Protestantism

    In the medieval period, virtually all of Europe was Catholic. But in the 1500s a German priest called Martin Luther protested against the teachings of the Catholic Church and his followers became known as Protestants.

    After the Pope refused to grant him a divorce, Henry VIII decided that England would become a Protestant country. He set up the Church of England with the monarch at its head. This continues to this day in Britain.

    Crimes of heresy increased as some people in England remained loyal to Catholicism. Catholics were burnt at the stake.

    Crime and Punishment in Britain Witch Trial StudySmarterFig.2 Early-modern Witch Trial

    In the medieval era witches were an important part of village life, usually acting as healers. But the 'witch craze' in the early modern period led the nobility and clergymen to fear evil witchcraft. Witchcraft became a serious crime and was now punishable by death.

    Crime and punishment economic crime

    The early modern period saw a widening class division between the wealthy and the poor. Increasing population and unemployment led to a rise in vagrants.

    Crime and Punishment in Britain Vagrant Poster StudySmarterFig. 3 Early-modern depiction of Vagrants

    Vagrants were homeless people, usually ex-soldiers or the old and sick, who were unemployed and had no means of their own. They were forced to travel from town to town, begging. The Vagrancy Act of 1547 made it illegal to beg. Vagrants were publicly humiliated in the stocks and sometimes even executed.

    Crime and punishment transportation

    An innovation in punishment was transportation. Criminals were forcibly transported to colonies such as America and later Australia. They were sent to do hard labour building the new colonies. The dangerous voyage and harsh conditions of these unfamiliar lands meant that there was a high mortality rate.

    Crime and punishment in industrial Britain

    Industrial Britain was a time of reform. The witch trials were abolished and public executions were stopped. Transportation to Australia ended as the conditions of the ships were seen as too inhumane. The number of crimes punishable by death were cut by half.

    However, this period saw huge population growth and large levels of inequality. Riots, demonstrations, and crimes of poverty became more frequent. Politicians experimented with new forms of punishment and policing to counter this.

    Crime and punishment prisons

    Before the 19th century, jails and dungeons functioned as places of detention before a trial. But by the 19th century, imprisoning people became the punishment itself.

    Various types of prison were experimented with, such as separate systems and silent prisons. In separate system prisons, prisoners were kept isolated from each other without contact for days, or even weeks. They had to do meaningless tasks, such as turning a hand crank a certain number of times. In silent prisons, prisoners would be punished if they spoke out loud.

    These did not reduce crime rates and caused more problems amongst prisoners than they solved. Mental health problems and reoffending were commonplace. By 1877, all prisons had been brought under government control and the 'experimental' systems were discontinued.

    Crime and punishment police

    Law enforcement had previously been a mix of watchmen, soldiers and constables. Henry Fielding wanted a more efficient system to catch criminals. He set up the Bow Street Runners in 1748, named after the street in east London. They were a group of volunteers who caught thieves and investigated crimes.

    Crime and Punishment in Britain Robert Peel StudySmarterFig. 4 Sir Robert Peel

    It became clear to the government that there was an appetite among the public for some type of central criminal investigation force. Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. Originally it only policed London but the force was expanded to outside of the city. New police forces were also created across the country. Unofficial groups like the Bow Streets Runners lost their power.

    Crime and punishment modern Britain

    Britain in the 20th century saw the decriminalisation of issues once thought to be sinful, like homosexuality and abortion. The death penalty was abolished and children were given greater protections under the law. New crimes such as recreational drug use and computer crime were put on the law books.

    Crime and punishment police

    In 1900 there were around 180 police forces across the UK and there was little communication between them. By 2017 these small forces merged to around 40 police forces across the whole of the UK. This made communication easier. The 20th century saw an emphasis on training for police. In 1947 an official national police training college was established.

    Governments began to focus on preventing crime rather than just punishing it. This was done through education and poverty relief.

    Crime and punishment prisons

    By the 20th century, prisons were by far the most common form of punishment. Corporal punishment had all but vanished, and the death penalty was abolished in 1965. Prisoners gained some rights from the 1920s onwards, such as being able to wear their own clothes and to associate with each other. Some prisons focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

    By the 1960s overcrowding meant that access to courses and rehabilitative treatments were limited. Open prisons, which had minimum security, became a popular way of dealing with low-risk offenders. They allowed offenders to go to work so long as they abided by their curfews and other restrictions on daily life. They were, and still are, seen as an effective way of reintegrating people back into public life.

    Key takeaways

    • What constitutes a crime has generally been the decision of those with the most power. Historically, those were the King and the Church. Nowadays, it is the elected government that decides.
    • Throughout the medieval period, the community acted as enforces of punishment. This system gradually evolved into what we now know as the police in 1829.
    • Public shaming, maiming and flogging were all popular punishments in the Middle Ages, and continued through Early Modern Britain. Execution was only being abolished in 1965.
    • By the 19th century, prisons became the new standard punishment.
    • Nowadays, the focus of punishment has been both to punish and to rehabilitate criminals in the hope that they might one day be able to re-enter society.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Crime and Punishment in Britain

    What were 3 common punishments for crimes in Industrial Britain? 

    Prisons, corporal punishments and fines were all common punishments.

    What types of crimes were committed in Industrial Britain? 

    Theft was a major crime, particularly as more valuable and complex equipment was developed and security was poor. Assault and other petty crimes were also common.

    What were common punishments for crimes in Victorian England? 

    Being sent to prison was a new innovation. Previously, they had mainly been used as places for detention before trial, rather than for punishment.

    What are the types of crimes and punishments in Georgian Britain?

    Hanging was a particularly common punishment, used for anything from thieves to highwaymen. Corporal punishment and shaming did still exist, but to a lesser extent that they had done before.

    What is the history of crime and punishment in England?

    The answer is long and complex! Punishments have traditionally been very gruesome and severe, as they were deterrents. Until 1965, the death penalty was used, although it became less common in the 20th century. Crime has traditionally reflected the social needs of people. This can be seen particularly clearly in the context of Victorian Britain, were the extremely poor population often resorted to crime to survive.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why did crime become a political issue?

    Name one feature of newly designed Victorian prisons such as Pentonville?

    Crime was more likely to occur in which areas?

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