Crime in Early Modern England

Another way in which capital offenders could escape the death penality lay through the administration of remands or pardons. A woman could escape capital punishment by claiming preganacy: in this case, her execution would be postponed until after her child was born, as condemning her to death beforehand would be seen as carrying out the murder of an innocent child; in most cases, the charges against the woman would be conveniently forgotten or pardoned after childbirth.

Cockburn, examining records of the area around the Borough of London estimated that approximately thirty-eight per cent of women accused of felony during the early modern era claimed to be pregnant in order to escape the gallows; this figure does not in any way correspond with the childbirth rates of the time; although it would have been physically impossible for such a high proportion of felons to be pregnant, the courts accepted these mitigations.

Another escape route for capital offenders was to have their crimes dropped to lesser misdemeanors. One example is that in the case of larceny, there was a great distinction between what was defined as grand larceny, the theft of goods worth over a shilling, a capital crime, and petty larceny, stealing goods valued under that amount, usually punishable by whipping.

Judges often deliberately undervalued the worth of stolen goods, so that offenders received lighter sentences. Additionally, inflation by the sixteenth century "removed such sense as there had ever been in such a division, and judges, jurors, and prosecuters alike seem to have been happy to have permitted the less dangerous thief to escape by altering the value of goods as given on the indictment, or by finding him or her guilty only to the value of a few pence. "

Judges frequently ignored capital felonies or gave offenders a lighter, alternative punishment; the early eighteenth century saw the start of such felons being transported to labouring in the British colonies as a common practise. In the Norfolk and Suffolk assizes during the period 1734-37, twenty-one per cent of all felons faced transportation to the American colonies; of those transported, twenty-eight had been charged with larceny, three percent with highway robbery, seventeen per cent with burglary, and eight per cent with other misdemeanors.

Whipping was frequently imposed as an alternative to the death sentence; this particular punishment was particularly administered on women, the reason for this being that in the early modern period, men were expected to assume responsibility for their wives actions; therefore, a married woman who committed a capital offence was often considered to be less guilty than her male counterpart, and received a lighter punishment. There were therefore a wide variety of means of escaping the gallows in early modern England, so much so that by 1750, only about ten per cent of felons were executed in the normal assizes.

The logic behind punishments lay in the belief that sentences such as death, branding, shaming punishments and whipping would deter criminal behaviour and recidivism; there was also a belief in retribution, that offenders deserved to suffer for their crimes. However, analyses prove that a wide disparity existed between theory and practise, that towards the end of the early modern period, the number of capital punishments decreased significantly. Between 1600 and 1800 the number of recorded crimes punishable by death quadrupled whilst the number of executions fell sharply.

This phenomenal augmentation in the number of recorded capital crimes is due to many contributing factors: in times of moral panic, such as in the Puritanist period following the Civil Wars in 1642-6 and 1648, deviant behaviour which would be ignored in more stable periods was prosecuted, and a higher proportion of deviant behaviour than usual appeared in the court records; many crimes which had not previously been capital offences were made punishable by death.

However, despite this fundamental growth of capital offences during the Early Modern period, the number of executions administered during this era declined tremendously. This apparent paradox can be accounted for by a multitude of factors, including the fact that the courts mitigated the death sentence by introducing circumstances such as benefit of the clergy and pregnancy.

Judges often provided alternative punishments to felons, such as transportation or whipping for women, and judges often ignored capital felonies or gave felons lesser punishments. Therefore death was imposed much less than it should have been, had people been following the law of the time.


J. A. Sharpe; Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750 ; Longman Group UK Limited; 1984 Alan Macfarlene; The Justice and the Mare's Ale ; Basil Blackwell Publisher; 1981 A. T. Carter; A History of the English Courts; Butterworth & Co. , Ltd. ; 1944