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The Bloody Code is a term used to refer to the system of laws and punishments in England between 1688 and 1815. It was not referred to as such in its own time, but the name was given later owing to the sharply increased number of crimes that attracted the death penalty as capital crimes.
In 1688 there were 50 offences on the statute book punishable by death, but that number had almost quadrupled by 1776, and it reached 220 by the end of the century. Most of the new laws introduced during that period were concerned with the defence of property, which some commentators have interpreted as a form of class suppression of the poor by the rich. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, expressed a contemporary view when he said that "Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen". Grand larceny, defined as the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, was one of the crimes that attracted the death penalty,[nb 1] but as the 18th century wore on jurors often deliberately under-assessed the value of stolen goods, below the crucial figure that would have made a sentence of death mandatory.
Since the law makers still wanted punishments to scare potential criminals, but needed them to become less harsh, transportation became the more common punishment. Since the American Colonies had won independence by this time, the majority of convicts were transported to Australia. It has been estimated that over one-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867 were transported to Australia and Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). Some criminals could escape transportation if they agreed to join the army.
It is a melancholy truth, that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than a hundred and sixty have been declared by Act of Parliament to be felonious without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death
Relaxation of the law
In 1823 the Judgement of Death Act 1823 made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually during the middle of the nineteenth century the number of capital offences was reduced, and by 1861 was down to five. These were murder (suspended 1965, abolished 1969), piracy (1998), arson in a naval dockyard (1971), espionage (1981) and high treason (1998).
- At the time of the Bloody Code 12 pence represented about one-twentieth of the weekly wage for a skilled worker.
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