Bloody Code

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The "Bloody Code" was a series of laws in England, Wales and Ireland in the 18th and early 19th centuries which mandated the death penalty for a wide range of crimes.[1][2][3][4] It was not referred to by this name in its own time; the name was given later owing to the sharply increased number of people given the death penalty, even for crimes considered minor by 21st century standards.

In 1689, there were 50 capital offences in England and Wales; this increased to 220 by the end of the 18th century. This period saw the introduction of new laws focused on property defence, which some viewed as class suppression. As convictions for capital crimes increased, penal transportation with indentured servitude became a more common punishment. In 1785, Australia was deemed suitable for transporting convicts, and over one-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867 were sent there. The Bloody Code listed 21 categories of capital crimes in the 18th century. By 1823, the Judgment of Death Act made the death penalty discretionary for most crimes, and by 1861, the number of capital offences had been reduced to five. The last execution in the United Kingdom took place in 1964, and the death penalty was abolished for various crimes in the following years.


In 1689 there were 50 offences on the statute book punishable by death in England and Wales, but that number had almost quadrupled by 1776,[5] and it reached 220 by the end of the century.[6] 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.[7] 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".[8] Grand larceny was one of the crimes that drew the death penalty; it was defined as the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, about one-twentieth of the weekly wage for a skilled worker at the time.[9] As the 18th century proceeded, jurors often deliberately under-assessed the value of stolen goods in order to avoid a mandatory death sentence.[9] In the Kingdom of Ireland, a subordinate but separate state, a similar "Bloody Code" existed, but there were not as many capital crimes.[10] .

As the number of capital crimes increased, lawmakers sought a less harsh punishment that might still deter potential offenders, and penal transportation with a term of indentured servitude became a more common punishment. This trend was expanded by the Transportation Act 1717 (16 Geo. 3 c.43), which regulated and subsidised the practice, until its use was suspended by the Criminal Law Act 1776.[11] With the American Colonies already in active rebellion, parliament claimed its continuance was "found to be attended with various inconveniences, particularly by depriving this kingdom of many subjects whose labour might be useful to the community, and who, by proper care and correction, might be reclaimed from their evil course". This law would become known as the Hard Labour Act and the Hulks Act for both its purpose and its result. With the removal of the important transportation alternative to the death penalty, it would in part prompt the use of prisons for punishment and the start of prison building programmes.[12] In 1785 Australia was deemed a suitably desolate place to transport convicts; transportation resumed, now to a specifically planned penal colony, with the departure of the First Fleet in 1787. It has been estimated that over one-third of all criminals convicted between 1788 and 1867 were transported to Australia, including Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). Some criminals could escape transportation if they agreed to join the British Army. Jurist William Blackstone said of the Bloody Code:

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.

Leon Radzinowicz listed 49 pages of "Capital Statutes of the Eighteenth Century" divided into 21 categories:[13]

  1. High treason, including offences against the Protestant succession and the Protestant establishment
  2. Other offences against the State
  3. Offences against public order, including riot and destruction of flood defences and bridges
  4. Offences against the administration of justice
  5. Offences against public health
  6. Offences against public revenue, including smuggling
  7. Petty treason and murder
  8. Stabbing, maiming and shooting at any person
  9. Rape, forcible abduction and other sexual offences
  10. Simple grand larceny and allied offences
  11. Burglary and allied offences
  12. Larceny from the person
  13. Larceny and embezzlement by servants, Post Office employees, clerks and other agents
  14. Blackmail
  15. Offences by bankrupts
  16. Forgery of deeds, bonds, testaments, bills of exchange, stocks, stamps, banknotes, etc.
  17. Falsely personating another with intent to defraud
  18. Destroying ships to the prejudice of insurance companies
  19. Coinage offences
  20. Malicious injuries to property, including arson
  21. Piracy

Relaxation of the law[edit]

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. The last execution in the UK took place in 1964, and the death penalty was legally abolished in the following years for the crimes of:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ O'Mahony, Paul (September 8, 2002). Criminal Justice in Ireland. Institute of Public Administration. ISBN 9781902448718 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ Campbell, Noel (2 June 2017). "The long road from the Bloody Code". Mayo Advertiser. Retrieved 15 May 2023.
  3. ^ King, Peter; Ward, Richard (10 August 2015). "Rethinking the Bloody Code in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Capital Punishment at the Centre and on the Periphery". Past & Present. 228 (1): 159–205.
  4. ^ Walliss, John (2018). The Bloody Code in England and Wales, 1760–1830. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-74561-9. ISBN 978-3-319-74560-2 – via
  5. ^ Wilf 2010, p. 139
  6. ^ Wade 2009, p. 9
  7. ^ Sharpe 2001, p. 116
  8. ^ Wade 2009, p. 10
  9. ^ a b Glyn-Jones 2000, p. 322
  10. ^ Doyle, David M.; O'Callaghan, Liam (January 31, 2020). Capital Punishment in Independent Ireland: A Social, Legal and Political History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9781789620276 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Britain, Great; Pickering, Danby (September 8, 1775). "The Statutes at Large from the Magna Charta, to the End of the Eleventh Parliament of Great Britain, Anno 1761 [continued to 1806]. By Danby Pickering". J. Bentham – via Google Books.
  12. ^ Drew D. Gray, Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1660–1914 p. 298 (2016)
  13. ^ Radzinowicz 1948, pp. xx–xxi and 611–659 ("Appendix I: Capital Statutes of the Eighteenth Century")

General sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Brodeur, Jean-Paul; McCormick, Kevin R. E.; Visano, Livy A. (1992), "High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks about the Policing of Political Activities", Understanding Policing, Canadian Scholars’ Press, ISBN 1-55130-005-2
  • Glyn-Jones, Anne (2000), Holding up a Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (Revised 2nd ed.), Imprint Academic, ISBN 978-0-907845-60-7
  • Sharpe, Jim (2001), "Crime, Order and Historical Change", in Muncie, John; McLaughlin, Eugene (eds.), The Problem of Crime (2nd ed.), Sage Publications, pp. 107–150, ISBN 978-0-7619-6971-6
  • Wade, Stephen (2009), Britain's Most Notorious Hangmen, Wharncliffe Local History, ISBN 978-1-84563-082-9
  • Wilf, Steven (2010), Law's Imagined Republic: Popular Politics and Criminal Justice in Revolutionary America, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-14528-2

External links[edit]