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Crime and PunishmentThe Bloody Code Return to the main page
How Bloody was the Bloody Code? Task Glossary

In the years after 1660 the number of offences carrying the death penalty increased enormously, from about 50, to 160 by 1750 and to 288 by 1815. You could be hanged for stealing goods worth 5 shillings (25p), stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a Naval Dockyard, damaging Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or cutting down a young tree. This series of laws was called (later) "The Bloody Code."
Why was the Bloody Code passed? After the turmoil of the 17th century, the landowning class emerged as supreme rulers of Britain. They based their power on property-ownership, and saw the law's main purpose as protecting property. They were ruling a country of 6.5 million, most of whom had no political rights whatsoever. The crime rate was not high, actually, (see Gallery
Crime 1450-1700), but they feared that it was, as towns grew in size and the old village community crumbled. There was also no police force (see Gallery Crime Prevention 1450-1700). The Bloody Code was therefore a threat: severe retribution would happen to those thinking of breaking the law by infringing property rights.
A great deal was made of hangings. They were held in public and thousands turned out to watch, especially in London, at Tyburn. The intention was clearly to act as a deterrent to others to observe the laws -or else.
Yet, in fact, fewer people were hanged under the Bloody Code than before it. Numbers of people hanged per year in London and Devon:

  Early 17th century Early 18th century
London 150 20
Devon 25 3

Offenders escaped the noose at many points: sometimes the charge was reduced to below capital levels (this could go to ridiculous lengths, as in the charge "Stole £5 value 10 pence"). Juries were reluctant to find people guilty. Judges let offenders off and offenders sometimes agreed to join the army or navy instead. As a last resort, petitions for mercy were often answered. The system therefore held the death threat in readiness, but could show mercy: either way, power of life or death lay with the powerful.

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