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Home > Crime and Punishment in Durham > The Bloody Code

 The Bloody Code

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The 'Bloody Code' was the name given to the English legal system from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. Why do you think it was called that? Take a look at the information in the tables and see if you can think of an answer.


No of crimes carrying the death penalty
1688 50
1765 160
1815 225

It was known as the 'Bloody Code' because of the huge numbers of crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed. If you look at the statute books for the 18th century it would seem as if every crime was punishable by death, even those which we would consider to be very minor or trivial today.


There were many reasons why the English legal system was so harsh at this time. First, the attitudes of the wealthy men who made the law were unsympathetic. They felt that people who committed crimes were sinful, lazy or greedy and deserved little mercy. Secondly, since the rich made the laws they made laws that protected their interests. Any act which threated their wealth, property or sense of law and order was criminalised and made punishable by death. You could be executed for stealing anything worth more than five shillings (equivalent to approximately £30 today)! Thirdly, the law was harsh to act as a deterrent. It was thought that people might not commit crimes if they knew that they could be sentenced to death. This was also the reason why executions were public spectacles until the 1860s. The authorities believed that hanging criminals in public would frighten people into obeying the law and refrain from commiting crime. From 1816 in Durham, hangings were carried out at the front of the Crown Court with crowds of people coming from far and wide to watch. Some well-off members of the public even hired the balconies of local houses and the Dun Cow pub to get a better view!

Engraving by ???? showing the artist's view of justice.

Engraving by William Heath from 1831 showing the artist's view of justice. Taken from The Hanging Tree by Vic Gattrell. (DUL ref: 343.23 GAT)

Despite the prevalence of the 'Bloody Code', not everyone found guilty of crime was executed! Other punishments also existed. In medieval times, criminals could be branded (burning a mark onto the skin), or mutilated (chopping off a limb such as an arm or a leg). The guilty could also be publicly whipped or humilated in the pillory or stocks.

Even those sentenced to death might not be executed. Criminals were often given the chance to avoid death by joining the Army or the Navy or to be transported to the colonies in America and Canada, and later Australia. In fact, transportation became a very popular mode of punishment. 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).

The other form of punishment which became increasingly popular with the authorities was incarceration in prison.


Find out more about life in prison





Some of the crimes carrying the death penalty in the 1700s
  • stealing horses or sheep
  • destroying turnpike roads
  • cutting down trees
  • pickpocketing goods worth more than one shilling
  • being out at night with a blackened face
  • unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child
  • arson
  • forgery
  • stealing from a rabbit warren
  • murder


A Rowlandson engraving of an execution at Newgate, clearly showing the carnival aspect of the event.

A Rowlandson engraving of an execution at Newgate, clearly showing the carnival aspect of the event. Taken from The Lesson of the Scaffold by David R Cooper. (DUL ref: 343.23 COO)


It is fair to say that the 'Bloody Code' did not work very well. Trials for serious offences sometimes lasted only a few minutes, there was often no chance for the defence to present their case and, to the modern eye, it seems like it was a lottery whether the accused would be found innocent or guilty. As always, it was easier if you were rich. You could afford proper legal representation and persuade the wealthy and famous to act as character witnesses for you.

However, the main problem with the 'Bloody Code' was that juries were often unwilling to find the accused guilty knowing that the punishment was execution. Indeed, so desperate were some judges to secure results that they deliberately under-valued stolen goods so that the accused would no longer face the death penalty. Evidence suggests that despite the 'Bloody Code' fewer people were hanged in the 18th century than previously. It has been estimated that around 200 hangings took place each year in England and Wales at this time.


A late 18th century engraving of convicts arriving in Botany Bay by George Barrington.

A late 18th century engraving of convicts arriving in Botany Bay by George Barrington. (DUL ref: 994.02 B2 BAR)

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