The Rise and Fall of the Bloody Code

What was the 'Bloody Code'?
The 'Bloody Code' was the name given to laws that made many more crimes punishable by death during the early modern period. It marked a huge increase in the reliance on the death penalty as a punishment.
When was the Bloody Code in use?
The Bloody Code lasted from 1688 to 1815.
How many laws were in the Bloody Code?
Between 1688 and 1815 the number of crimes that could be punished by death increased dramatically.
  • In 1688, 50 crimes could be punished by death.
  • In 1815, 225 crimes could be punished by death.
When did the Bloody Code end?
The Bloody Code was abolished in the 1820s when Robert Peel reformed criminal law. Changing attitudes continued to push reforms throughout the 19th century.
How did the Bloody Code end?
There were 7 main reasons for the ending of the Bloody Code:
  • The reforms made to criminal law by Robert Peel.
  • Executions were meant to frighten people into obeying the law, but instead they became cheap entertainment; the crowds laughed and drank while they were carried out.
  • As crowds at public executions grew, the government felt it was becoming difficult to keep order. There was always the danger of escape or protest riots if the crowds had sympathy for the condemned criminal or felt the punishment was unfair.
  • Executions were not always carried out - even in the 1700s, only 40% of those sentenced to death were actually hanged. By the 1800s this had dropped to 10%. Criminals were often pardoned.
  • Juries became more unwilling to convict people of minor capital crimes because they thought the punishment unfair. This undermined the law and might have encouraged some criminals to commit more crimes.
  • Ideas about punishment were changing. It was felt it should match the crime, and criminals could instead be reformed into thoughtful human beings.
  • Transportation had emerged as the main alternative to capital punishment.
What was the impact of ending the Bloody Code?
There were 4 importan results of ending the Bloody Code.
  • The end of the Bloody Code meant the use of harshly deterrent and retributive punishments fell.
  • From the 1830s the only crimes punishable by death were murder and treason.
  • Public executions ended in 1868.
  • Transportation was abolished soon after.
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