Crime and punishment in Elizabethan England

Crime and punishment in Elizabethan England

Liza Picard takes a look at crime in Elizabethan England and describes the brutal punishments offenders received, from whipping and public humiliation to hanging and burning at the stake.

Thieves and pickpockets

The crowded nave of St Paul’s Cathedral was a favourite with pickpockets and thieves, where innocent sightseers mixed with prostitutes, and servants looking for work rubbed shoulders with prosperous merchants. A visitor up from the country might be accosted by a ‘whipjack’ with a sad story of destitution after shipwreck, or a woman ‘demander for glimmer’ begging because she’d been burned out of house and home. Just keep walking, pay no attention. If you hear someone shout ‘look to your purses’, remember, this is not altruistic; he just wants to see where you keep your purse, as you clutch your pocket. There was a training school for young thieves near Billingsgate, where graduates could earn the title of ‘public foister’ or ‘judicial nipper’ when they could rob a purse or a pocket without being detected. But if the victim did feel an intrusive hand, he would shout ‘stop thief’ to ‘raise the hue and cry’, and everyone was supposed to run after the miscreant and catch him. But this rarely succeeded, thieves being adept at disappearing through the crowd.

The Bellman of London by Thomas Dekker, 1608

The Bellman of London by Thomas Dekker, 1608

This pamphlet, The Belman of London, exposes the scams of beggars and confidence tricksters operating in the city. The title page shows a watchman, with his bill and lantern, on patrol in London.

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Minor punishments

Fornication and incest were punishable by ‘carting’: being carried through the city in a cart, or riding backwards on a horse, wearing a placard describing the offence – an Elizabethan version of naming and shaming. Many offences were punished by the pillory – the criminal stood with his head and his hands through holes in a wooden plank. This could be as painful as public opinion decided, as the crowd gathered round to throw things at the wretched criminal. Stones were banned, in theory, but if the public felt deeply, the offender might not finish his sentence alive. Sometimes one or both of the offender’s ears were nailed to the pillory, sometimes they were cut off anyway. A sentence of whipping meant that the offender’s back was laid open raw and bloody, as he staggered along the appointed route through the city.

Woodcuts showing the four humours and marriage in Peacham's Minerva Britanna

Woodcuts showing the four humours and marriage in Peacham's Minerva Britanna

A male figure with his feet in the stocks – another early modern punishment.

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More serious punishments

There was a curious list of crimes that were punishable by death, including buggery, stealing hawks, highway robbery and letting out of ponds, as well as treason.

To deny that Elizabeth was the head of the Church in England, as Roman Catholics did, was to threaten her government and was treason, for which the penalty was death by hanging. But first, torture, to discover any fellow-plotters. Although in theory it was ‘greatly abhorred’, torture happened: and hideously. The Rack ‘tears a man’s limbs asunder’ – not literally, but it could snap the ligaments and cause excruciating pain. Perhaps the Pit was preferable, or the Little Ease, where a man couldn’t stand upright. The Scavenger’s Daughter was an ingenious system of compressing all the limbs in iron bands. For all of these an official order had to be given. Optional extras such as needles under the fingernails could be left to the examiner’s discretion.

Slavery was another sentence which is surprising to find in English history. From 1598 prisoners might be sent to the galleys if they looked strong enough to row.


Poisoners were burned at the stake, as were heretics such as Anabaptists. Two died in 1572, ‘in great horror with roaring and crying’.


The usual place of execution in London was out on the road to Oxford, at Tyburn (just west of Marble Arch). But sometimes the jury, or the court, ordered another location, outside St Paul’s Cathedral, or where the crime had been committed, so that the populace could not avoid seeing the dangling corpses. Sometimes murderers were hanged alive, in chains, and left to starve.

Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

John Florio comments on the ‘great number’ of criminals who are hanged daily in London, and he describes the ‘traytors’ who are quartered at the Queen’s command.

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Drawing and quartering

Traitors were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The grisly details included cutting the prisoner down before he died from hanging, and disembowelling him. After various other horrors, the corpse was cut into four pieces and the head was taken off. The quarters were nailed up in various places in London, and the head was displayed on a pole fixed over one of the gateways into the city, especially the gate on London Bridge.

Perhaps this deterred others from treasonable activities. But imagine the effect on innocent citizens as they went about their daily life, suddenly confronted with a rotting piece of human flesh, on a hot summer’s day.

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Around 1,000 apprentices rioted on Tower Hill to protest about the poor conditions in London. This woodcut shows their gruesome punishment – they were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.

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Peine forte et dure

The words were a survival from the old system of Norman French law. This was, strictly speaking, a procedural hiccup rather than a punishment. The first step in a trial was to ask the accused how he pleaded. If he said he was not guilty, he faced trial, and the chances of acquittal were slim. If he pleaded guilty, or was found guilty by the court, all his property was forfeited to the Crown, leaving his family destitute. So a very brave and devoted man could refuse to answer, when asked to plead, knowing that he would die a painful and protracted death but his family could still claim his possessions. Heavy stones were piled on him and he was left in a dark cell, given occasional sips of foul water and stale bread until death came as a relief.

Peine forte et dure was not formally abolished until 1772, but it had not been imposed for many years.


A woman sentenced to death could ‘plead her belly’: claim that she was pregnant. If a ‘committee of matrons’ was satisfied, her execution was deferred until she had given birth, since it would be wrong to kill both mother and unborn child. With luck she might then get lost in the system. At least it gave her a few more months of life.

‘Benefit of clergy’ dated from the days, long before the Reformation, when anyone who could read was bound to be a priest because no one else could. So if a literate man, or one who had had the foresight to learn by heart the relevant verse of the Bible (‘the neck verse’), had been found guilty of a crime for which the penalty was death, or some terrible punishment, he could ‘claim his book’, and be handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities. They would impose a more lenient sentence, such as branding on the hand. But you could only do that once, and the brand was proof that your immunity had expired.

Benefit of clergy was not abolished until 1847, but the list of offences for which it could not be claimed grew longer.

Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book

Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book

This playful book by Thomas Dekker, 1609, gives advice on how pleasure- seekers can outwit useless watchmen and get away with crimes in London.

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There were prisons, and they were full, and rife with disease. But they mostly held offenders against the civil law, such as debtors. The Elizabethan punishments for offences against the criminal law were fast, brutal and entailed little expense to the state.

© Liza Picard

  • Liza Picard
  • Liza Picard researches and writes about the history of London. She spent many years working in the office of the Solicitor of the Inland Revenue and lived in Gray’s Inn and Hackney, before retiring to live in Oxford.