Crime and Punishment in the Tudor Period

The Tudor period has been characterized as remarkably harsh in both its corporal and capital punishment throughout the era.

Jun 7, 2022By Lucy Soaft, BA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentration
tudor england vagrancy
Woodcut of a captured vagabond, c. 1536, via Spartacus Education


At the beginning of the Tudor period, both corporal and capital punishment were widely used among both the nobility and common people. However, it can be noted that there was a vast difference between the types of crimes subjected to each class and the accompanying consequences. For example, common people were usually hanged, whereas the wealthy were beheaded. Corporal punishment for common people differed depending on the crime; nevertheless, many historians agree that the penalty was typically harsh, cruel, humiliating, and carried out in public. Capital punishment threatened all classes of society and was dealt with as a punishment for many crimes during Tudor history. In King Henry VIII’s reign alone, some 70,000 people suffered the death penalty.


Justice During the Tudor Period

court star chamber tudor
Court of the Star Chamber during the Tudor Period, via Rev. C. Arthur Lane Illustrated Notes on English Church History (1901).


While there were many crimes to be found guilty of and many consequences to fear, England would not see a police force until 1829. Therefore, other means were required to enforce the law. A common thought throughout Tudor history was that justice and sovereignty moved from the top down. All power and authority sprang from the divine, who worked through an anointed monarch. This image of the monarch as supreme was pre-existing but reached new heights when Henry VIII declared himself Head of the Church of England. In the case of Queen Elizabeth, the devotion to Gloriana, as she was also known, helped the government maintain public order.


This divine authority was then filtered through to the nobility, who were put in charge of portions of the country. Those in favor of the monarch were usually appointed large and financially beneficial lands; yet, as it was a prevalent theme in Tudor history, favor was fleeting and depended largely on the monarch. Those in King Edward’s court quickly found themselves stripped of their positions after his sister–and devout Catholic–Queen Mary was crowned. As a result of frequent alteration, “the courts were not unified into a single, hierarchical system, and were often sorted by types of crimes, with each court developing its own unique expertise or specialty” (Joshua Dow, 2018).


On the other hand, while the Tudor justice was decidedly prejudicial, the one similarity in each class was that no man could be judged until he had submitted a plea. The jury’s decision then depended on the nature and severity of the crime and the plea itself.


Crimes & Punishment of the Common People in Tudor History

man women wooden stocks
Man and woman in wooden stocks, via Collaborative Learning

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For the commoner, local Tudor justice was an “often-terrifying extension of royal power, local authority, and the natural order”. Life in Tudor England was especially difficult for the common people. While many of the crimes committed by the noble classes were linked to political aims and the pursuit of power, the crimes that were committed by the lower classes were almost always committed through desperation.


The most popular crimes included:


  • Theft
  • Cut purses
  • Begging
  • Poaching
  • Adultery
  • Debtors
  • Forgers
  • Fraud
  • Murder
  • Treason and Rebellion
  • Heresy


As can be witnessed in the above list, many crimes revolved around monetary gain, which was a continuous point of struggle for the common populace. Hanging occurred in severe cases, while the amputation of hands and fingers or branding would be carried out in benign cases. For various crimes, branding was used to identify criminals to the public. “Hot iron was used to burn letters onto the skin of offenders’ hands, arms or cheeks. A murderer would be branded with the letter ‘M,’ vagrants/beggars with the letter ‘V,’ and thieves with the letter ‘T’’


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A thief being publicly amputated, via Elizabethan England Life; with A man in the stocks, via Plan Bee


Hangings and beheadings were also popular forms of punishment in the Tudor era. While beheadings were usually reserved for the nobility as a more dignified way to die, hangings were increasingly common among the common populace. In fact, on average, during Elizabeth’s reign, three-quarters of those sent to the gallows were done so for theft.


Much retribution took the form of public humiliation. Those charged with public embarrassment, such as drunkenness, begging, and adultery, were made to be shamed for their crimes.


The stocks were wooden structures, either to make the guilty party stand, with both hands and neck or with both feet and hands encased. The stocks were erected in public squares or streets, as it was believed if a “criminal’s punishment was severe and painful enough, the act would not be repeated and others would deter from crime as well”. Public punishment became so popular in an era seeking entertainment that public humiliation, executions, and the like had a carnivalesque nature. It was an event not to be missed, and people would queue through the night to get the best place.


Crimes of heresy were punishable by fire. Being burnt at the stake was also a punishment for women who had committed High Treason or Petty Treason. Men convicted of high treason were hanged, drawn, and quartered, but this was not deemed acceptable for women as it would have involved nudity. High treason covered counterfeiting, whereas petty treason was the crime of murder from a wife or mistress to her husband. If a man killed his wife, he was tried for murder. However, if a woman did the same, the charge was treason, as it was a crime against authority.


execution margaret pole
The Execution of Margaret Pole from ‘Review of Fox’s Book of Martyrs’, via Sky History


Burnings took the foreground in Tudor-era punishments during the reign of Mary Tudor. Two hundred seventy-four burnings of both sexes for heresy were recorded during her five-year reign (reign of terror) between 1553 and 1558. Their only “crime” was following the Protestant faith in most cases. The individual would be tied to a stake amid a pyre of dry wood, which would then be set alight. “Clergyman would preach sermons as the flames licked the feet of the condemned and their coughs turned to screams. Occasionally, cruel executioners would wet the wood to make it burn slower”.


While burning at the stake is usually associated with witchcraft throughout Europe, in England, witchcraft was a felony and thus punishable by hanging . Additionally, British attitudes to witchcraft during the Tudor era tended to be less extreme than those of contemporary Europeans. Bizarre tests for witchcraft included swimming the witch and weighing her against the Bible, yielding few convictions. It has even been noted that “indeed, under the right circumstances, the British witch could occasionally become an acceptable – if not quite respectable – member of society”. Yet deviant women had to be punished, and burning was deemed an appropriate consequence.


scolds bridle punishment women
A woman wearing the Scolds’ Bridle, via Pattaya One News


The fear of women plagued all areas of society during the Tudor era. Supposedly subservient and domicile, women that strayed from the norms were considered criminals or even immoral witches. Peculiar behavior ranged from adultery, promiscuity, and prostitution to being outspoken or arguing against one’s husband. Kelli Marshall presents the idea that labeling these women as scolds or shrews implied that men couldn’t adequately control their households. And since this type of woman inverted gender norms of the time, all were warranting reprimand.


Crimes & Punishment of the Nobility in Tudor History

trial high treason westminster hall tudor england
A Trial for High Treason, In Westminster Hall, during the Tudor Period, Illustration from John Cassell’s Illustrated History of England (W Kent, 1857/1858), via Look and Learn


Crimes varied throughout the nobility, dissimilar to that of the common population. Without the need nor the desperation to steal or beg, the nobles of the Tudor period’s most common list of crimes seem to veer towards the political, religious, deceitful, and in some cases, scientific categories.


The most common crimes of royalty and wealthy nobles included:


  • High Treason
  • Blasphemy
  • Sedition
  • Spying
  • Rebellion
  • Murder
  • Witchcraft
  • Alchemy (Linda Alchin, 2014).


While most public crimes resulted in a public punishment meant to shame the accused, many of the above crimes were punishable by death. Unlike the common people, the nobles of the Tudor era simply possessed too much power and influence to be shown leniency.


tudor england trial anne boleyn
The Trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother George Boleyn, via The Tudor Chronicles


The severity of a crime committed in aristocracy eventually warranted a separate justice system. The Star Chamber was crafted under King Henry VII in 1487 to act as an instrument of the Monarch, and in it sat royally appointed judges and counselors. The Star Chamber exclusively dealt with noble criminal cases; however, trials were designed in favor of the prosecutors. Defendants were not even allowed legal counsel. There was no jury and no ability to appeal, so if you heard that you were going to be tried in the Star Chamber, that usually meant it was the end for you and would usually conclude in torture and death.


Even though the nobility was usually condemned to death, this did not stop the Tudors from carrying out various forms of execution. Public executions were typically reserved for the lower classes. As the nobility became increasingly threatening to the monarch, a similar practice was carried in the upper classes.


tudor england beheading anne boleyn
The execution of Anne Boleyn, Print made by Jan Luyken, c.1664-1712, via Scalar


In Tudor England, members of the nobility found guilty of serious crimes were given the benefit of being beheaded – probably the “cleanest” death by execution of the era . Yet, despite the award of “cleanest death,” beheading was still not a desired fate as the Tudor executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed. Queen Anne Boleyn was the first monarch to be publicly executed by beheading for her crimes in 1536. Yet even though the viewing was restricted to the Tudor court, her family, and nobles of the land, her execution was still witnessed by several hundred spectators.


Being hung, drawn, and quartered was arguably the worst sentence received throughout Tudor history, reserved for those who had committed high treason. Between the 13th and 19th centuries, hundreds of Englishmen convicted of high treason were sentenced to die by this very public and grisly display of absolute power.


monks tyburn drawn charterhouse
London Charterhouse Monks being drawn to Tyburn, June 19, 1535, via How Stuff Works


The punishment was split into three separate tortures, the first being drawing. The accused was strapped to a wooden board that would be dragged to the gallows via horse. For many centuries, that journey was a full three miles from Newgate Prison in London to Tyburn. Upon arrival, the prisoner was then hung to the point of near asphyxiation. Once cut down, the condemned man was then dismembered once cut down, first his genitalia, lower organs, and finally the limbs and head. Body parts were kept in preserves to allow a parade of the body. The overall objective here was to demonstrate the absolute power of the monarchy.


man limbs quartered
A man’s limbs being quartered, via


Being hung, drawn, and quartered was described by William Harrison as follows:


“The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose”
(Description of Elizabethan England, William Harrison, 1577-78).


The Use of Torture & the Tower of London


In 1215, England outlawed torture except by royal warrant through the passage of the Magna Carta; however, there was a willingness at the top of the government to override the law to obtain certain ends. This created a perfect storm for torture, used liberally in Tudor history. Due to continuous religious and political upheaval, treason and espionage were widespread concerns throughout the court. While many of these threats to the monarch came from the nobility in a power struggle, the common people were also known to revolt.


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The South View of the Tower of London” engraving by Nathaniel Buck and Samuel Buck, published in 1737, courtesy of the British Museum, via Wikipedia


Although torture was “greatly abhorred” in theory, it still happened (James Moore, 2020). Torture was viewed as an effective and valid way of obtaining information or a confession from a prisoner. Many torture methods employed during Tudor times had been in use since the Middle Ages. “The majority of the prisoners were charged with high treason, but murder, robbery, embezzling the Queen’s plate, and failure to carry out proclamations against state players were among the offenses”.


As a result, the Tower of London was put to use. Originally built in the 1070s by William the Conqueror, the mighty stone complex was intended to protect London and the new King’s power. Taking approximately 20 years to build to completion, it soon became a visible symbol of awe and fear. From 1070 until the beginning of the Tudor era, the Tower was used to create and store armor, possessions, the country’s money, and even the monarchs themselves. Upon the emergence of the Tudors, its purpose turned sinister. Under Henry VIII, it was frequently put to use; meanwhile, the Tower was only used in a small number of cases during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary. The Tower of London was put to use under the reign of Queen Elizabeth more than in any other period of history.


Torture and the Tower of London have long had an uneasy relationship. However, the practice of Torture was regulated by the monarch. In the Elizabethan era, torture was not allowed without the queen’s authorization. It was permitted only in the presence of officials in charge of questioning the prisoner and recording their confession. Yet, despite this legality, torture in the tower remained cruel.


cuthbert simpson torture rack
The Torture of Cuthbert Simpson “upon the racke” from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (Book of Martyrs), 1563 Edition, via Historic Royal Palaces


During the Tudor age, the Tower became the most important state prison in the country. Anyone thought to be a threat to national security was sent there and underwent the torture necessary to obtain information. Standard torture methods at the time included the ripping out of teeth or fingernails, beating and breaking a prisoner’s bones, whipping, and flaying, as well as physical mutilation such as castration or tongue removal.


Torture in Tudor England was characterized by its instruments. Special equipment was created to ensure that the prisoner would comply or face death. Such instruments of torture included the collar, the rack, and the thumbscrew, as well as the continued use of stocks, the Maiden, and the Ducking Stool. Perhaps the most memorable, feared, and used instruments at the tower were the rack, the Scavenger’s Daughter, and the manacles.


The rack was designed to stretch a man to the point where his ligaments would snap. Inversely, the Scavenger’s Daughter was an ingenious system of compressing all the limbs in iron bands designed to compress the individual until ruptures occurred from the inside.


scavengers daughter luke kirby
Luke Kirby, Catholic Priest and Martyr, who was tortured in the Scavenger’s Daughter and later executed during the reign of Elizabeth, via Alamy


Another form of torture inside the Tower of London was the Peine Forte et Dure (French for “strong and harsh punishment”). “This sanction was reserved for those who refused to enter pleas at court.” The act involved placing heavy stones on top of the prisoner, causing them to become crushed under the weight. It was thought that this punishment would expedite the trial process by forcing the accused to make a plea.


peine forte et dure
Peine Forte et Dure, via Legal History Sources


Anne Askew in the Tower of London: A Case Study


“And because I lay still and did not cry, My Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands till I was nigh dead…The lieutenant caused me to be loose from the rack: incontinently I swooned, and they recovered me again…”
Anne Askew, 1546.


tudor england anne askew
Anne Askew, the second daughter of Sir William Askew (1489–1541), via Spartacus Education


Anne Askew was the only woman reputedly tortured at the Tower, whose story can give us an accurate demonstration of the treatment of tower prisoners. Interestingly, only two women are of much conversation among historians when referring to the Tower of London. While much of Tudor literature refers to men as the dominant gender of the time, we must not forget the crimes and punishments of women. Generally, “women could be burned or boiled alive but were rarely tortured. Evangelical Protestant preacher Anne Askew was the exception”.


Born in 1520, Anne Askew was raised in a noble family who frequently rubbed shoulders with the monarchy. A devout Protestant, Askew married young to a strict Catholic named Thomas Kyme. An unhappy marriage from the beginning, it did not end pleasantly and left Anne alone. She went to London to spread the word of the Bible. However, in 1543, Henry VIII ruled that it would be illegal for women and men of minor and lower gentry to read the Bible. Anne’s dream of preaching on the streets of London would therefore be classed as an act of heresy.


It would be Stephen Gardiner who led to Anne’s death. As the Catholic Bishop of Winchester and a trusted advisor of the King, Gardiner was unhappy that Henry’s current wife, Catherine Parr, was a devout and practicing Protestant. Given a mutual friend was shared between the Queen and Anne, this was everything Gardiner needed to accuse both Anne and the Queen of heresy.


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Anne Askew inside the Tower of London, via Look and Learn


Anne was taken to the Tower of London, where she was placed on the rack. The rack was the most widely used instrument of torture, “designed to stretch the victim’s body, eventually dislocating the limbs and ripping them from their sockets”. Anne was tied by her wrists and ankles to the corners of the rack and was slowly stretched, lifting her body and holding it tightly about five inches in the air, then stretching her body slowly until it broke.


The story of Anne Askew is a perfect demonstration of the Tudor justice system in that it was unnecessarily cruel. A mere accusation of heresy, or possibly, in this case, an ulterior motive, was all that was needed. In the end, Anne refused to provide any information that would ensure the Queen’s downfall, and for that, it cost her life. Anne was removed from the Tower of London and sentenced to die on the 12th of July, 1546. The torture she endured in the Tower was so much so that Anne was unable to stand at the stake. Instead, a small chair was set at the bottom of the stake, and she was tied by ankles, wrist, chest, and neck to the stake where she sat. Anne was the last martyr to die under the reign of Henry VIII. She was only 25 when she died.


Crime & Punishment During the Tudor Period

tudor england anne askew martyrdom
The Martyrdom of Anne Askew, in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1869, via Death & The Maiden


In summary, throughout all Tudor History, “from the crowning of Henry VII in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the kings and queens of the House of Tudor ruled England (and beyond) with ambition, religious zeal – and brutality”. The Tudors placed less emphasis overall on imprisonment – except in the instances where torture was required – and largely on corporal punishment. In the end, even death was punishable, as witnessed in Harrison’s Description of Elizabethan England (1577-78), which explains that those who “kill themselves are buried in the field with a stake driven through their bodies.”

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By Lucy SoaftBA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentrationLucy is pursuing an MSc in Military and Medical history with the aspiration of becoming a museum curator. She holds a BA in History with a focus on medical ethics and Military history from the University of Kent (UKC). Topics of interest also include Tudor History, Human Experimentation, and Gothic Architecture. Lucy volunteers at various museums including the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.