Capital punishment in the United KingdomCapital punishment in the United Kingdom has a long history, dating back well before the United Kingdom itself existed.
Hanging by the neck as form of capital punishment was introduced to Britain by the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the 5th Century AD. By the 10th century it had become a common method of execution. William the Conqueror decreed that hanging should only be used for conspirators or in times of war and ordered that criminals should instead be castrated and have their eyes put out. William Rufus re-introduced hanging but only for those found guilty of poaching royal deer. Henry I, brought hanging back as the main means of execution for a whole host of crimes. The first recorded execution at the notorious Tyburn hanging tree (now Speakers corner in Hyde Park) was in 1196. Under the reign of Henry VIII some 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed by various methods including boiling, burning at the stake, beheading and of course hanging with perhaps the added punishment of drawing and quartering.
Sir Samuel Romilly speaking to the House of Commons on capital punishment in 1810, declared that "..[there is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England". Known as the "Bloody Code", at its height some 220 different crimes were punishable by death. These crimes included such offences as "being in the company of gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7-14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". Many of these offences had been introduced to protect the property of the increasingly wealthy classes that emerged during the first half of the 18th century; a notable example being the Waltham Black Acts of 1723 which created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching.
Whilst executions for murder, burglary, and robbery were common, the death sentences of minor offenders were often not carried out. At the whim of the judge a sentence of death could be commuted or respited (permanently postponed) for reasons such as benefit of clergy, official pardons, pregnancy of the offender or performance of military or naval duty. Many believed the situation to be a farce.
In 1808 Romilly had the death penalty removed from pickpocketing and other trivial offenses and started a process of reform that continued over next 50 years. The Reform Act of 1832 reduced the number of capital crimes by two-thirds. Gibbeting (the public display of executed corpses) was abolished in 1843 and in 1861 the Criminal Law Consolidation Act limited the number of capital crimes to just four; murder, treason, arson in royal dockyards, and piracy with violence.
The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1864-1866) concluded (with one dissenter) that there was not a case for abolition but did recommended an end to public executions and this proposal was included in the Capital Punishment Act of 1868. Since then all executions have been carried out within prison walls. The practice of beheading and quartering executed traitors was officially curtailed in 1870.
Juveniles under 16 could no longer be executed from 1908. In 1922 a new offence of Infanticide was introduced replacing the charge of murder for mothers killing their children in the first year of life. In 1930 a parliamentary Select Committee recommended that capital punishment be suspended for a trial period of five years but no further action was taken. But from 1931 pregnant women could no longer be hanged and the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to 18 in 1933.
In 1938 the issue of the abolition of capital punishment was brought before parliament. A clause within the 'Criminal Justice bill' called for an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty. When war broke out in 1939 the bill was postponed. It was revived after the war and to everyone's surprise was unexpectedly adopted by a majority in the House of Commons (245 to 222 against). In the House of Lords the abolition clause was defeated but the remainder of the bill was passed. Popular support for abolition was absent and the government decided that it would be inappropriate for it to assert its supremacy by invoking the Parliament Act over such an unpopular issue. The Home Secretary set up a new royal commission (the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1949-1954)) instead with instructions to determine "whether the liability to suffer capital punishment should be limited or modified". The commison's report discussed a number of alternatives to execution by hanging but was unclear on whether capital punishment itself should or should not be abolished. Popular opinion believed that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to criminals, but the statistics within the report were inconclusive on this issue. Whilst the report recommended abolition from an ethical standpoint, it made no mention of possible miscarriages of justice. It concluded that unless there was overwhelming public support in favour of abolition, the death penalty should be retained.
By 1957 a number of controversial cases had highlighted the issue of capital punishment once again. Campaigners for abolition were partially rewarded with the Homicide Act of 1957. The act brought in a distinction between capital and non-capital homicide. Only five categories of murder were now punishable by exection. They were:
- Murder in the course or furtherance of theft
- Murder by shooting or causing an explosion
- Murder while resisting arrest or during an escape
- Murder of a police officer or prison officer
- Two murders committed on different occasions.
In 1965 the Labour MP Sydney Silverman who had committed himself to the cause of abolition for more than 20 years proposed a private members bill on abolition which was passed in the House of Commons by 200 votes to 98. It was subsequently adopted by the House of Lords by 204 to 104 against. The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty in England, Wales and Scotland for all crimes, except treason, piracy with violence, and certain crimes under the jurisdiction of the armed forces for a period of five years. In 1969 the act came up for renewal and the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan proposed a motion to remove the five year limit which was carried by both houses on December 18, 1969.
In 1973 the death penalty was abolished in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Powers) Act.
Under a House of Lords amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act the death penalty was abolished for crimes of treason and piracy with violence. On May 20 1998, the House of Commons voted to implement the 6th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights outlawing capital punishment for murder except "in times of war or imminent threat of war". The last remaining provisions for the death penalty under military jurisdiction (except in times of war) were removed when the Human Rights Act came into force in November 1998. When the European Convention on Human Rights was ratified on the 20 May 1999 all provisions for the death penalty were finally abolished in the United Kingdom.
As a legacy from colonial times, several islands in the West Indies still had the British Privy Council as the court of last appeal; Though the death penalty has been retained in these islands, in practice the Privy Council would deny executions - If executions were not allowed in the UK, it would have been inconsistent to give permission for them to be carried out elsewhere. These islands severed links with the British court system in 2001 in order to speed up executions .
Note: This list does not include the beheadings of nobility.