Attitudes in the 16th and 17th centuries

Retribution

Retribution means to give an equivalent or returned punishment for a crime. It suggests a victim taking vengeance for a crime by making the criminal suffer. The desire for retribution was a key purpose for punishment until the early 19th century.

This was a key attitude behind capital and corporal punishment from the 16th to the 19th centuries and led to different punishments for different types of crime. All punishments gave retribution as criminals were made to suffer pain, humiliation and often death for their crimes.

Deterrence

Deterrence means to discourage someone from doing a crime by making them afraid of the consequences. This is usually done by making the punishment harsh and unpleasant.

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Harsh punishments were deemed to be the best method of deterrence throughout most of the period before the 19th century.

Punishment

Retribution and deterrence were the main attitudes towards punishment in the 16th and 17th centuries. They led to harsh punishments where the criminals suffered pain, humiliation or death.

Capital punishment

Serious crimes in Tudor and Stuart times were punished with capital punishment. The most common method of execution was by hanging. Hanging would lead to death by strangulation, which often took several minutes.

Other methods of execution included burning at the stake, which was the punishment for heresy.

Illustration showing a crowd gathered around two men being burned at the stake.
Protestant bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are burnt at the stake in Oxford during the reign of Mary I

The method of execution for the crime of treason was beheading or hanging, drawing and quartering. Royalty were beheaded, usually with an axe. The traitor’s lands and money would be confiscated by the monarch.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, people supported capital punishment as it fulfilled their desire for retribution, and also served as a deterrent to others.

Corporal punishment

A woodcut showing four men in the stocks. Three are sitting and one is lying on his back. There is winged figure standing in the background.
Woodcut print depicting stocks, a form of Elizabethan punishment. Dated 16th century

Several methods of corporal punishment were also used in the 16th and 17th centuries. The stocks and pillory were commonly used to humiliate and inflict pain on convicts. Flogging was also used. Earlier in the period, mutilation and branding were also used.

Women who were said to scold or argue with their husbands were often punished with a ducking stool in a local river or pond, or led around the town wearing a Scold's Bridle – a heavy iron cage for the head with a tongue iron in the mouth. The different punishment for women reflects the attitudes towards, and status of, women in the early modern period.

These methods of capital and corporal punishment show the desire in Tudor and Stuart times to make punishments brutally harsh to act as both a deterrent and provide retribution.