Gunpowder, Treason and Civil Lawsuits

The 17th century was not as violent and brutal as is often perceived. Though punishments could be harsh, they took place within a largely peaceful society.

Jonathan Healey | Published in 30 Oct 2017

The execution of Guy Fawkes by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher.

The BBC’s decision to show graphic scenes of torture and execution in its 17th-century drama Gunpowder has drawn protest. The historical community, though, has been quick to point out that nothing in its depiction of state terror is factually implausible. This was, you see, a brutal age.

In the Times, for example, Kate Williams has mounted a spirited defence of the show. England was ‘a divided, violent nation’, she argues, where public executions were ‘sport’, with a ‘carnival atmosphere’. Old women were ‘falsely accused, tormented and drowned’. Catholics were ‘burned alive’. Politics was bloody and life for ‘everyday Britons’ was ‘riven and violent’. And so it remained, until the Enlightenment, which brought toleration and civility.

Williams is right that this was a bad time to be an English Catholic. Forced by Rome to choose between pope and prince, the English state loaded them with fines, legal disabilities and – if they harboured priests – prosecuted them for treason. Most survived and, perhaps ironically, turned out to be solid royalists in the Civil Wars, but the early century was without doubt a grim time for those of the old faith.

But what of the argument that England was a society of ‘cruelty and violence’, where brutality was an ‘everyday’ part of life? Here, I’m not so convinced.

It is true that terrifying state violence was part of the landscape. Pressing to death did happen and if you committed treason then yes, hanging, drawing or quartering would be your grizzly end. A woman who killed her husband was liable to be burnt (for the ‘petty treason’ of subverting the patriarchy). You could be hanged not just for murder, but for theft of anything worth a shilling or more. Whipping, branding, tongue-boring, even the cutting off of ears were part of the official repertoire of punishment. As Rebecca Rideal pointed out in the Guardian, Londoners might walk past unfortunates locked up in cages and the severed heads of traitors on their daily travels. Such was the terror that state violence held on people’s lives that ‘go hang’ was one of the standard insults of the day.

Nor was this all. Physical chastisement was an accepted part of parenthood, husbands were allowed to beat their wives, masters their servants. This was a world where animals were treated with considerable cruelty: bothersome dogs were hanged with little thought, farm gates dangled with dead pests, bear-baiting and cock-fighting were among the most popular forms of entertainment, cats were bagged up and set on fire for laughs.

Yet I don’t think we should push this too far. The idea that this was an age of everyday, brutal violence is not without its problems.

Take the homicide rate, for example. There are probably few better measures of ‘everyday’ violence than the number of people killed by their fellow humans and, given the sophisticated system for detection at the time, we can also be confident that few homicides went undetected.

These were, in fact, surprisingly low. In Kent, which has been carefully studied, the rate was around 5-6 per 100,000 at the start of the century, but also declined to about 3.6 by 1700. In Cheshire, the evidence for decline is more precipitous, with a homicide rate of 8-12 per 100,000 in the 1620s, falling to just 2 per 100,000 in the 1690s. For comparison, in the contemporary United States, the deliberate homicide rate was 4.88 per 100,000 in 2015. A 2004 study estimated that the global homicide rate then was around 7.6 per 100,000. In this regard, 17th-century England doesn’t stack up too badly.

Non-fatal violence is harder to gauge, but some northern villages kept good records of blood-drawing and brawls (known, delightfully, as ‘hubbleshows’). Roughly speaking, in a village of 200 people you might see one serious fight every couple of months, probably fewer. We know that people often tried to fight with fists and cudgels rather than swords and dagger, because they didn’t want to cause too much harm. This suggests a degree of control.

The legal system itself was not as brutal as it first appears. The recourse to the death penalty was shocking and violent, but the state was not simply stringing people up for occasional acts of petty theft. Quite often, judges and juries deliberately perjured themselves to ensure convicted thieves escaped the noose, usually by undervaluing goods stolen. Everyone had a right to a trial and although torture was very occasionally used, it had to be specifically ordered by the Privy Council, who reserved it for those deemed as immediate enemies of the state. Obviously this is abhorrent, but it is not something our own age can afford to be particularly smug about.

Times were changing, too. Much of the commentary has taken the 17th century as a whole, but there seems to have been a major shift in this period. Just as homicide rates fell, executions peaked in the 1620s but then gradually fell. By the 1680s virtually no one was convicted of witchcraft anymore. The last people burned for heresy, radical Protestants, went to the stake in 1612. No English Catholics were burned for heresy in the 17th century. The last use of torture was in 1626. By the end of the century, habeas corpus had become firmly established. Even animal cruelty came under attack, with many Puritans lamenting the suffering inflicted on God’s innocent creatures and moving to ban bear-pits and cockfights.

In fact, by 1700, England had become a remarkably stable, peaceful society, where your chances of being murdered or robbed, or for that matter hanged, were extremely small. You had no chance of being tortured, burned for your faith or hanged as a witch. Nor would you die from famine or plague, as both of these had disappeared in England after 1623 and 1670 respectively. You were probably engaged in a civil lawsuit against someone (each household was involved in one, on average, per year), but this was how you settled your differences, rather than with fists and pistols.

Perhaps, then, we should stop seeing the 17th century as just a ‘brutal age’. Perhaps, indeed, the most interesting question is how a relatively peaceful society became such a brutal exporter of violence, first in Ireland, then elsewhere in the Empire.  

Maybe we should blame the ‘Enlightenment’.

Jonathan Healey is Associate Professor in Social History at the University of Oxford. @SocialHistoryOx