The Bloody Code

The “Bloody Code” is the phrase used to describe England’s extreme list of capital crimes, crimes that carried the death penalty, that prevailed from 1688 (after the Glorious Revolution) to 1815, when a great moderation of English law took place. Under the Code an enormous roster of crimes, more than 200, carried the death penalty. What did they include?

Theft of goods valued at more than 12 pence (grand larceny)
Being in the company of gypsies for a month
Malicious maiming of cattle
Damaging Westminster Bridge
Highway robbery
Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner
Strong evidence of malice in children 7 to 14 years old (for young teenagers that’s probably all of them)
Stealing from a shipwreck
Begging without a license (if you were a soldier or sailor)
Writing a threatening letter
Destroying turnpike roads
Stealing from a rabbit warren
Being out at night with a blackened face
Stealing letters
Stealing horses or sheep
Returning from transportation

in addition to homicide, manslaughter, rape, treason, and other offences we might think of as capital crimes today. A broadly administered death penalty was thought of as a deterrent, i.e. not for stealing horses but so that horses would not be stolen, as it was put.

The Bloody Code had a major effect on the American Colonies and later on Australia. Judges frequently offered transportation, i.e. being sent to one of the overseas colonies and indentured as a servant for a term of years, as an alternative to execution, by some accounts at a rate of 10:1. That resulted in the transportation of many convicts to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. It is not true that Georgia was founded by convicts. That experiment failed and most of those transported to George in that early period died. It was later re-started by free men who were able to make a go of it.

The odds are very high that, if you can trace your ancestry back to Virginia, the Carolinas, or Georgia in the 18th or earlier, your ancestor had been convicted of a crime, possibly a capital crime, and transported.

When the American colonies became unavailable for the purpose, transportation of convicts to Australia replaced them. The first convict ship arrived in Australia in 1788, just 18 years after James Cook found it.

See here.

1 comment… add one
  • PD Shaw

    Virginia officers actively petitioned for convicts condemned to death, as not the worst kind of men, but those that would be industrious in their gratitude. I think most of the convict that came in the 17th century, however, were prisoners of war, particularly from the English Civil War, bound to slavery in the colonies.

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