Early Modern Crime and Punishment

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The MPs who passed the laws that made up the Bloody Code were wealthy landowners.  They wanted to protect their property from thieves and others.  Most crime was still of low value items such as food and belongings.  However, pamphlets and broadsheets were beginning to be published, and only the wealthy could read in this period.  This meant that the wealthy lawmakers were more aware of crimes.  New crimes became common during this period.  Vagabonds begged for food, highwaymen held up coaches and stole money, poachers hunted game from other people's land and smugglers brought goods such as tea into the country to avoid paying taxes on them.  Travel became easier.  Many of the population were very poor.  Sometimes they had to steal what they needed to survive.


Vagabonds were beggars, tramps and vagrants who wandered around the country without a job. Most of them were unemployed people moving to a new town looking for work.

What factors influenced the emergence of vagrancy as a new crime?

The invention of printing in the late 15th century meant that books were published on many topics, including vagrancy.  These books and pamphlets were used to increase people's fear of vagrancy.  However, only wealthy people could read during this period so most people wouldn't have been able to read these works.

Poverty was undoubtedly a big factor in vagrancy.  Some vagabonds were criminals, but others were simply poor and unemployed.  The growing population meant that there weren't enough jobs to go round and when harvests failed and bread prices rose, the poor became desparate.

There were tax systems set up in each town and village where the rich would pay to help the poor.  However, when travel became easier, the rich had to pay for both the travelling poor as well as their own poor, and many people didn't like this.

When Edward VI came to the throne in the mid-16th century, his Protestant advisers encouraged Puritan ideas and Puritans believed that not working was a sin.  This meant that laws against vagabonds were much harsher.


After 1542, the punishment for being a witch was execution.  Roughly a thousand women were executed for witchcraft between 1542 and 1715.

What factors influened the emergence of witchcraft as a new crime?

In the Middle Ages, witchcraft was regarded as a minor crime and was dealt with by the church courts. But in 1542, Parliament passed a law which made witchcraft punishable by death.  

Matthew Hopkins was known as the Witchhunter General.  He was responsible for hundreds of women in Essex confessing to being a witch in 1645.  He tortured the…




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