Mutilation (punishment)


IN  the earlier laws of England, mutilation or dismembering was by no means an uncommon punishment, more especially amongst the poor. Men, says Pike, branded on the forehead, without hands, without feet, without tongues, lived as an example of the danger which attended the commission of petty crimes, and as a warning to all men who had the misfortune of holding no higher position than that of a churl.[29]Wealthy people might do wrong with impunity. It has been clearly shown that there was one law for the rich, and another for the poor, in England during the four centuries which preceded the Norman Conquest.

According to Pike, under the Danes, mutilation was practised with perhaps greater severity than under the rule of the Saxons. Amongst the horrors of the Danish conquest were eyes plucked out; the nose, ears, and the upper lip were cut off; the scalp was torn away, and sometimes even, there is reason to believe, the whole body was flayed alive.

Under the first two Norman kings mutilation of offenders was largely employed to preserve game in their forests. They, however, only appear to have enforced earlier laws. The earliest forest laws of which we have any knowledge are those which were promulgated about 1016 by Canute, the Dane, and probably much the same as had existed for a long period previously. The principal points of their tyrannical laws were, that if a freedman offered violence to a keeper of the King's deer, he was liable to lose his freedom and property; if a serf did the same, he lost his right hand; if the offence was repeated, he paid the penalty with his life. For killing a deer, either the eyes of the offender were put out, or he was killed; if anyone ran down a deer so that it panted, he was to pay at least ten shillings in the money of the day. Such was the law under the Saxon and the Danish Kings. The laws protected the private estate owner, and it was not until the Conqueror came that all the forest land was considered the property of the King.

In the reign of Henry I. coiners of false money were brought to Winchester and suffered there in one day the loss of their right hands and of their manhood. Under the Kings of the West Saxon dynasty the loss of the right hand was a common sentence for makers of base coin.

Several curious instances of mutilation are mentioned in "The Obsolete Punishments of Shropshire," by S. Meeson Morris. A case occurring in the reign of King John provides some interesting particulars. "In 1203," says Mr. Morris, "at the Salop Assizes, Alice Crithecreche and others were accused of murdering a woman at Lilleshall. Alice immediately, after the murder, had fled into Staffordshire with certain chattels of the murdered woman in her possession, and had been there arrested, and brought back into Shropshire. Her defence before the Curia Comitatûs  of Salop was at least ingenious:—She alleged that on hearing a noise at night in the murdered woman's house she went and peeped through a chink in the door; that she saw four men within, who presently coming out, seized, and threatened to murder her if she made any alarm, but on her keeping silence, gave her the stolen goods found upon her when arrested. On being brought before the Justices-in-Eyre at the above Assizes, Alice Crithecreche no longer adhered to this defence, and she was adjudged to deserve death, but the penalty was commuted for one hardly less terrible. It was ordered that both her eyes should be plucked out."

At a meeting of the Suffolk Institute of Archæology, held February 26th, 1889, Mr. George E. Crisp, of Playford Hall, near Ipswich, exhibited instruments used in the time of Henry VIII. for cutting off the ears, as a penalty for not attending Church.

In our chapter on the Pillory will be found particulars of cases of mutilation of the ears. The punishment of mutilation, except to the ears of the offender, was not common for centuries before the reign of Henry VIII., but by statute 33 Henry VIII., c. 12, the penalty for striking in the King's court or house was declared to be the loss of the right hand.[30]


[29]Pike's "History of Crime in England," 1873.

[30]Morris's "Obsolete Punishments of Shropshire."