Punishments in the 16th Century

By Tim Lambert

In the 16th century, prison was seldom used as a punishment. Instead, people were held in prison until trial then some physical punishment was meted out.

In the 16th century, minor crimes were often punished by the pillory or the stocks. The pillory was a wooden frame on a pole with holes through which a person’s head and hands were placed. The frame was then locked and the person was subjected to humiliation and ridicule. The stocks was a wooden frame with holes through which a person’s feet were placed and they were humiliated in the same way.

The Pillory

Other common punishments were flogging and branding with red hot irons.

In the 16th century, more serious crimes were punished by death. Beheading was reserved for the wealthy. Ordinary people were usually hanged. (They were suspended with a rope around their neck until they were strangled to death). However, there were worse ways of killing people.

In 1401 a law in England made burning the penalty for heresy. In the 16th century during the reign of Mary (1553-1558) nearly 300 Protestants were burned to death in England. Sometimes a person about to be burned was strangled with a rope first to spare them pain. However, in a horrible variation on this punishment in 1531 Henry VIII passed an act allowing poisoners to be boiled alive but the act was repealed after he died in 1547.

Fines were another form of Tudor punishment. During the reign of Elizabeth I people could be fined for not attending church.

Tudor children were also treated harshly. Discipline in Tudor schools was savage. The teacher often had a stick with birch twigs attached to it. Boys were hit with the birch twigs on their bare backsides.