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Elizabethan England
Torture and Punishment in Elizabethan Times

by Erin Lestikow, Katie O'Fallon,
and Lori Patterson

Torture is the use of physical or mental pain, often to obtain information, to punish a person , or to control the members of a group to which the tortured person belongs. During the Elizabethan times crimes were treated as we would treat a murder today. Stretching, burning, beating the body, and suffocating a person with water were the most common ways to torture a person in the Elizabethan times.

The purpose of torture was to break the will of the victim and to dehumanize him or her. The intent was also to punish, obtain information, extract a confession from the victim or a third party, or to intimidate the victim and others.

Torture has been used for at least 2,000 years and has been widespread. Early Greek and Roman laws specified that only slaves could be tortured, but soon freemen could be tortured in cases of treason. The right to torture slaves was abolished in Roman law in AD 240. In the Middle Ages, torture was included in proceedings of the Catholic Church, which legally employed torture to obtain confessions.

It was during the times of the Tudors that the use of torture reached its height in England. Under Henry VIII, torture was frequently used. When Edward and Mary were on the throne, torture wasn't used as much. However, when Elizabeth took the throne, torture was used more than in any other period of history. Queen Elizabeth thought that treason was one of the worst crimes that could be committed, and the majority of incidents of torture were for reasons of high treason. Lords and high officials were exempted, and woman were rarely put through torture.

The punishment for poisoning during this period was to be boiled to death. Mutilation and branding were also common. People often had their right hand cut off if they were caught stealing, and on certain occasions eyes were plucked out with hot pinchers and fingers were torn off.

Some minor cruelties included the pillory, the stocks, the finger pillory, the ducking stool, and the ranks. The dunking stool was a stool or chair in which a woman who had been accused of adultery or other crimes would be repeatedly dunked under water until pronounced dead.

The pillory was another device that was commonly used. There were a couple of different forms of the pillory. One is still known of today. The pillory was a frame in the shape of a T, usually placed in the center of the town. The accused would place his/her hands in the cross bar of the T with his/her head sticking out of a hole at the top. The accused then had to stay in the pillory for an extremely long time and would be harassed by everyone that crossed his/her path.

Another form of the pillory that isn't as widely known was for the feet. This device had holes through which the toes were forced; then the toes were crushed with a hammer and wedge. This form of pillory had much less emotional pain, but the excruciating physical pain was much more enduring.

The harsher the crime committed, the more horrendous the punishment during this time. A person accused of manslaughter, rape, or robbery, might find himself trapped in cages hung up in public places where others could observe his slow death. Right before being pronounced dead, he was taken down and quartered until the pain finally killed him.

Nowadays these torture devices seem cruel and heartless, but in the sixteenth century cruel punishment was a normal everyday thing. Under the Tudors, torture flourished throughout England. The result was a country living in fear of being the next victims.

See also "Crime and Punishment" and "Bloody Painful"


An Annotated List of Works Consulted

"Atrocities of the Christian Church." Torture. website. http// www. cgibin.erols. con/bduril/her/.../history (26 November 1997.)

This site shows historical methods of torture to certain parts of the body. It deals with the Church's view on torture, as well as the view of different religions.

Gerould, Daniel. Guillotine, Its Legend and Lore. New York, New York. Blast Books Publishing, 1992.

Tells about the how the guillotine was made and when it was invented. It goes into detail on the kind of crimes that would result in beheading. Chapters 1, 2, and 8 were especially helpful in writing this report.

"A Heretic's Final Journey." website.http:// www.dimensional.com./randal/racking. htm.#donjon ( 26 November 1997)

This site is very informative. It has graphic pictures and detailed information about each torture device that was used in the Elizabethan times. It talks about other forms of torture from different eras. It gets very gruesome at times.

Nightingale, Elena O. "The Breaking of Bodies and Minds." Grolier Encyclopedia.. CD.Rom.1993.

This article gives a broad overview of torture, with plenty of background information.

Parry, L.A. The History of Torture in England. Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith Publishing Corp., 1975.

This book tells about the history of torture in Elizabethan times. It talks in great detail about the way people were tortured and for what reasons they received various punishments. The whole book is very enlightening.

Peters, Edward. "Torture Introduction." World Book Encyclopedia . 1996 edition.

This article has information on the history of torture starting during the 1100's and ending with the 1800's. It tells about different forms of torture that were used but doesn't go into detail.


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