capital punishment

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Was formerly of central importance in all European criminal justice systems. Although the history of capital punishment in Scotland has been little studied, it is clear that hanging was the standard method of executing on both sides of the border. Under English law, decapitation, hanging, drawing, and quartering, or (in the case of women) burning at the stake were reserved for traitors.

Evidence from burial sites suggests that capital punishment was known in Anglo‐Saxon England. Calculating levels of capital punishment for this and the medieval period is impossible, although it seems they were low. This changed drastically in the Tudor period. By Elizabeth's reign many convicted criminals were executed, a trend which continued after 1603.

The 18th cent. provides better documentation on ceremonies and crowd reactions at executions. It also experienced a lower level of executions than the early 17th, with many convicted persons being reprieved, notably before being transported to the American colonies. The early 19th cent. experienced a rapid transition in thinking on punishment. Transportation to Australia or incarceration in one of the new prisons became the standard punishment for serious, non‐homicidal offenders. By the mid‐19th cent. capital punishment was restricted to murderers and, after 1868, was carried out inside prisons rather than in public. By that date the abolition of the death penalty was already being mooted. Debate on this issue surfaced intermittently in the 20th cent., leading to its abolition for all practical purposes in 1965.

Subjects: Regional and National History.

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