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Hanging was the normal form of capital punishment in England from the Anglo-Saxon era onwards. It was used irregularly in the late Middle Ages but more frequently by the Tudor period, when it became a means to attempt to consolidate authority and exert ideological control (Sharpe, 1985). However, it was an enduring feature of the English death penalty that it was never applied as extensively as indicated by its enshrinement in statute. Ways of evading execution included, for certain crimes, being literate and, for women, pregnancy. Mercy was also an important constituent of justice, especially for property crimes and condemned deemed to be ‘respectable’.

In the early 18th century, transportation to the American colonies offered an alternative to hanging and this was instrumental in bringing about a decline in death sentences. During this century, there was a huge increase in crimes that were punishable with death but the number of executions was much lower than in the 16th and 17th centuries. This paradox can be explained by the specificity of many of the capital crimes, which meant that it was possible to convict people of similar, non-capital offences instead, and also the use of mercy. From the late 18th century and until the mid-19th century, transportation was to Australian penal colonies. Once transportation had ended, imprisonment was the alternative to death (Gatrell, 1996).

A significant aspect of capital punishment was its pedagogic role, which refers to the values and moral lessons that its use conveyed to the audience (Sharpe, 1985).

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