In this article, as part of our series on Executions and punishments, I’m going to talk about another death sentence. However this is a fairly unique death sentence because it can be passed without proof of a capital crime, without trial, and it’s really not a death sentence in the correct legal terms at all.
I’m talking about Pressing to Death, or to give it its correct title “Peine fort et dure” or “hard and forceful punishment” and it’s what you get when you will not enter a plea at court. Sound harsh? Well yes it is, but let’s go back to the beginning and understand how this comes about.
It, or at least its ancestor, first appears in the law with the “Standing Mute Act” of 1275 enacted by Edward I which states:
‘That notorious Felons, which openly be of evil name, and will not put themselves in Enquests of Felonies that Men shall charge them with before the Justices at the King's suit, shall have strong and hard Imprisonment (prison forte et dure), as they which refuse to stand to the common Law of the Land :’
So pretty much jailed under harsh conditions until you enter a plea.
The reasoning behind this is a bit of a legal curiosity. Basically until a defendant has been accused and has responded with a plea and that recorded, the courts have no jurisdiction to be able to sit in judgement, or to pass a sentence. As such the entering of plea is pretty vital to justice being delivered.
A later chronicler, in about 1290, describing the imprisonment in question, and I think you’ll agree it’s pretty tough going::
"and let their penance be this, that they be barefooted, ungirt and bareheaded, in the worst place in the prison, upon the bare ground continually, night and day ; that they eat only bread made of barley or bran, and that they drink not the day they eat, nor eat the day they drink, nor drink anything but water, and that they be put in irons."
So basically you’re left naked but for chains in a cell on cold stone floor, without furniture and only fed bread once every two days until you decide to tell the courts whether you’re innocent or guilty, and remember this – we’re not talking people being forced to confess a crime here. Just enter a plea. You can still tell the courts that you didn’t do it, that you’re innocent of the crime, and all this horror stops.
However as the years progressed this got more and more graphic. A witness in the late 15th century wrote of one case:
“he will lie upon his back, with his head covered and his feet, and one arm will be drawn to one quarter of the house with a cord, and the other arm to another quarter, and in the same manner it will be done with his legs; and let there be laid upon his body iron and stone, as much as he can bear, or more”
So, for the layman. Assuming you refuse to say whether you are guilty or not guilty of a crime, you are to be tied down with limbs spread apart, with each limb pointing to a corner of the room and then weights placed upon your body until you enter a plea, or until you die from asphyxiation or injuries received, that’s up to you… …and it worked.
Highwayman William Spiggott, a hardened villain, lasted half an hour in 1721 before he elected to enter a plea of not guilty, and murderer and gangster Edward Burnsworth held out for one hour and three minutes before pleading not guilty.
So why the hell would you put yourself through this? Well mostly, from what we can find, it is to avoid consequences to other people, and to examine this it’s best to look at a couple of our most well known cases.
Margaret Clitherow was arrested in 1586 for the crime of harbouring Catholic priests. A capital crime under Elizabeth I’s Jesuits Act of 1584. After a search of her house where the “priest hole” was discovered Margaret was brought before the York Assizes where she refused to enter a plea.
Some accounts write that this was just out of stubborn unwillingness to recognise a Protestant legal system, which is possible. Others say this was because if there was no trial then there was no need for testimony and as a result she was sparing her children both from having to testify against her, and potentially being tortured themselves if they were not going to give testimony.
Some sources say she was sentenced to be pressed to death under her door. This is not really true as the sentence was just to be pressed under hard and forceful punishment. If you died under such treatment then that was an occupational hazard but it wasn’t a specified outcome of the courts. However, given what was at stake it is reasonable to assume that no amount of pressure would have got Margaret to enter a plea for that indictment, reasonable to assume that she was never going to walk away from that chamber and reasonable to assume that both she and the judge knew it.
She died, at the Toll Booth on the Ouse Bridge in York on 25th March 1586, under more than 750lb of weight – that’s 1/3 of a ton. She was pregnant with her fourth child at the time. Much later she was canonised as a catholic saint on 25th October 1970 by Pope Paul VI, and her relic sits in the Bar Convent in York.
Another famous case, and the only case of this in America, is that of Giles Corey who was indicted as part of the Salem Witch Trials. In his case were he to be tried and found guilty… and it’s worth pointing out that irrespective of whether he was actually guilty in this instance, he was going to be found guilty, and hanged. His property and estate would then have been forfeit to the government. As it was, because of his refusal to plead he couldn’t be found guilty and he died in full possession of his estate which could then be passed to his appointed family members according to his will. Had he not done so, the surviving members of his family would have likely lived their lives in penury.
Thankfully now we live in more civilised times. The last pressing in the UK was in 1741 and it was removed from the statute books as an option in 1772, however it’s worth noting that what replaced it was equally scary – if you refused to enter a plea, it was recorded as a plea of guilty.
Think about that – a justice reform that drives a coach and four through innocent until proven guilty. That’s terrifying…. And we can blame the later Georgians for a lot of things, particularly George IV but they changed that law, in 1827, so that a refusal to plea was taken as a plea of not guilty…. Which is as it should be, and as it remains today.
Thank you for reading.