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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

“Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”: Crime and Punishment for Peers in Regency England

Last month it was robber gangs, this month it’s more crime and punishment. But I was doing research on punishments for peers for my just finished WIP, and what I found was rather fascinating.

With the exceptions of treason and murder, peers could not be prosecuted for crimes. John Palmer, in his 1830 work entitled, “The Practice in the House of Lords, on appeals, writs of error and claims of peerage,” affirms that, with some exceptions, that peers and their widows and peeresses in their own right, are “protected from Arrest, in all Civil Suits, either in the first instance or after judgement…Nor are they liable to be attached for non-payment of money, though they are not exempt from attachment for not obeying the processes of the Court.” Apparently there was a process that allowed for someone to sue a peer for their debts, but it had to be done at the King’s Bench or before the King’s Justices in Westminister. The caveat was, the peer in question had to be present in the court. And although you could, theoretically, get a court summons to compel the peer to appear, practically it just wouldn’t happen.

After 1547 if peers or peeresses were convicted of a misdemeanor crime, such as non-payment of a debt, they could claim “privilege of peerage,” if they had no prior convictions and escape punishment. This privilege was invoked five times, and finally abolished in 1841.

Peers could, however, be prosecuted and convicted of the crimes of treason and murder. The most famous murder trial of a peer may have been that of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, tried and convicted of murder of his land-steward during an argument. Ferrers went to the gallows at Tyburn on May 5, 1760, the last peer to die so.

Other punishments, even more severe, could be meted out to peers. If a noble was found guilty of treason or murder, he would be served with a bill of attainder, an act of legislature that declared the peer guilty of his crime and affixing him with the verdict of “corruption of blood,” a metaphorical stain on the peer, whereby he would lose not only his life, but his property and titles, for it stripped him of the right to pass them on to his family or heirs. They instead reverted to the crown, rendering the titles extinct.

The peerage may have had its privileges, however, no one was completely free from the long arm of the law.

“Earl Ferrers.” Capital Punishments, U.K. n.d.
Lee, Emery. “A Peer’s Privilege.” Georgian Junkie, November 28, 2010.
Milan, Courtney. “Crime and Punishment.”

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