Decriminalizing Heresy

Legal History Miscellany

Guest post by Hannah Wygiera, 31 August 2022.

The boundaries between orthodoxy and heterodoxy changed repeatedly throughout the English Reformation. Despite changes to what constituted a heretical belief, what remained constant was the ability to punish heresy as a crime. However, in 1677 members of Parliament, motivated by anti-Catholic fears, abolished the centuries-old punishment for heresy: death by burning.

The execution of William Sawtrey, 1401, fromJohn Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs

Heresy had been a long-standing religious concern in England and in 1401, it also became a criminal offence with the creation of the writ de Heretico cumburendo.[1]This writ looked back at the precedents for burning people deemed heretics and made it the punishment for heresy at common law. The writ lasted until 1677, when Parliament abolished it and effectively decriminalized heresy. This was not an act of toleration. It was an act of self-preservation by members…

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