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Justice and Discipline in Tangier
and throughout the British Army

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The Tangier Garrison's court martial book for the period 1663-1669 has survived, showing the military crimes and punishments prevalent before the Mutiny Act of 1689 gave the army a legal code of practice. It had long been recognised that if obedience and discipline were to be maintained in troops exposed to the hardships, dangers, temptations and licence of active warfare, the ordinary laws and punishments which served to regulate civil life were inappropriate. Civil procedures were also too lengthy to be effective in the army.

During the seventeenth century several Acts set forth penalties for the special military crimes of mutiny, desertion and stealing arms, with death by hanging awarded by the civil courts and magistrates. In July 1678, for example, a soldier of the Coldstream Guards was tried at the civil sessions at the Old Baily for the felony of desertion, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged at the head of his regiment. In September 1687 a soldier of the Thirteenth Foot and another of the Grenadier Guards were hanged for desertion at Tyburn and Tower Hill respectively. But for an army on active service, outside the jurisdiction of the civil authorities, martial laws and military courts were established under royal prerogative to provide prompt and deterrent sentences.  Corporal punishment was preferable to lengthy imprisonment; insubordination, which could lead to the more serious crime of mutiny, was treated with great severity.

Hanging Hanging at Tyburn, c.1700
Attributed to Marcellus Laroon II

In Tangier the courts martial from 1663-1669 awarded six sentences of death for acts of neglect on sentry duty, insubordination and violence to superiors. In five cases execution was by shooting, and in one by hanging. There were seven sentences of death for desertion and theft from comrades, all carried out by the less honourable method of hanging, which was also awarded for rape, acting as a spy, and unauthorised plunder.

For a military execution by shooting, the troops of the regiment or garrison were drawn up in a semicircle. The prisoner, with his arms pinioned and attended by a guard and chaplain, was paraded along the whole line of troops to the blank side of the circle, where a grave had often already been dug. The prisoner then stood or knelt against a stake, to which he was bound, his eyes blindfolded and either he or the provost marshal gave the signal to fire. The troops filed past the body before returning to their quarters, or sometimes the corpse was carried three times around the parade.

When the number of offenders was inconveniently large an example was sometimes made by selecting every tenth man by lot to suffer; or, as in Tangier on 8th September 1663, "Two privates to throw dice on a drum-head, to be shot: he who throws the least to suffer."

On 12th October 1663 Thomas Finlay, of Lieutenant Colonel Churchill's company, was sentenced "to be whipt by the Executioner forward and backward through the Parade drawne in two ranks, his lashes soundly laid on, for being asleep upon the centinels post" (the same punishment was awarded for the same crime in the Roman Legions). The punishment of whipping or scourging by the provost was performed by tying the culprit, naked to the waist, to a post and thrashing him with stout switches or birch rods. Sometimes, more seriously, he was flogged standing under the gallows with a rope about his neck, or tied upon his tiptoes by the neck to the gallows. A variation was awarded in Tangier on 17th May 1665:

At the time of the parade to have his back stripped and to run the gauntlet of his regiment paraded with open ranks, each man furnished with a stout switch to strike the prisoner's naked back, breast, arms or where his cudgel should light as he marched down the lanes.

Soldiers Gauntlet Soldier Running the Gauntlet, 1695. French
This was the usual punishment for stealing from fellow-soldiers. While exemplary punishment could be extremely severe, harsh practices such as floggings were considered 'inhumane' as normal punishment. Engraving after Guérard.

To drown the prisoner's cries, drums were beaten during the punishment.  Other punishments awarded were branding for murder, boring the tongue with a red-hot iron for blasphemy, and imprisonment on bread and water.  William Merriday was condemned in Tangier to ride the wooden horse with four muskets tied to his heels and a pair of shoes about his neck, for the crime of selling his shoes. Another soldier, found drunk at his post, was sentenced "to be tied necke and heels, with his head forced between his knees by two muskets, and kept there for an hour, till the blood gushed out of his nose, mouth and ears".

The garrison's women, too, came under strict military discipline.  On 25th June 1664, for example, a woman was convicted at Tangier for inciting to mutiny.  She was sentenced to be gagged and receive 50 lashes on her bare back, 10 each at five different locations, and to be expelled from the garrison by the first available ship, also being whipped from the prison to the water-side. A court tried Elizabeth Harrold, accused of "threatening her husband to be his death and beating him by breaking his head and other harms". Her sentence was "to be stripped at the Cross and to receive 24 stripes on her naked back by the Executioner".  There was a house of correction, a pillory, stocks and a ducking stool "for scolds and evil tongued women". Most fearsome of all was the whirligig, "a wooden cage on a pivot, whose amazing velocity made brawling and loose women very sick and emptied their bodies through every apeture". Such a bawd was awarded this punishment "for the too frequent bestowal of her favours"; the punishment performed "to the delight of the jaded troops".


Justice & Discipline | Tangier Social Life | Raising a Regiment | Soldiers Drill 1660-1715
Battle of Blenheim 1704 | Storming of Schellenberg 1704 | War of the Spanish Succession 1701-14
Military Galleries
Gallery 1660s | Gallery 1670s | Gallery 1680s | Gallery 1690s | Gallery 1700s

Graphics Copyright © N. Kipar 2003.
Contents Copyright © Ben Levick 1998. With permission by the author.