The criminalisation of children: What we can learn from early medieval England

Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes, School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester:

We need a solution to the problems in this country: laws are not obeyed, women are forced to marry against their will, too many people are impoverished, children are imprisoned for minor theft, and people’s rights are being taken away.Helen Foxhall Forbes, University of Leicester

Sound familiar? Britain is broken, and needs to be fixed: we’ve heard this from newspapers and politicians alike. But these sentiments come in fact from Archbishop Wulfstan of York, who died in 1023. It seems that the perception of society’s problems has changed little in 1000 years.

How to deal with crime and criminals is one of those questions that just won’t go away. For tenth- and eleventh-century Anglo-Saxons, the answer was fairly brutal. Although prison was an option in some circumstances, capital punishment was also one of the solutions.

But even in Anglo-Saxon England capital punishment did not find universal support: Archbishop Wulfstan himself proposed that the death penalty should be avoided if possible. However, his solution was no less radical, since he suggested amputation instead. In his opinion, amputating the limbs of criminals rather than executing them was merciful because it gave them time to save their souls, even if they couldn’t save their bodies.

This is hardly a solution to the problem of what to do with criminals today, even in the most broken of Britains, but before we dismiss Wulfstan too as a product of a ‘barbaric’ age, it’s worth considering his motives. Wulfstan’s idea that these punishments were merciful is important, because he firmly believed that mercy should be at the heart of the justice system.

Wulfstan repeatedly argued that criminals should not all be treated alike, and that each case should be judged on its own merits. His instructions to judges are sympathetic and humane: judgements should be different for the weak and the strong, old and young, rich and poor, the well and the sick; unintentional misdeeds should be treated differently from deliberate crimes.

Our justice system is likewise supposed to consider the circumstances of both crime and criminal. In some contexts, though, mercy to the criminal is notably absent from modern British law, and instead public outrage plays a part in determining the fates of offenders.

This is particularly visible in the case of the young, who in England and Wales are treated as criminally responsible from the age of 10, without consideration of their intelligence, development, background, or other circumstances. Where young children have committed acts which are abhorrent to society, the public has tended to demand that they be punished.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is the lowest in Europe, and even the UN has expressed concern over this. Theoretically, the law treats the detention of children under 14 as a last resort, but reports have shown that in practice the situation is not always so simple.

Is criminalising children really the best way of preventing them from becoming adult offenders? The best minds of the tenth and eleventh centuries thought not. For all that Anglo-Saxon justice could be brutal, the age of criminal responsibility in later Anglo-Saxon England was higher than it is today, 1000 years later. In the first half of the tenth century, King Æthelstan (924-939) decided that the age of 12 was too young to treat offenders so harshly, and raised the age instead to 15. Around one hundred years later, Wulfstan complained that very young children were considered to be guilty when they hardly knew the meaning of the word.

It is shocking, I think, that while a medieval society regarded as ‘unenlightened’ – indeed, in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – should recognize that the criminalisation of children is unjust and unhelpful, modern British government does not. Arguably, it is the young in particular who should be treated carefully – mercifully even – so that they can understand the consequences of their actions and be deterred from future crime.

This is not to suggest that younger ‘criminals’ should be allowed, literally or figuratively, to get away with murder. But since the re-offending rates for children who do enter the criminal justice system are so high, the criminalisation of the very young seems to hinder rather than to help: it is an ineffective approach with major consequences for crime in adult life .

Finally, it is worth turning to Wulfstan once again to consider how such policies might affect both young offenders in the UK and foreign perceptions of Britain, especially where other countries are obliged to listen to Britain’s views on morality and/or human rights. Vicious habits, concludes Wulfstan, are only to the nation’s detriment.

Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester. Her research explores a range of topics broadly covering history and theology in early medieval England and Europe. She has focused in particular on intellectual and cultural history and the ways in which the history and movement of ideas had broader impact on society more generally.

If you are interested in this post you may also be interested in the other posts on Should we punish or reform offenders and the debate on Is Britain Broken?


  1. Toby
    Posted 11/04/2011 at 13:54 | Permalink

    A really interesting piece. Can you imagine what the Daily Mail would have made of Æthelstan’s dangerous liberal leanings? Cue outraged editorials and comments from people lamenting what an awful and broken place Britain has become and how they’re off to live in Spain (but oh no!… In 924 Spain was Moorish and moslem)


  2. Jane Pilcher
    Posted 06/04/2011 at 15:00 | Permalink

    A really interesting viewpoint, which would be equally at home under the Is Britain Broken debate! This piece underlines the importance of history as a subject and exemplifies the priceless value of an historical perspective on contemporary problems – whether on crime, justice and penal policy or the condition of social bonds in so-called ‘broken’ Britain.


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