Peine forte et dure

Peine forte et dure (Law French for "hard and forceful punishment") was a method of torture formerly used in the common law legal system, in which a defendant who refused to plead ("stood mute") would be subjected to having heavier and heavier stones placed upon his or her chest until a plea was entered, or he/she died.

Many defendants charged with capital offences would refuse to plead in order to avoid forfeiture of property. If the defendant pleaded either guilty or not guilty and was executed, their heirs would inherit nothing, their property escheating to the Crown. If they refused to plead their heirs would inherit their estate, even if they died in the process.

Legal background

An engraving of the peine forte et dure inflicted on a prisoner (appearing in the "Malefactor's register" of 1780)

The common law courts originally took a very limited view of their own jurisdiction. They considered themselves to lack jurisdiction over a defendant until he had voluntarily submitted to it by entering a plea seeking judgment from the court.[1] Obviously, a criminal justice system that could punish only those who had volunteered for possible punishment was unworkable; a means was needed to coerce them into entering a plea.[2] Alternatively, individuals were frequently tried under Admiralty law as observed by Bracton.[3]

The "Standing Mute Act 1275", part of Statute of Westminster of 1275 of Edward I of England, states:

It is provided also, 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 : But this is not to be understood of such prisoners as be taken of light suspicion.[4]

It appears to have initially meant imprisonment under harsh conditions:

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 ...[4]

By the reign of Elizabeth I it took the form of "pressing" the accused with weights.[4]

The procedure was recorded by a 15th-century witness as follows:

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 ...[5]

"Pressing to death" might take several days, and not necessarily with a continued increase in the load. The Frenchman Guy Miege, who from 1668 taught languages in London,[6] says the following about the English practice:[7]

For such as stand Mute at their Trial, and refuse to answer Guilty, or Not Guilty, Pressing to Death is the proper Punishment. In such a Case the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fastned to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day; and if he lives beyond it, he has nothing daily, but as much foul Water as he can drink three several Time, and that without any Bread: Which grievous Death some resolute Offenders have chosen, to save their Estates to their Children. But, in case of High Treason, the Criminal's Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death.

Peine forte et dure was abolished in the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1772, with the last known actual use of the practice having been in 1741.[8] From 1772 refusing to plead was deemed to be equivalent to pleading guilty, but this was changed in 1827 to being deemed a plea of not guilty – which is now the case in all common law jurisdictions.