R V Earl Ferrers (1760): The Trial That Saved England From Revolution?

35 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2019

Date Written: September 1, 2017


In 1760, Laurence Shirley, the Fourth Earl Ferrers, killed his steward in cold blood. He was found guilty of the murder before his peers in the House of Lords, and subsequently hanged. Whilst the Trial is seminal in any history of 18th century English law, discussion is predominantly confined to the infamous narrative. Instead, this paper examines the Trial and execution within the legal context of 18th century England. The findings reveal an increase of discretion in criminal procedure, a reaction to a rapidly swelling set of laws. However, the Earl was afforded little discretion, and faced atypical intransigency of criminal procedure.

From this, the wider context reveals an ostensible affirmation of the rule of law by the powerful ruling class. The Bloody Code engendered a mode of criminal justice based on rhetoric and perception. His fellow lords were prepared to make a sacrificial example from their own ranks to extol the virtue of the English legal system. This sacrifice ultimately appeased the masses, whilst protecting their own position in society. It is not a coincidence that in the decades surrounding the French Revolution, the Trial was proclaimed by conservatives as incontrovertible evidence of the equality of English law.

Keywords: Earl Ferrers; Bloody Code; Criminal Procedure; Rule of Law; 18th Century England

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Barber, Simon, R V Earl Ferrers (1760): The Trial That Saved England From Revolution? (September 1, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3414681 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3414681

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