Wikipedia's article on the Halifax Gibbet says, with several citations:

…ancient custom and law gave the Lord of the Manor the authority to execute summarily by decapitation any thief caught with stolen goods to the value of 13½d or more…

and quotes A.T. Carter History of English Legal Institutions, apparently quoting the original statute:

… cloth or any other commodity to the value of 13½d, that they shall after three market days or meeting days within the town of Halifax after such his apprehension, and being condemned he shall be taken to the gibbet and there have his head cut off from his body.

Even in pre-decimalization British currency, 13½ pence is not a round number; it is 1⅛ shillings. My question is: What is the origin of this oddity?

The only thing I can imagine is that the criterion was originally established at some round amount of goods, say something like 10 ells of cloth, and the commodity amount was later converted to a money amount at the prevailing commodity price.

(The 13½ is not Wikipedia vandalism; I found the same amount cited in William Smith, ed. Old Yorkshire (Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1887) p.137, and in an article, “The Halifax Gibbet-law” in The Saturday Magazine #132 (p. 32) of July 26, 1834.)


Jeffrey Kegler points out that the amount 13½d appears in English folklore in at least one other place; it is the traditional “hangman's wages”. For example we find in Samuel Pegge Curialia Miscellanea; Or, Anecdotes of Old Times (J. Nichols, London, 1818):

HANGMAN'S WAGES. The vulgar notion, though it will not appear to be a vulgar error, is, that Thirteen Pence Halfpenny is the fee of the Executioner in the common line of business at Tyburn, and therefore is called Hangman's Wages.

Supposedly the 13½d were the value set in a proclamation of James I as equivalent to a Scottish mark. (This is not far off from my suggestion about 13½d being a standardization of some commpodity price.) But Norman Yamada has pointed out that Dr. Zachary Grey, in his annotation of Butler's Hudibras (1744) speculated that the “hangman's wages” were themselves an allusion to the Halifax law:

I cannot really say, whence that Sum was called Hangman's Wages, unless in Allusion to the Halifax Law, or the customary Law of the Forest of Hardwick

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    Pure speculation: since it is a Hangman's wages, the justification could be that it was considered "worth" paying a hangman and putting the theft to death only to redress a fault that is at least as "high". – Evargalo Oct 10 at 7:55
up vote 9 down vote accepted

13½d is a historical value called a loonslate. According to William Hone, it has a Scottish origin, being two-thirds of the Scottish pound, as the mark was two-thirds of the English pound. The same value was proposed as coinage for South Carolina in 1700.

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    Thanks very much. This answer was worth waiting for. – MJD Oct 23 at 21:04
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    It appears that ⅔ of the Scottish pound was also called a mark, and this was a more common name than loonslate, which seems to have been slang. The history is still somewhat confused. Hone says that the Scottish mark was made equal to 13½d at the time of the British currency union in under James VI and I in 1603. But this was supposedly long after the amount was mentioned in the Halifax gibbet law; the gibbet was last used in 1650. So there is some digging that still needs to be done. – MJD Oct 24 at 1:43

This question is historically unanswerable. The wikipedia article is exhaustively sourced for this kind of article, and it didn't uncover the legal intention of the Baron who connived this law.

As wikipedia says, "Samuel Midgley in his Halifax and its Gibbet-Law Placed in a True Light,[c] published in 1761, states that the law dates from a time "not in the memory of man to the contrary".[6] It may have been the consequence of rights granted by King Henry III to John de Warenne (1231–1304), Lord of the Manor of Wakefield.[7]" The phrase, "not in the memory of man to the contrary" indicates that it was an ancient custom or practice. These ancient customs and practices were almost always inventions by one member of the peasant/lord power relation, usually as a way to circumvent other existing laws. As the Gibbet-Law was baronial law, it was probably an invention of John de Warenne or his ancestors. The actual practice in Halifax indicates that it was practiced in the class interest of the baron, "So strictly was the law applied that anyone who apprehended a thief with his property was not allowed to recover it unless the miscreant and the stolen goods were presented to the bailiff. The goods were otherwise forfeited to the lord of the manor, and their previous rightful owner was liable to find himself charged with theftbote, or conniving in the felony.[7]" We cannot know the prices of goods with any certainty from this era, nor the intentions of the law makers.

Wikipedia disagrees with my speculation above, following a speculation from Holt, "Eighteenth-century historians argued that the area's prosperity attracted the "wicked and ungovernable"; the cloth, left outside and unattended, presented easy pickings, and hence justified severe punishment to protect the local economy. James Holt on the other hand, writing in 1997, sees the Halifax Gibbet Law as a practical application of the Anglo-Saxon law of infangtheof. Royal assizes were held only twice a year in the area; to bring a prosecution was "vastly expensive", and the stolen goods were forfeited to the Crown, as they were considered to be the property of the accused.[22]" Holt, James Clarke (1997), Colonial England, 1066–1215, Hambledon Continuum, ISBN 978-1-85285-140-8 p23 and the following speculation, "But the Halifax Gibbet Law allowed "the party injured, to have his goods restored to him again, with as little loss and damage, as can be contrived; to the great encouragement of the honest and industrious, and as great terror to the wicked and evil doers."[23]" Midgley, Samuel; Bentley, William (1761), Halifax and its Gibbet-Law Placed in a True Light, J. Milner p404. I would describe these speculations as "whiggish" in that they ascribe to law an intention that was unlikely to have arisen, and give the law the character of an impartial disinterested power serving the community. We have strong and good reasons to believe that Baronial law never functioned with these intentions or character. Wikipedia cannot supply an intention or price of cloth at the formation of the law.

We do not have good wage-price series to 1304, and it is my real belief that wage price series before 1750 shouldn't be used. However, we do have a good to price equivalent from the last execution: 9s per yard of cloth. (Wikipedia).

If pushed, I would argue that 1s 1d and 1/2d is an intellectually pleasing amount indicating that it is one step more than a shilling and a pence: it is a compounded amount. I'd also dispute wikipedia's inflation of 1650~2008 £5.40, using purchasing power parity, and instead suggest something along the lines of 1270~2011 ~£13,400 using share GDP as a better expression of the economic weight of 13 and a half yards of cloth.

For the utility of the questioner: Wikipedia reports 9 yards (11.25 English ell) and 15 yards (18.75 English ell) stolen in the 17th century. 10 ell is 12.5 yards, 11 ell is 13.75 yards.

In 1779 the cloth trade traded 30 yard pieces ( http://www.thepiecehall.co.uk/history/ ). So if pieces were an ancient practice, the numbers have no relation to piece length.

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