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I've read something from a few online sources that I don't quite trust (probably because I'm British), but I suspect the reality of the suggestion is in fact highly likely. Going on the data we have from the French Revolution, where a conservative estimate puts the death toll of the Terror at 40,000, I think I'd possibly agree with (or hand credibility to) this figure of 57,000 people killed by Henry VIII (mostly) during the Reformation.

I think it highly probable given the impact the Reformation had on the daily lives of Catholics in Britain (i.e. literally everyone) and I'm basing in part on the structural similarity here with the French Revolution, which sought the total eradication of religion from France. I suspect many of the people killed in the Terror of the Revolution were clergy, many would also have been dissenters; i.e. ordinary people with strong religious and anti-revolutionary convictions. And given the persistence of Catholicism in England following the Reformation, I suspect it's also likely that many in England at the time of the Reformation were deeply incensed by Henry's rampant demolition of British Catholicism. It would have affected people's everyday lives and profoundly shaken their culture.

The above linked article at the History channel site covers a lot of individuals executions, but seems lacking on sources supporting the overall figure of 57,000. I'd like to know about any sources you feel confirms or denies this claim. Thank you very much.

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  • 3
    You may want to add paragraphs and a summary. Apart from the title, I don't really see a question.
    – Jos
    Mar 14, 2022 at 0:32
  • 3
    If you wish to debate information figures from 'a few online sources', we need you to cite them so they can be evaluated. Otherwise we may just end up citing information back that you have already read. You might look at our meta discussion concerning questions which 'doubt the existing narrative'.
    – justCal
    Mar 14, 2022 at 0:45
  • Ok, I've tried to find the sources, but for whatever reason can't get through to the webpage. On the subject of 'sources' and their, often, deep unreliability, and history's obsession with appearing empirical, I have only this to say: consider the sheer volume of primary source material clearly destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
    – Sam Cottle
    Mar 14, 2022 at 0:53
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    I've made an edit to fix the "wall of text" problem, and a few very minor grammar issues. It still needs a good thorough editing, perhaps by someone with the deft touch of Sweeney Todd. Paragraph 3 seems particularly irrelevant.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 14, 2022 at 13:20
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    I have tried to do the requested *trimming down' of this question to make it more concise. @SamCottle note that you can revert the edits made if you feel it is excessive.
    – justCal
    Mar 14, 2022 at 15:02

1 Answer 1

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Looking into this if find two numbers are often repeated concerning this topic, a low estimate of 56,000 and a high range of 72,000 or more. These numbers appear across the web at various history focused sites, and a few recent books. The question concerning the validity of these claims has even popped up on other question sites like reddit and Quora.

But to start to find anything close to sources for these figures we have to go back over 100 years, to a book on The History of the Criminal Law of England, vol 1 (1883), by James Stephen

In his book Stephen makes some calculations to extrapolate a possible number of executions across England based on the percentage of sentenced individuals which were actually executed in some select locations. Page 468:

If the average number of executions in each county was only twenty, or a little more than a quarter of the number of capital sentences in Devonshire in 1598, this would make 800 executions a year in the forty English counties. The number of executions was notoriously very great.

I believe this little calculation is the basis for the 56,000 number bantered about the Web. But the numbers don't add up yet. If we calculate the 800 execution per year, over the 36 year span of Henry VIII, we only get 28,800 executions. To get to 56,000 we need more.

Another work, from 1904, discussing the use of the death penalty in England, gives us a source for the higher end figure of 72,000 and provides the more we need based on Stephens number. From The Humane Review, Volume 4, Issues 13-16(emphasis mine).

Until well within the last century hundreds of people were sentenced to death every year in England I do not know that the French during the later Middle Ages were particularly scrupulous in the matter of executions yet if we may believe Sir John Fortescue Chancellor of Henry VII they were a long way behind us for he says that there were more persons executed for robbery in England during one year of Henry VII s reign than in France in seven years Hollinshed the Elizabethan historian alleged that during Henry VIII s reign there were upwards of 72,000 persons hanged as thieves and vagabonds This amazing total gives an average of something thing like 1,900 executions per annum As there were no complete statistics at that period it is possible that this number may have been exaggerated yet without doubt it approximated very closely to the truth because when we come to a few years later to the reign of Elizabeth we have unimpeachable documentary evidence which shows that the number of executions was very great It has been calculated by no less a man than the late Mr Justice Stephen that after making all possible deductions for error the executions could not have been less than 800 a year The probability is that they were considerably in excess of 800 there is even the possibility that they were actually double that number And this it must be remembered was at a time when the population of the whole country was less by 1.94 millions than that of Greater London at the present day.

(the footnote says: The population of England is given as 4,800,000 in 1600)

Here we have an estimate that double the 800 per year was a possibility. 1600 per year over the 36 year reign of Henry VII=57,600. This is how I believe the 57000 number was arrived at. It is a doubling of Stephens original figure of 800 per year.

(For those interested in the 72000 figure it is discussed in an article entitled Two Myths in the History of Capital Punishment from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.)

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  • The numbers in the last quoted sentence look very wrong. The current population of Greater London is about 9 million so if the population of the whole country was "less by 194 millions" then the population at the time would be -185 million. I'm not sure what a negative population would look like but I'd guess the country would have to be very empty. Mar 19, 2022 at 22:18
  • @KillingTime Yep, OCR dropped the decimal. Good catch.
    – justCal
    Mar 19, 2022 at 23:21
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    Christ, then add in the deaths due to the Reformation (dissenters/former monks and nuns) and I shudder to think what the true death toll was. 100,000+(?). Advancing the national agenda on the one hand, soaking us in blood on the other. There's a debate we're not having in UK history classes.
    – Sam Cottle
    Mar 20, 2022 at 16:12
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    This is very good historising.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 20, 2022 at 23:09

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