Swearing, cursing and the English law

Statutes passed between the reigns of  James I (1603 – 1625) and George III (1760 – 1820) criminalised swearing. These laws drew careful distinctions between swearing and cursing, imposed fines or the stock, and banded the penalties according to social rank.

So when John King of Colne Engaine in Essex “did swear by God’s blood” that he would be avenged on the church-wardens “and bade a pox on them”, he swore a profane oath, but he cursed the church-wardens. And when the sailor Robert Abbot was fined one pound and four shillings, it was for six oaths “by God” and six curses “damn your blood”.

Yet legislation could not hope to cover every form of swearing. The 1650s law reformer William Sheppard observed that there “no proportionable and certain punishment by law, appointed for swearing by creatures, as the sun, light, bread, drink, money; or by idols, as by the cross, mass, rood; or by saints, as our Lady, or Saint Mary; or by faith and troth, etc, or for cursing, pox, plague, or the devil rot thee, and the like; it being doubted whether these be within the law about swearing, or not”.

At the end of the century, the Societies for the Reformation of Manners faced similar difficulties. Swearing could be prosecuted only when “God, Lord, Jesus or Christ are used plainly and lightly and in the sense of an affirmation or negation”, but a curse was more easily prosecuted since it was “punishable as well without the aforesaid words as with them”. So the curse ‘a plague take ye’ was open to prosecution, as was the oath “God’s wounds” but not the phrase “by my soul”.

Public opinion against swearing could also be effective. In 1654 MP Henry Glapthorne swore “by God’s wounds, by God’s blood, by Jesus Christ, by the eternal God, God confound me body and soul, God damn me, the Devil fetch me, God refuse me”. Some 400 of the MP’s constituents successfully petitioned for his removal since such a “common curser and swearer” was “not to fit to be a law-maker or parliament man for them”.