Mutiny Act

The Mutiny Acts were a series of annual Acts passed by the Parliament of England, the Parliament of Great Britain, and the Parliament of the United Kingdom for governing the British Army.

The first Mutiny Act was passed in 1689 in response to the mutiny of a large portion of the army which stayed loyal to James II upon William III taking the crown of England.[1] Today, mutiny is punished under the Armed Forces Act 2006.


Military law, law governing armed forces, martial law, and military control of society, have not always been independent. This was at least in part because the civilian ruler was the military commander.[2] European rulers began separating the control of the armed forces from the control of the population as the medieval period drew to a close. The first code that specifically regulated military personnel was the French ordonnance of 1378. Eventually, civilian codes and courts gained power at the expense of military law and control.[3]

William the Conqueror was assisted in his legal duties by the Aural Regis or King's Court. Over time, this court divided and developed specialized legal expertise. King Edward I created a Court of Chivalry headed by the Lord High Constable and the Earl Marshall, two members of the King's Court.[4][5] The Court of Chivalry had authority over cases of military law, chivalry, heraldry, and murder or high treason overseas.[6] Meanwhile, courts of equity, overseen by the chancellor, and courts of common law developed. These courts governed civilians.

Although common law governed civilians, it did not control military forces as such. The army was seen as the crown's personal force. Therefore, its governance was the crown's royal prerogative. The crown governed the military by publishing articles of war. These articles were orders to the army for a specific war or campaign.[7] The Court of Chivalry assisted the crown in preparing these articles and enforcing them. Although harsh, the articles were clear in their expectations for military personnel. However, these articles were used arbitrarily against civilians at various times. This encroached on the power and jurisdiction of the English courts of common law. The capricious use of these harsh laws by the crown, especially during the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts, caused an outcry against both military law and martial law which were not yet seen as separate entities. William Blackstone complained,

For martial law, which is built upon no settled principles, but is entirely arbitrary in its decisions, is, as Sir Matthew Hale observes, in truth and reality no law, but something indulged rather than allowed as a law. The necessity of order and discipline in an army is the only thing which can give it countenance; and therefore it ought not to be permitted in time of peace, when the king’s courts are open for all persons to receive justice according to the laws of the land.[8]

This abuse of the crown's prerogative caused Parliament to pass the Petition of Right in 1627. This act stated that neither civilians nor soldiers and officers who were in England during peace were subject to military courts or law.[9][10] In other words, only common law courts and courts of equity could exercise authority over individuals in peacetime England. Military law did not apply to anyone in England since only military courts could enforce the Articles of War.[11]

Passage of the first Mutiny Act

King William III replaced King James II in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution. A number of Scottish troops refused to obey orders from William III to fight in Holland, believing James II to be the true monarch. Instead, these troops marched home. Since these troops were located in England during peacetime the military laws that made these acts illegal could not be enforced against them. Common law did not make mutiny a crime. Therefore no legal action could be taken to stop them.

Parliament responded by passing the Mutiny Act of 1689. This act made desertion, mutiny, and sedition of officers and soldiers crimes which were triable by court-martial and punishable by death.[12]

Renewal of the Mutiny Acts

Because the Bill of Rights prohibited the existence of a standing army during peacetime without the consent of Parliament, the each Mutiny Act was expressly limited to one year's duration. As a result, Parliament was asked annually to approve a new Mutiny Act for the coming year.[13] The Articles of War, published by the crown, continued to govern military forces overseas.

A new Mutiny Act was passed each year until 1879.[14] The Mutiny Act was soon modified to allow courts-martial for other crimes besides mutiny, sedition, and desertion. Modifications to the Mutiny Act soon allowed courts-martial trial of soldiers for acts prohibited by the Crown’s articles of war, as long as the articles conformed to the Mutiny Act in 1718.[15] Civilians who were closely associated to the military, such as victuallers, could also be tried by courts-martial.[16]

In 1807 all serving black soldiers recruited as slaves in the West India Regiments of the British Army were freed under that year's Mutiny Act.[17]

The Quartering Acts

The Mutiny Acts of 1765 and 1774 are known as Quartering Acts because of the amendments in them adding quartering requirements for British troops in the American Colonies.

See also


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